Refreshed: Well-developed knowledge base, reinvestment in people and equipment keeps spring steel specialist going strong after 75 years

 

January, 2024- Soon after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Harold Tolliver worked at a company in New York City, which sent him to Chicago to become its outside sales representative. Chicago was in the midst of one of its frequent growth spurts. Seeing an opportunity, Tolliver founded Admiral Steel in 1949.

Today, the distributor and processor stocks over 1,300 products—from rebar to tool steels, from blade steels to bar grating—and ships all over North America and beyond.

Chief Operating Officer Kevin Averill is the third generation leader of the family owned company, located in Alsip, Illinois, roughly 20 miles from downtown Chicago. “I started in the mid-1980s, working part time after school. I worked as an assistant in plant production, and then moved to inside sales,” he says.

    Admiral Steel carries high-carbon spring steel in hot-rolled, cold-rolled and blue tempered grades, as well as a variety of other flat and long products. 

NICHE PLAYER

“We have several different product lines. We do large orders and small items for a lot of different niches. When one product area is busy, another drops off.”

Products include high-carbon spring steel in hot-rolled, cold-rolled and blue tempered grades, tubing and flats, angles, plates, rounds, expanded metal. “We fabricate rebar,” Averill says, noting that the structural products are shipped throughout the greater Chicago area, but high-carbon spring steel products are shipped globally.

“One niche is knife-making steel, which became a steady product.” The company stocks Damascus and stainless blade steels.

   Admiral Steel has a team of longtime slitter operators. “There is not an app for that [knowledge],” COO Kevin Averill says. 

We have customers buying one piece of steel and others are buying 20,000 pounds just for knife manufacturing. We have been in business 75 years. We find new niches” when opportunities arise. For example, Admiral Steel developed a long-term relationship with a manufacturer of window wells.

Averill says his company is one of the first to have an online store, through which customers can view inventory and make inquiries. “We started getting inquiries from random places regarding window wells. We had a customer who said, ‘I can’t get it and I need it and I don’t care what it costs.’”

So Admiral reached out to a manufacturer, which said it frequently received inquiries but did not sell direct. “That wasn’t intentional,” says Averill, but Admiral has been a distributor of those products for over 30 years. “We fill a need for them and vice versa.”

Orders range from one unit to 100 units. Most of Admiral Steel’s spring steel comes from Nucor Corp., ArcelorMittal and NMLK. The product has to have more than 25 percent carbon. “It is used in washers, stampings” and a wide variety of applications. “Our customers include stampers for automotive and agriculture equipment. We have defense clients that make bombs. The heaviest is 0.0375 inch. We go all the way down to 0.005,” Averill says.

Mill lead times for spring steel vary. “On the short side, it’s six weeks. Sometimes you wait three or four months, but that is better than during the COVID years.”

High-carbon products are a small percentage of the steel made, says Averill. “Most of the industry makes low carbon.” Here, too, the order size varies. “We might sell only 5 pounds at a time; it’s rarer to sell truckloads.”

Services at Admiral Steel include shearing, slitting, leveling, cut to length, blanking, sawing, edge trimming and gauge correction.

DEEP BENCH

Averill takes pride in the number of employees who have really gone the distance. “We have one slitter operator who celebrated 51 years with the company in September. That guy is 71 and he loves working here.” Among its roster of 40, Admiral Steel has employees who have been there 49 years, 47 years, 46 years. Averill has been there 39 years. Why do they stay? “We treat people right. Everyone has families. They have to take care of things at home, and we understand that. We think our intellectual property is valuable. Longevity is very valuable. We appreciate that our employees know what they are doing. Our guys have been slitting the material for years. There is not an app for that,” Averill says.

INFORMATION AGE

Admiral Steel remained on top of technology over the past few years. “During COVID, we invested in upgrading computers and software, and implementing technology to make us more efficient,” Averill says. “We don’t have a big IT department so there are struggles with that. Everyone here wears multiple hats. We want to be current and make it easy to do business.

    Admiral Steel tracks and monitors its inventory and work in process through a new ERP system 

“The speed of business has increased,” he continues, and accessibility to information is crucial. In addition to sales staff and administration, “all of our machine operators have access to everything. When I started, we didn’t even have our inventory on the computer. We are consistently working to get ahead of the need and make things easier for our customers and for the employees.”

Using the new metals-specific ERP system, “we are able to track and monitor things you never could before. We used to have boxes of paper tags and someone went around and slapped a label on a piece of steel. Then later, someone went out to the warehouse and had to look for that tag.”

RE-EDUCATION

According to Averill, the number of domestic hot band suppliers has been reduced. Because of the struggles people faced during COVID, many “who knew how to do things retired. Many of the mills we work with have had major turnover, and they are struggling to regrow the staff.” As producer consolidation took place in recent years, “we have heard from certain mills, ‘we don’t do that anymore.’ They are relearning how to make certain products. Some [newcomers] didn’t even know what the mill made and we had to show them old invoices. It’s not always common knowledge.”

As a distributor with 75 years of experience, Admiral Steel does a lot of the same work that its peers do, but whereas they have some stock, “we have it all. And we do a phenomenal job with the products we carry,” Averill says.

Admiral Steel, 708/388-9600, http://admiralsteel.com/