Becoming the Ritz-Carlton of the steel industry

“Companies have to be serious about changing their models and recognizing that it’s just a different world without much room for error.”—Jim Bradshaw, CEO (pictured on right)

In June of 2010, Jim Bradshaw and his material-handling company Heartland Steel Products acquired the assets of Torbeck Industries, a distressed company on the verge of closing its doors. Bradshaw renamed the company Heartland Engineered Products, LLC and restructured its day-to-day operations. The company experienced more than 50 percent sales growth in one year and now boasts big-name customers such as The Gap, Walmart, and FedEx. Bradshaw has a gift for reviving troubled companies and channeled this talent to build Heartland Steel Products, which also includes an engineered steel racking division (SpaceRAK) and a structural tubing division (EWCO Tube). Bradshaw breaks down what it takes to breathe new life into declining companies.

I once went to a seminar where the CEO of Ritz-Carlton hotels was speaking. In a very elegant Austrian accent he said, “The secret to Ritz-Carlton is we are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” And having gone to Ritz-Carlton a few times I’m sitting there thinking, he’s absolutely right. It’s not that it’s just a nice hotel but everybody in there seems committed to their guests. To transfer that into the steel industry can be a bit challenging, obviously, because it’s a different world and environment, but that’s what we aspire to.

To be on our team you have to have great communication skills, you have to care about customers, and care about your colleagues. It’s a cultural thing, setting that standard. I look for people that are honest and understand what real service is and what real value means. You go into any troubled company and it’s about finding out who’s holding up the line or process. It’s just finding those bottlenecks and correcting them. So that’s really what we do; it’s coming into a business, redefining the processes as they needed to be, and getting all the employees from each group to understand how the processes work to really provide that value model.

Part of our mission was this simple thing to make it easy to do business with us through great communication, following up when customers have questions or problems, and addressing their issues in a timely manner. We believe that with our business models we’re able to do that as effectively or more efficiently than any of our competitors. Then more specifically when it gets into the work part of it: solve the problem, design the product, be able to get the product produced with high quality and a low cost, and shipped out in a timely manner.

We have to be able to buy our raw materials in a cost-effective manner. Since we essentially are a steel company, we spend a lot of time studying the steel markets and working with our steel suppliers to ensure that we have the most price-competitive raw materials that we can possibly get. It really starts there. When it comes to the conversion end of things, there’s an old saying in the carpentry trade: “Measure twice, cut once.” So just emphasizing those very basic principles into each process to ensure the fewest mistakes possible allows us to move through processes as quickly as possible driving the cost down. With all of our divisions we try to have whatever communication and training is needed in place to keep our employees really focused on improvement.

In this economy there have been a lot of failed businesses and many of them failed for the wrong reasons; it wasn’t just because the economy dropped. Companies just can’t get away with the same sloppy performance that a lot of companies got away with in the past. Companies have to be serious about changing their models and recognizing that it’s just a different world without much room for error. We take that approach as we take on these companies that are in trouble.

It’s that recognition that you must pay attention to detail unlike we ever have before. When I look at Heartland Engineered Products in particular, most of the employees had been there and they have just really grabbed on to this because they want to work and they recognize that they’ve got a better model to work with. That has been the key to reviving that company and it shows to the customer. Suddenly your image changes and I’m frankly, trying to get the Ritz-Carlton image.