Friday | 07 May, 2021 | 11:15 am

100 years

Written by By Corinna Petry

Above: O’Neal Steel is a full-line service center carrying sheet, plate, bar, pipe and tube in carbon and stainless steels and aluminum.

O’Neal Industries has touched a lot of milestones and created a big family of dedicated employees

May 2021 - Through a Depression, a world war, multiple recessions and other turmoil, the solid foundation of community, caring and doing the right thing has kept a service center, fabrication and manufacturing company going for a century. Modern Metals talks with the top executive and two longstanding employees about O’Neal Industries’ history and what makes it tick.

Kirkman O’Neal invested $2,000 in Southern Steel Works, a Birmingham, Alabama, fabricator of structural plate and beams, in 1921. In 1935, the company opened a service center. Kirkman O’Neal’s son, Emmet, joined the company in 1946. During World War II, Southern Steel Works produced bombs used in the Pacific theater. The company was renamed O’Neal Steel Works Co. in 1949.

“By the time of my birth in 1961, the company had been in business for 40 years; my father was 39, having been with the company nearly 15 years,” Craft O’Neal, current chairman and CEO, says.

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Kirkman O’Neal invested $2,000 in Southern Steel Works, which became the seed of an empire.

He began working at the company during high school. “My summers in the warehouse are some of my most memorable and enjoyable times at O’Neal and provided the knowledge of warehouse operations I needed when I started in sales following college.”

Even before he began working, “there was a lot of talk about business at home and at my grandparents’ house. An interesting dynamic developed between my father and his parents. My grandparents were proud of what the company had achieved and believed it had become large enough. My father was young and growth-minded, and those philosophies clashed.”

That began, he says, when his father wanted to expand into Florida in the early 1960s but “he and my grandfather could not come to terms on doing that. My father would not be deterred and borrowed the money to finance the expansion himself. Fortunately, once those locations were on solid footing, the company reimbursed my father for those investments,” Craft O’Neal says.

Kirkman O’Neal, who died at age 98, remained connected with the business into his mid-90s. “His home phone had direct-dial capabilities, so he simply dialed four-digit extensions to speak with anyone within the company. He found this quite handy, and at times it was to my father’s chagrin,” O’Neal says with a laugh.

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O’Neal Steel survived a war and multiple recessions during the past 100 years.

Setting an example

Certainly, Craft O’Neal absorbed values and lessons from his progenitors that he incorporated when he took over as company leader. “Most of the lessons I learned were through observation. My father and grandfather were astute businessmen, driven and committed to the success of the company. They worked well with others, had a great team around them, were humble, treated people with kindness and respect, and conducted business with honesty and integrity.

“I observed the strong relationships they developed with employees, customers and suppliers. These fundamentals are necessary for success over the long term for any business, and they and their team set the example for me and others to follow,” he says.

O’Neal says he “made plenty” of mistakes early on. “I started in sales with the mindset that all sales were good sales. I loved selling and was determined to win every order. Because of that, I sold a lot but learned the hard way that not all business is good business.

“I also moved into supervisory roles at a young age and, as a new manager of our Houston district, had some difficult people to manage, who tested my youth and inexperience. I put up with it for too long, and it caused heartache and performance issues. Fortunately, with the right people in place, we got on track.”

There were setbacks. “One that will always stick with me is a fatal accident in our Birmingham plant in the late 1990s. Plate hooks from a moving overhead crane caught the top of a moving forklift and flipped it over. The young man driving the lift was not wearing a seatbelt and was crushed. That funeral will forever be ingrained in my memory. Thankfully, that has not happened since.”   

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Carrying on

Susan Goff, an inside sales manager, joined O’Neal Steel in 1988. “It was a family oriented company, very wholesome, with a wonderful welcoming environment,” she recalls.

“I met my husband at work. It has been my life. I know it sounds corny but this is about the people,” Goff says. As a manager, she was taught that it is right to let employees take care of personal family issues when necessary. “I have people who report to me saying they needed to take an extra 10 minutes to take the kids to school. Our philosophy is, as long as you get the job done.”

Because of the family friendly policies, “O’Neal Steel is able to compete for talent very well,” Goff remarks.

The history of the place was in plain sight when she became an office manager. “We had all these files that went with account memos from the 1950s and 1960s.” Reading them, she realized “the philosophy at that time is the same as it is now: Commitment to excellence. Ensuring quality, safety and on-time delivery. Craft’s father and grandfather instilled that. It’s up to all of us to carry that on,” she says.

At the same time, the work is very fast-paced and the company’s expansion has occurred fairly rapidly over the years. “I have seen exponential growth through acquisitions and expanding business through customers.”

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Internal growth has been achieved in part through the adoption of new technologies. Because of previous development of IT capabilities, when the government declared the pandemic last spring, “we were ready to send everyone home to work.

“It was March 11, 2020. No one really knew, but we worried someone had been exposed to COVID. We ran out of the building like it was on fire. Our management team sent us all home out of concern. There was no hesitation. We were sent home at noon and were hooked up by 2 p.m. We were able to function completely,” Goff says. “The technology investment really paid off.”

In addition, “the guys in the shop saw immediate safety protocols put in place: masks, hand washing, social distancing. That shows concern for employees.”

Goff adds, “I wanted longevity in my career. I am here as long as they will have me.”

Being heard

Jeff Burleson, operations manager for the Mobile, Alabama, district of O’Neal Steel, started working for the company in January 1980. “I started as a general warehouse worker, then got an opportunity to become a supervisor.” He moved to Houston and became a production manager. He was eventually promoted to project manager on a corporate team, and later moved into operations management.

“When I first started, there were a lot of people everywhere out in the warehouse. People everywhere! Needless to say, we didn’t quite focus on safety like we do now. It’s our first priority.”

Technology throughout the company’s operations has advanced tremendously over time. “O’Neal Steel was always on the leading edge with processing equipment in the shop, such as installing a KASTO automated retrieval system, and having the best sales tools for customer use,” Burleson says. “It’s part of what make the job interesting. The company never shied away from spending money on training, either. I’ve had quite a bit of training.”

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The other driver he’s witnessed through 40 years is the network’s growth. “We had 13 locations when I started and have ramped up to 20-plus. I am one of the few employees who has been at nearly all the O’Neal Steel locations.”

The main value O’Neal Steel and all of the O’Neal Industries companies promotes “is do the right thing, whether dealing with employees, vendors, shareholders or customers, and everything will be OK. Your integrity means everything.

“Being part of a family means a lot,” he continues. “Being part of the team means a lot. This is bigger than us. And we as individuals truly have influence in directions, decisions. You will be heard. A few ideas can spur further ideas. Our leadership works hard to get us to give them input.”

Craft O’Neal confirms the guidance that all employees are given, which is based on “how my father and grandfather conducted themselves, emphasizing honesty and integrity. The reason our company has a good reputation is we hire very fine people who embody those values of honesty and integrity.

During the next 100 years, he believes the O’Neal Industries team “will continue to conduct business with the highest degree of honesty, integrity, fairness and reliability. We will preserve and build upon the greatness of our organization and, in doing so, we will continue to enhance the company’s value to our customers, employees, shareholders, suppliers and communities.”





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After growing into many separate and unique companies, the shareholders formed a parent company, O’Neal Industries (ONI), in 2008 to better manage the growth of the business and provide some corporate support functions for the subsidiary companies. ONI is the nation’s largest family owned network of metals service centers and component and tube manufacturing businesses. O’Neal Steel is a part of this family of companies.


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