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Raising the bar

Feb 17, 2017 | 02:02 PM | Bette Kovach

Tags  Eaton Steel Bar Co., Mark Goodman, Gary Goodman, Jeff Goodman, Michigan, service centers, distributors, steel bar furnace


As World War II enveloped the world, Albert Goodman became intrigued by the diverse metallurgy of bar products while working at Ford Motor Co. in Detroit to supply the Allied troops.

But when peace was restored and America slowly retooled to a consumer-driven economy, Al and his brother Ozzie scoured the Detroit-area mills for surplus bar products to establish a bar products brokerage that grew into the foundation of today’s Eaton Steel Bar Co. as the largest special bar quality (SBQ) distributor in the United States.

Today’s Eaton bears little resemblance to the bare-bones operation in downtown Detroit that sold surplus material from long-ago producers like Great Lakes Steel and Jones & Laughlin. And while the locations and the scope of services have transformed Eaton into a significant player in providing a wide range of bar products, one thing remains the same: the leadership of Eaton is still forged by the Goodman family, now engaging the third generation.

“Our grandfather emigrated from Poland to Canada in the early 1900s. It was hard to find work with limited English skills but he was a tailor and was given an opportunity to work for the Eaton Department stores in Toronto, Ontario. His business grew into other retail areas including sporting goods but he never forgot the Eaton Co.’s kindness. This led our father and uncle to name the company after the family business in Canada that gave our family a start in North America,” Gary Goodman said, co-chairman of today’s Eaton Steel Bar Co. with headquarters in Oak Park, Mich.

Eaton was founded in 1953 to primarily serve the needs of the nation’s automakers in the Detroit area. Focusing on bars, “which have a wide metallurgical range of 50 to 60 grades,” Gary explained, gave the fledgling company a niche product area, which it continues to embrace today. Eaton Steel Corp. is the largest North American distributor of SBQ, carbon and alloy steel bars, with facilities in Taylor, Mich. In 1957, Eaton established Hercules Drawn Steel Corp., Livonia, Mich., to enter the cold-drawn bar market with an initial draw bench. Since then, Hercules has continued to expand, add processing equipment and offer additional value-added services focused on quality and speed.

Eaton’s mantra is, “Quality is a given. If you don’t have world-class quality, your customers go out of business,” according to Mark Goodman, also co-chairman of Eaton along with his brother Gary. Eaton had an in-house quality testing facility for many years before setting it up as another Eaton business in 2003 known as Titan Metallurgy LLC, located adjacent to Eaton’s headquarters in Oak Park. The lab is A2LA certified to the ISO 17025 certification, and its metallurgical engineers perform a variety of tests for Eaton products as well as commercial customers. Titan Metallurgy is one of the responsibilities of Jeff Goodman, president, who is Mark’s son and the third generation to lead Eaton’s businesses.

Two additional Eaton businesses are closely aligned in providing logistics and transportation services to its customers. Atlas Trucking LLC, Taylor, Mich., provides trucking services with more than 100 trucks that travel the 48 contiguous states and into Ontario, Canada, while Atlas Logistics LLC helps ensure deliveries with carrier partners.

Today’s Eaton Steel Bar Products has production and warehouse floor space in four Michigan locations of about 750,000 square feet to process and store about 80,000 tons of bar products with annual shipments of more than 300,000 tons. Eaton maintains one of the largest size range of cold finish bars in North America of 1/4 inch to 10 inches. Value-added services include cleaning, drawing, roto and mag testing, cutting to length, measuring, straightening, chamfering, bundling, weighing and just-in-time inventory storage. Supporting the Michigan facilities are depots across the country including one for SBQ in Houston. The businesses employ 280 people in the production and warehouse operations, with an additional 130 Atlas truck drivers, some of whom are owner operators.

Being long established in Michigan has allowed Eaton to demonstrate its commitment to the state’s automakers, its largest consuming industry. And Eaton’s capabilities in both stocking a wide range of products and delivering them just in time have allowed the company to become a valued supplier. “We buy in North America when we can but we will buy internationally when we have to,” Jeff said. In addition to being one of the largest suppliers to the hydraulic fittings industry, Eaton products are used in automotive applications, including suspension systems, drive trains and other parts for on- and off-road vehicles.

With the complementary businesses for SBQ customers, each of the three Goodmans sees the glue that holds them together as “our ability to help our customers better manage their inventory,” Mark said. “We help our customers navigate their supply chains for SBQ products by providing the services that enable us to be a one-stop shop.” Gary added, “We take over the responsibility for managing our customers’ inventory so they can focus on their core competencies. For our business, ‘inventory’ is not a dirty word.”

The role of the Atlas businesses is critical to managing customer inventory. With more than 100 trucks, Eaton, through Atlas, is able to offer just-in-time delivery “that is specific not just to a certain date but to a specific hour,” Jeff said. “The original intent with establishing the trucking and logistics companies was to guarantee just-in-time delivery. By having control over these businesses, we can better manage fleet utilization. Customers can literally order product today and have it delivered tomorrow.”

As the needs of its customers have changed, so has the technology within Eaton to support them. Jeff, who holds a materials science engineering degree, manages the technology upgrades and investments for the firm. “We have always operated fast machines, inline testing and customer inventory data bases. Our emphasis on information technology goes back to the early 1980s and has evolved into the customization of homegrown applications to handle individual customer needs. Today we have real-time visibility and efficient analysis of data that is transparent to everyone including the shop floor and our customers,” he said. Added Gary, “We integrated our IT beginning at the shop-floor level to ensure that we schedule the right thing at the right time to meet the customer’s delivery date. We went process by process to configure how to best operate.”

Working as one team, the three Goodmans have a natural division of labor. Mark, the elder Goodman by a scant few years, remembers longing to join the company as a child to experience the camaraderie he saw between his grandfather, father and uncle. “They called themselves the ‘Three Musketeers,’ and I wanted to be the fourth,” he said. After graduating with a degree in liberal arts and biology from Wayne State University in Detroit, Mark’s first position was as a commissioned salesman and then into production at Hercules Drawn Steel. “I have always been mechanically oriented and enjoyed working with machinery and for a while ran Hercules. And I still enjoy meeting with our customers.”

Gary also graduated from Wayne State with a degree in marketing and had the same early career experience as Mark. Their father, Al, “gave me a steel industry manual of metallurgical grades and told me to memorize it so I could speak to customers.” Like his older brother, Gary’s first positions were in sales and purchasing. Gary watched his brother improve equipment while overseeing the sales and purchasing operations for Eaton.

Jeff, 41, graduated from Michigan State with his engineering degree, then worked in the metallurgical laboratory and in the rolling mills of the former Ispat/Inland Steel Co., today part of ArcelorMittal USA. After then earning a master of business administration degree, he joined the family business in 2002 and spent a few years establishing Titan Metallurgy and helping that firm earn its A2LA accreditation.

Like Mark, his father, Jeff is also mechanically inclined and has remained heavily involved in Eaton’s acquisition of new technology. Twenty-five robots are in operation in the Eaton businesses, “some giant older ones and some newer ones that use collaborative technologies. They are now performing tasks associated with tubing, threading, chamfering and providing first operation blanking. Over the years, we have also expanded our locations and installed new equipment” as dictated by the needs of Eaton’s customers and the market, which has included and will continue to include “design and project management of new equipment, targeted acquisitions and expanded facilities,” Jeff said.

Although Gary and Mark are both north of the traditional retirement age, neither anticipates retiring soon. Their succession planning for the next generation is centered on Jeff.

“By naming Jeff president, we are showing our employees that we have another generation of leadership with the skills and the desire to succeed. We are a family company, and our employees are part of that family,” Mark said.

What is in the future for the Eaton Steel Bar Co.? “Bigger with more value-added services,” Jeff said. “Different from today because we are always looking for what will give us an edge,” Gary said. Some of that change could come, according to Mark, from “acquisitions that would add another dimension to what we are doing. We are always exploring, always curious because standing still is like going backward.”



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