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Saturday | 01 July, 2006 | 3:23 am

It's all about plate

By Lauren Duensing

Ranger Steel Supply LP, Houston, sells plate. Only plate. In fact, according to President Ron Whitley, Ranger has worked hard to make its name synonymous with plate.

The company started out as a small, full-line service center that stocked numerous product lines and serviced Texas and bordering states, says Whitley. "Since the early years, the company underwent many inventory transitions and product line adjustments," he notes. "In the mid-1980s, right after the decline of the oil boom in the Southwest, Ranger made a big decision to sell plate and plate only."

This decision has become the cornerstone of Ranger's success. "Up until this time this was a concept that had never been done successfully," says Whitley, "and we felt that we could pull it off. At the time, we were at a 16-acre facility, a different facility than where we are now, and that facility was a good fit for handling plate. It all seemed to come together. Our model was simple: stock a lot of plate and find solid customers to sell it to."

Massive inventory fills a void
By selling only plate the company has created a niche for itself--filling the gap between the steel producing mill and the service center, says Whitley. About 30 percent of Ranger's customer base is service centers, he notes. The balance is end users. "Our inventory is massive, and we cover the shortfalls of both the end-user and the service center," he says. "We have what they need when they want it--if they use a size and grade that we stock here."

That's a valuable asset in today's fast-flowing marketplace where customers always seem to need their materials yesterday. "In today's environment, if a tank company has a tank that is rusted and he needs to get it repaired, and he needs 200 pieces of a certain size in two days, there's only one company he can call and that's Ranger Steel. We won't have 200 pieces, we'll have substantially more of a certain item on the ground," notes Whitley.

Success leads to expansion
That customer-oriented attitude has allowed the company to generate a profit every single year for 48 years. In 1995, it reached its first $100 million mark in sales, and it is on track to record a quarter of a billion dollars in sales in 2006. In addition, "we anticipate moving 290,000 tons of plate in 2006," Whitley says. He attributes Ranger's success to "the people, the customers, the sourcing and the will to succeed. When you are a private company, there's a big determination not to fail because you put your own money on the line."

While both privately held and public companies have different advantages, Whitley knows from his 35 years' experience that "being a private company gives us extreme flexibility. It is more hands-on so we can deal with problems and successes quicker and have quicker decision making. We try to eliminate a lot of the bureaucracy that sometimes can't be helped at a larger public company, and we have a better long-range perspective. We're not trying to satisfy the next-quarter results from the stockholders here."

Ranger also continues to make its mark as the largest independent steel plate distributor in North America. "In the 1990s, the company started out in an aggressive growth mode," says Whitley. "We expanded inventory; we expanded bank lines of credit; we expanded our sourcing. New personnel were added, both support and executive staff, and all of this added up to an expanded customer base."

The company now has three locations. Houston, the base of operations, is located on a 23-acre facility at the Port of Houston. "That's a tremendous advantage because it gives us good barge, rail and shipping facilities," says Whitley. "The facility is designed for handling plate, and that is all it's designed for. The volume of plate we receive every day and load out every day has to be set up in a correct fashion. This yard is designed with the least amount of waiting for trucks as possible. We try to stock somewhere between 60,000 tons and 70,000 tons of steel plate at this facility at any one time."

Ranger has two satellite locations. One is located in New Orleans. "It's a 30,000-square-foot, covered warehouse," says Whitley. "We have access to barge and rail. This facility was targeted for a maritime industry, which would include the shipbuilding, barge building and offshore rig building businesses."

In addition, a brand-new satellite facility, which opened on June 1, 2006, is located in Tulsa, Okla. "We are very excited about it," says Whitley. "This is our rising star here at Ranger. With energy prices high and transportation becoming more expensive and hard to find, Ranger decided to put the steel closer to the customers. The facility is made up of an 80,000-square-foot, covered warehouse and has excellent rail facilities and access to major highways, which immediately puts steel closer to the customer." Inventory levels at this facility will be somewhere between 15,000 tons and 18,000 tons, and the facility will house its own independent sales staff.

Ranger also has a fourth identity--Ranger Steel International, an international branch of sales located at the Houston facility. "This is a group of people whose sole sales efforts are focused toward Mexico, South America, Colombia, Peru and the Caribbean islands," notes Whitley.

In spite of all this growth, Ranger doesn't expect to spend the next few years resting on its laurels. "In 2007, we have plans to open a facility in Phoenix, Ariz.," Whitley says. "We feel that would give us a gateway to the western part of the United States. We've talked to a couple of mills on sourcing and we seem to be having the backup for the inventory already lined up out there." In addition, the company plans to expand its presence in Mexico by "putting in a similar facility to what we have here in Houston."

"If we take an order, we come through"
Selling plate and only plate goes against the diversity of inventory that so many business owners have on hand to minimize risk. Ranger has risen to the challenge, however, and created a unique business that continues to thrive. "We've done this by sticking to our core values and following our business plan religiously. We've acquired a great network of customers that keep coming back and buying here. Our customer service is everything to Ranger Steel. The customer really is king. It isn't just a buzzword; it's an attitude. If we take an order from a customer and for some reason we don't have it, we will deliver it--even if we have to lose money on it." Policies like this one will keep customers coming back well into the future. "I arrived here in January of 1971, and we have customers buying here today that were buying here in the 1970s," says Whitley.MM

By Lauren Duensing, from the July 2006 issue of Modern Metals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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