CHICAGO Survivors in the rough-and-tumble world of steel are often described as gamblers and horse traders. Tony Butera, a cofounder of Voss Industries, has in fact gambled and owned racehorses during a career that has so far spanned 62 years.
In his most recent win, Butera has been named 2012 Steel Man of the Year by the Association of Steel Distributors (ASD), which will honor him at a banquet during its annual convention in March.
Butera, a man known for having mentored many greenhorns who later went on to lead their own companies, started Taylor, Mich.-based Voss Industries in 1951 with Paul Voss and Homer Davison, who were soon joined by Pauls brother, Gabe.
Butera had just three months on the job when the foreman training him decided that he wanted to take a long vacation. "I asked, Whos going to run the plant? Butera recalled. "He said, You are."
In an exclusive interview with AMM, Butera recalled working long hours in those early days. "I was the foreman, the maintenance man, the inventory clerk, I ran the crane," he said. "Meanwhile, all the salesmen (were) out having a ball downtown. I said, Hey, this is baloney. I have to go into sales."
Butera, who went to college on the G.I. Bill, moved to a small Detroit steel warehouse, where he opened 15 new accounts in three months. "A lot of them were good customers of the Vosses," he said. "It didnt take long before Gabe called, saying, Paul has an offer for you that you cant refuse."
Butera managed sales for Voss west side expansion and later pitched the idea of building a pickle line. "We were buying all this hot-rolled and having to pay to have it pickled," he said. His partners bought into the idea, and the decision helped to expand Voss business with service centers.
"I bought a lot of steel in my time, thousands and thousands of tons," Butera said. "I sold thousands and thousands of tons. I bought foreign steel when it was 4.5 cents a pound from one of the first (import) dealers in Detroit."
He won new business in a traditional manner: by giving out pens and golf shirts and taking customers to lunch. "Im a great taker-out-to-luncher," he said, pointing to his beltline.
But the real festivities occurred when a Detroit mill salesman and Butera paired up to host annual trips to Las Vegas, which continued for eight years. Twenty-nine customers came one year, and "more guys were begging to go," he said.
The stories from those trips are "just amazing," said Butera, who is legendary for knowing practically everyone in the industry. "And the money they lost at those tables!" he added.
"I love gambling, I love horses," Butera continued. He and a couple of partners purchased a racehorse and won $100,000 in the first year. The seller "never forgot it," Butera said. "He chewed us out every time he saw us."
Butera stabled racehorses for the next 20 years and frequented tracks from Toronto to Atlantic City, N.J., to New Orleans. "I am a connoisseur of the racetrack," he said. "On every single trip to New York, (customers) insisted on going to the track with me, because they figured I would make them money."
And on the subject of making money, Butera believes that steel processors and distributors will have a good 2013, based on the projected vehicle build rate and demand from other industries.
"Among the people I deal with, this guy is putting in a new slitter, that guy is putting up a new building," he said. "Are you telling me they are hurting?"