Stainless Steel
Wednesday | 26 August, 2015 | 12:58 pm

New direction

Written by By Emily Vasquez

Above: Stainless Sales is implementing lean manufacturing practices toward a more organized, sustainable workplace.

Service center proposes three-year plan to upgrade its facility and improve its culture

August 2015 - “The stainless steel market is up and down, so you adapt or get left behind.” A tough assessment, perhaps, but Robert Whitehouse, president of Stainless Sales Corp. (SSC), is determined to adapt by integrating a cultural change alongside other developments. Combining tactics old and new, Whitehouse has a fresh batch of senior executives implementing a three-year plan to expand the facility, improve customer service, adopt 5S lean practices, replace a time-consuming ERP system and make SSC a better place to work. It’s all part of the company’s plan to resolve costly issues and revitalize SSC’s spirit.

Upon arriving at Stainless Sales, a 70-year-old, Chicago-based, family-owned business, last year, Whitehouse felt it had outgrown its internal practices so he launched a series of changes to unfold over 36 months.

Not only did the plan call for facility upgrades, but it also called upon employees to voice concerns, an opportunity Whitehouse admits wasn’t available before. “It’s not all about money. It’s also about being part of a family environment striving toward the same goals,” he says. To properly prepare them, Whitehouse wanted employees to understand that “all the changes are for the right reasons.”

“We are a tight-knit company and all the employees here are seeing new management, new people and different ways of doing things. We are trying to get everyone involved as much as possible,” says Polly Whitehouse, director of sales and marketing at SSC. 

She, too, joined the company last year and called on employees to suggest internal and external mottos, receiving near-total participation from SSC’s 66 employees. The internal motto— “Change…It Does A Company Good!”—pledges progress in a sensitive market. The external motto—“Big enough to fulfill your needs, small enough to care”—Polly Whitehouse explains, “is for our customers to understand that despite our size we are capable of handling very large jobs while still giving them a personal experience.”

MM 0815 stainless image1

Forward thinking

Stainless Sales Corp. was founded in 1946 after World War II in New Jersey. After moving to Cicero, Illinois, and experiencing a disastrous fire, SSC relocated to a 50,000-square-foot building on Chicago’s South Side, where it has remained since. In 1982, Marilyn Kutzen took over the business from her father, Joe Kutzen, and remains CEO today. 

SSC added a 30,000-square-foot warehouse seven miles away in 2012, transporting material between facilities on a daily basis. But concerns soon arose about transportation costs; moving material back and forth between plants cost SSC 52 days a year in lost productivity, says Robert Whitehouse. So he submitted permit applications to City of Chicago planning authorities to expand the main facility to 100,000 square feet, combining both locations and eliminating the second site. Robert Whitehouse included input from the entire team in the design, considering suggestions from operations, quality and shipping on the best way to lay out the expanded facility.

“We are talking to the people operating the equipment, forklifts and cranes. We asked, ‘How do you think we should move material in the warehouse?’ We obviously want to get it right,” he explains. 

Pending city approval, the expansion is scheduled for completion during first half of 2016. Notes Whitehouse, 2016 should be a “good year” for the company, which will allow plans to move forward with remodeling office space as well. 

The proposed expansion will house SSC’s stainless steel coils, two cut-to-length lines and a shear commissioned in 2014. SSC also performs slitting, edging, skiving, deburring, oscillate winding and applies PVC and paper interleave.

While all these changes are happening, SSC is also implementing a 5S program throughout the company. The 5S program is a series of lean manufacturing practices (Sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain) aimed at maintaining an organized and sustainable work environment. SSC selected a team made up of all areas of the business to get full company participation and buy-in. This past June, the team successfully completed 5S on one of its slitting lines, which is now a model for the rest of the facility. 

Chasing paper

The connection between shop and sales functions has to be upgraded, too. “It’s not very good, let’s put it that way,” Whitehouse says about SSC’s ERP system, in place 20 years and which involves an extensive paper trail and a tedious process retracing documents and adding more work for employees. 

SSC needed a system that would improve the way the company communicates with customers. “Our ERP system is very outdated, very paper oriented and does not offer our internal team as well as our customers the information that they need in the touch of a button,” Robert Whitehouse says. 

SSC turned to Enmark Systems Inc., a Windows-based solutions provider working exclusively for the metal service center industry to develop a system to take SSC to a higher level of customer service and operating procedures. 

He says he was most impressed with the ERP system’s ability to reschedule or change orders instantly with a click of a mouse. All the information is stored in the company database, which allows an employee to correct an order by simply dragging and dropping it where appropriate. 

MM 0815 stainless image2

“Say you have a job set for a customer and it’s scheduled on Friday but they really want it Wednesday. You can pick it up and drop it in [the schedule] and see the impact it makes on all of your other customers. Again, that’s live,” Whitehouse says. “Whereas [under the previous system] that would have been a meeting for several people and a discussion asking, ‘We have this panic job, who’s going to be affected by it?’”

As SSC awaits installation, Whitehouse has employed several super-users made up of managers and employees who will learn to navigate the system first. Those super-users, once they achieve expertise, will then conduct team training sessions, monitoring progress throughout until the system goes live. 

While it’s too soon to tell how the system will impact SSC, Whitehouse foresees a more active sales force, giving them “more time on the phone talking to customers rather than chasing paper.”

Open communication

In the last year, during weekly company meetings, Whitehouse talks a lot about change, encouragement, customers’ needs and openness. He implemented a company-wide, monthly town hall meeting to report on the projects and finances and allow employees to ask questions and communicate concerns. “[It] doesn’t matter how good a machine runs if you don’t have motivated people or the right people running it,” he says.

But this progress isn’t happening at the hands of one man alone. SSC hired additional executives including a chief financial officer, director of operations and director of sales and marketing who have worked together to create a new culture.

“I think it’s worked out really well. We each bring our previous experiences and give our views about how things can be done and are very open with each other. As we look at planning our business going forward each year, we’re rolling out a plan that sustains the company,” says Whitehouse.

The new leadership also believes in promoting employees from within, providing a chance at career advancement that was previously unobtainable. “I had lunch with one of the employees who was promoted from plant operations to quality inspection and he actually said, ‘None of us ever had these opportunities before,’” says Whitehouse.

He credits SSC’s team for carrying out the growth plan with resilience and without major resistance. The new motto has reinforced company morale, valuing every person’s opinion. It’s also a way to instill improvement. 

So, to “adapt or get left behind”? “We aren’t going to get left behind. We are really proud of our employees and the family atmosphere we have here. We strive to make SSC the best place to work,” says Whitehouse. MM


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