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Tuesday | 04 November, 2008 | 7:45 am

Delivering the goods

By John Loos

November 2008 - A ribbon was cut recently in Cincinnati, heralding a 25,000-square-foot expansion to a company that was once headquartered in a laundry room. One doesn’t go from such a modest beginning to a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating a 25,000-square-foot addition that includes a 60-inch cut-to-length line without learning a few things about reliability and customer satisfaction.

The genesis of Slice of Stainless Inc., Cincinnati, a self-described "small-quantity specialist" of stainless sheet and plate and high-temperature alloys, is a story of perseverance, patience and unwavering punctuality. And today, with expanded capabilities and enhanced efficiency, Slice continues its steady, conscientious upward trajectory into larger-quantity frontiers.

In the early 1990s, Slice founders Todd Reed and Robin Tackett saw an opportunity in the distributor market for providing small quantities of specialty, non-full-sheet items and presented the idea to their former employer, who opted to stick with the norm and stay focused on larger quantities. Undeterred, the duo bought as much steel as they could and set up shop in 1992 in a two-bedroom home, with Reed working nights as a pizza delivery man to make ends meet. From there, these "small-quantity specialists" upgraded to a laundry room and garage, then to an old supermarket before finally opening their 15,000-square-foot facility in 2000, where they’ve perpetuated their vision of speedy turnaround times and affordable prices on specialty steel orders.

Delivering pizzas and delivering steel entail similar expectations. Customers want both on-time and made to exact specifications. With its 25,000-square-foot expansion, Slice is looking to expand into larger-quantity orders while retaining that simple concept of combining quick, reliable service with high-quality products.

Supreme steel
With its 16 grades of stainless steel, four grades of high-temperature alloys and an expansive inventory of sheet and plate, Slice has established a broad customer base in a variety of industries that appreciates its swift and friendly service, as well as its open fairness with prices, which are published on its Web site.

"We don’t offer discounts to anyone, so we’re able to keep pricing equal across the board," says Scott Skelton, general manager. "We treat end users and distributors the same. About 80 percent of our business is with other distributors. We also have the ability to ship same day, and with our on-time delivery, we’ve had three late orders in the year and a half that I’ve been with the organization."

Skelton adds that 90 percent of the orders Slice receives require some sort of processing, yet the company still maintains its reputation for same-day service. It also has online ordering for speed and ease and to ensure orders can be made anytime. Often, Slice will include online gas or gift card giveaways as an extra bonus for online purchasers.

Reed also points to the company’s refusal to handle any material that isn’t mill-certified as proof that quality is paramount to Slice.

"We’ve never gone any way other than strictly mill certifications," says Reed, president of Slice. "Everything has to have full certifications. We guarantee that. It’s that trust factor. Our customers can say, ‘Hey, if we ship it direct from Slice to our customer, we know they’re going to get the mill certification.’"

Another unusual aspect of Slice is its willingness to ship neutral or blind shipments. In some cases, Slice actually ships to its customers’ customers, paperwork and all, if its central U.S. location makes more sense geographically. Subsequently, this sort of trust and loyalty among its customers gives the company confidence as it expands its horizons.

Bigger piece of the pie
With its 25,000-square-foot expansion and the addition of its 125-foot-long, 60-inch Herr-Voss cut-to-length line, a purchase Skelton facilitated, Slice feels its production needs will be met for at least the next 10 or 15 years and, as it grows, will allow it to make forays into larger-quantity orders and expanded inventories.

"The ability to start buying mill direct is going to be the big thing for us," says Reed. "When customers call and we’ve only got a thousand pounds of sheet on the floor, normally we’d have to make them wait three or four days on incoming material. Now we’re going to have the ability to have 24- to 48-hour turnaround. What we’re trying to do is get to the point where everything ships same day, just as [our small quantities] do right now. We want to be able to specialize in larger quantities, same-day service and the processing of material."

The expansion also includes a 15-ton overhead crane and the purchase of roughly seven acres nearby to reserve for the possibility of future growth. "It remains the same," says Tackett. "We try to answer the phone with a smile, get the orders out the door, make it a pleasant environment for our employees to work in and make it easy for our customers to do business with us," says Tackett. "I don’t think it’s changed the way we do business at all."

Tackett adds that the decision was reached by listening to customers and ascertaining what was most beneficial for them--and for Slice. The company’s close relationship with customers is indicative of its roots as small-quantity specialists and its atypical approach to doing business with other distributors.

"Slice really meets all of the basics," says one of the company’s customers, a small-quantity distributor who wished to remain unnamed. "Virtually 100 percent of the time, they’ve got the inventory in stock. They ship out when they say they’re going to ship out. They have fantastic customer service over the phone. Their reliability is 100 percent; we’ve done thousands of orders with these guys, and not once have we had an issue. Nobody does that."

What’s more, this distributor, although being a long-standing Slice customer, doesn’t feel like it’s been given any extra-special treatment.

"Even based on our experience in working with them, I don’t think they treat us any different than they treat all of their customers," says the anonymous distributor. "If we call them for a last-minute, gotta-ship-out-overnight order, they’re right on it."

For Reed and Tackett, following their unflappable notion 16-plus years ago that there was demand out there for small parts cut precisely and delivered promptly has proven just one example of their sharp business instincts.

Whereas speed counts for getting an order processed and out the door, in terms of building a company, it’s slow and steady that often wins in the end.

"One of the things that we’ve learned over the years is that we have to take our time," says Reed. "We looked at so many other companies that were in business when we started, and they just tried to jump into the deep end of the pool and change the industry. And they’re gone now. Robin and I had the dream of operating this place for 10 years and selling it and moving on. As we went down that road, we enjoyed it, we enjoyed our customers and we grew slowly."

Fortunately, Reed doesn’t have to deliver pizzas anymore to make ends meet. He wouldn’t have time anyway; Slice has far too many steel deliveries to make. And the company makes them with the same punctuality and precision as it did when Reed and Tackett shared an office with a washing machine. "They’re just as reliable as a Rolex watch," says the distributor. "They’re right on the money." MM

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