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A five-star salute to a 50-year career in copper and brass

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When Franklin Brown Jr., 75, stepped down as executive vice president of the Copper and Brass Servicenter Association (CBSA) earlier this summer, he had spent twice as many years serving the metals industry as not.

"He certainly dedicated his working career to the association and definitely was committed to the association right up to the end," said Bruce Seeger, president of Seeger Metals & Plastics Inc., Toledo, Ohio. Dan Kendall, president of Logansport, Ind.-based ABC Metals Inc., agreed. "I was most impressed by Frank's loyalty," he said.

Brown, who entered a well-deserved retirement at the start of June after being at the helm of the CBSA for 50 years, leaves behind a multi-faceted legacy of steady navigation through turbulent times, according to copper industry players.

LEAVING A LEGACY

CBSA, like the world around it, witnessed innumerable changes between 1959 and 2009. Some overhauls were unmistakably Brown's doing. Others, like last fall's precipitous economic collapse, were out of his hands.

Of the changes orchestrated by Brown, the most manifest involved the expansion of CBSA's membership. Founded in the spring of 1951, the CBSA was at first a trade group exclusively for copper and brass distributors; the following year, domestic brass mills were invited to join the ranks as associate members. But then membership generally was static, with a handful of new distributors and U.S. mills joining each year but the group never again opening its doors to a new group of companies—that is, until "globalization" became a household term.

Although the United States had once been considered a manufacturing powerhouse, the CBSA couldn't ignore the increasingly global nature of the supply chain. Understanding that business was being conducted on an international scale, Brown in 1995 led the charge to expand CBSA's membership to include non-American mills.

"The non-American mills came about because it was becoming more of a global economy and it was felt that a lot of our people were starting to buy from foreign mills, so it would be mutually beneficial to have them come in," Brown said of the decision to expand CBSA's membership after 43 years of status quo.

Seeger said that the decision to expand proved fruitful. "It was an avenue for growth," he said, noting that interested international firms had to prove a presence in the United States. "We didn't want someone to come in just for our distribution list without having a commitment to the country."

Nine years later, the CBSA broadened its ranks again, this time opening its doors to platers. "It was a natural expansion. It was something that should have been done probably long before because a lot of the platers sell both to brass mills and to service centers," Brown said.

Although its growing membership was perhaps the most visible of the changes at the CBSA during Brown's 50-year tenure, other, more subtle transitions also took place. One such shift, he said, was the mills' gradual change of attitudes about minimum orders—a crucial change in the way CBSA members operated.

According to Brown, in the first years of CBSA's existence many mills were still processing orders of virtually any size, forcing them to run orders with no margins and leaving distributors—companies set up to handle smaller shipments—scrounging for whatever was left. "Mills cannot effectively and economically make small quantities in most cases. Distributors can do this, they can customize the orders, so it doesn't make sense for a customer, unless it's a really large customer, to order from the mills. A mill can't economically run a 500-pound order," he said.

The process was unhealthy for everyone, Brown said, and over time the CBSA worked to encourage mills to increase their minimum orders. In the 1960s and '70s attitudes on minimum orders started to shift noticeably. "It was felt that the big orders that would be economic for the brass mills should continue to be their department while the smaller orders really belonged to the distributors and service centers. The mills came to realize that this is what we have distributors for."

However, it was not the growth of the group's membership or the mills' adoption of larger minimum orders that changed the industry the most, Brown said, but the events of last fall.

"The most significant change in the last 50 years basically occurred in the past year," Brown said, referencing 2008's precipitous pricing drop-off. "There have been price fluctuations in copper for many, many years, but nothing even approaching this kind of scale.

LOOKING BACK

The voice of the red metal distribution sector for a full five decades, Brown's name became synonymous with that of the organization itself. But despite boasting a long tenure as CBSA's executive vice president, Brown originally fell into the metal industry by accident.

Having majored in journalism and public relations at the University of Pennsylvania on an ROTC scholarship, he spent three and a half years as a naval officer on a destroyer. Brown returned to Philadelphia in 1959 as a staffer at multi-association management group Fernley & Fernley Inc. "I thought this would be a good way to use my communication skills," said Brown, who upon joining the firm was immediately assigned to manage a number of accounts, including CBSA.

For years he balanced his duties as CBSA executive and multiple-association manager, but by 1978 Brown found he was spreading himself too thin. "I was working on six associations with Fernley & Fernley, giving CBSA only about 20 percent of my time. They said, 'We need considerably more of your time than that,' so they got it."

At the request of the CBSA, Brown left the Philadelphia firm to start his own company, R. Franklin Brown Jr. Inc., a smaller-scale association management group that boasted CBSA as its primary client. It was at the helm of that organization, a two-person firm founded in King of Prussia, Pa., that Brown helped mold the organization into what it is today.

MOVING FORWARD

As Brown proved during his long tenure, organizations, like individuals, must change with the times, and CBSA has a few on the horizon. As Brown enjoys his retirement in Radnor, Pa., with his wife, Joyce, the CBSA will continue to grow and evolve under the watch of Brown's successor, Susan Avery.

Avery, executive director of the Overland Park, Kan.-based association management firm Association Services International Inc., has been in the business for 11 years, many of which were spent heading up a number of plastics groups worldwide.

"She's new to the metals business, but I didn't have any metals background when I came in," Brown said. "If you're running the association, you know how to operate an association, know how to deal with the members and the board; that's the important part."

Avery said that the CBSA is expected to go through a number of key changes during her first few months in the post, mostly on the technology front. "Our initial priorities have been and will be setting up the operational infrastructure, including a new Web site," she said.

"The first three or four months are really about focusing on the basics getting a whole new look and feel, making sure everything we have in terms of member contacts are correct, etc. The next big piece is looking at overall value added. We'll really delve into what other opportunities, the CBSA members want."

But although the CBSA may feel like a different group without Brown on board, Avery said he has been very helpful during the transition. "Frank has been fantastic and very much a mentor throughout this process. He's certainly one of the last gentlemen of the association management community. He's very much a pro," she said.
ANNE RILEY


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