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Lisa Goldenberg: Steel’s ‘fastball-down-the-middle’ gal

Sep 30, 2013 | 08:00 PM | Jo Isenberg-O’Loughlin

Tags  Lisa Goldenberg, Delaware Steel Co., Association of Steel Distributors, ASD, Jo Isenberg-O'Loughlin

High energy, hard-driving and disarmingly straight-talking, the president of Delaware Steel Co. and the Association of Steel Distributors has earned every ounce of steel saavy she exudes.

Lisa Goldenberg is a third-generation steel trader and distributor. And although she’s got the corporate credentials, family tree and DNA to prove it, the Philadelphia native’s first live encounter with a steel mill did not go exactly as planned.

“It was my first mill visit ever,” she recalled recently. “We had a deal with USS-Posco Industries (Inc.) in Pittsburg, Calif., and we needed to renew the contract on our quarterly blanket. My father thought it was a good idea for me to go up there and introduce myself. I was 22 years old. The only mistake I made was I went and bought a brand-new beautiful white suit. I just looked ridiculous. But I held my head up, figured ‘well I ruined that suit,’ and I learned.

“My father said ‘just look professional.’ I thought I looked professional. But I didn’t have someone standing over me. I really had to learn on the fly,” said Goldenberg, who had been dispatched west by her father, Jerald Brownstein, to bring some order to a trading company he owned there. The operation, which specialized in secondary plate, was, in his daughter’s words, “out of control.”

Fresh out of college, Goldenberg was living with roommates in an apartment in Santa Monica, Calif., “so I could be near the beach.” Unfortunately, the apartment was more than an hour-and-a-half drive in traffic from the trading company’s offices in Paramount, Calif. “That was hard,” Goldenberg said. “But I rented a fabulous red sports car so I could at least enjoy the ride.”

Today, some 25 years later, Goldenberg, who succeeded her father as president of Fort Washington, Pa.-based Delaware Steel Co. a year ago and was named president of the Association of Steel Distributors (ASD) in April 2012, makes it her business, no matter how daunting, to enjoy the ride.

These days, that takes some doing.

“I have been told the hardest market to make money in is a relatively flat market,” Goldenberg said. “And although prices have been up, the increases are incremental. And prices have been down, but the declines are also incremental. So we are dealing with a very broad band of flatness.

“The price is up, it’s down, it’s up, it’s down in this very narrow range. As a result, margins are truly squeezed. And more than margins, the ability to transact and deal,” Goldenberg said, referring to the state of the market. “We are wholesale dealers and distributors. We take a position. I am regularly selling steel in an active market. Maybe it’s at very high margins. Maybe it is well below my cost and I average down a position. But when the market is so flat and relatively weak, it is really difficult to average anything down because we’re not really buying many positions.”

Founded by Bernie Brownstein, Goldenberg’s grandfather, in the late 1950s, Delaware Steel specializes in prime, excess prime and secondary flat-rolled steel and does about $25 million in business annually. “We are a small company,” Goldenberg said from her office in the Philadelphia suburb of Fort Washington. “We have 12 employees.”

With the exception of a yearlong stint as a headhunter in the computer industry, Goldenberg has spent her entire career in the steel industry. “I had no intention of going into this crazy business,” she told ASD members at the organization’s 2012 spring convention in Scottsdale, Ariz., where she took the gavel as president. “Nonetheless, through some twists and turns I ventured to California, where my father asked me to manage a plate yard in rural Fontana. My job was to unload railcars of random secondary plates that needed to be sorted and identified. These were seconds arriving from the Midwest with little or no paperwork to identify any of the plate,” she said.

Goldenberg credits that job, which she tackled in her early 20s, with not only providing a hands-on education in the steel business and bringing order to a plate yard in chaos, but building confidence in her skills as a problem solver and manager. “I learned steel,” she said. “It was dirty, hot, challenging work. I had no supervision on site and simply had to figure it out.

“What I marvel at today is how my father and grandfather never, ever treated me as ‘just a girl’ or, better yet, ‘another pretty face,’” she said. “From any early age, they saw me as very nervy and capable of whatever I set my mind to, even if that involved organizing a really crappy plate yard in rural Orange Country.”

Today, Goldenberg has her mind set on ensuring the company she heads is optimally positioned to capture the rebound in U.S. manufacturing she is fully convinced is coming, and expanding the membership, reach and relevance of the ASD through a variety of avenues, including the full utilization of social media. She is making headway on both fronts.

Goldenberg broke new ground the minute she accepted the ceremonial gavel that comes with assuming the presidency of the ASD, a post her father and grandfather held previously. “I am the first woman president, which is interesting in and of itself,” she said. “But what’s more remarkable, there haven’t been any other women on the board.”

One of her first acts in office was reinstating the ASD Future Leaders Forum, the mission of which is to provide practical guidance, networking and education to enhance the professional aspirations of future leaders in the steel distribution industry. The forum’s first networking event in mid-September drew 40 attendees. “Reinstating this program has been one of the initiatives that I have been passionate about during my presidency,” Goldenberg said.

In her 17 months as president of the ASD, membership is up some 15 percent. “We are primarily steel distributors and warehouses,” Goldenberg said. “We have a few steel mills and we are expanding that. A big push has been not just attracting younger members but becoming a little bit more modern in the way we do things, not just stay a traditional service center association. By that, I mean lots of social media.”

Under her and newly named executive director Marc Saracco’s watch, the Chicago-based organization opened a LinkedIn page earlier this year. “And while it might sound minor in the international steel world,” she said, “in just a few months we have just under 1,000 members in our LinkedIn group that are posting regularly. And we are growing exponentially. That has been a big push for me, to become more modern, communicate in new ways so you are reaching people all over the world and becoming a much more viable, broader-based organization. That has been my agenda, and so far I am off to a good start.”

In becoming more modern, Goldenberg has made sure not to lose sight of the values underpinning the formation and mission of ASD in the first place. “So while we are still a networking organization, our primary goal is to help service centers and distributors grow their business through relationships,” she said. “It’s an old-fashioned-type sentiment and sometimes difficult to hold true to those core values.”

A self-described “eternal optimist,” Goldenberg is holding tight to a less-than-widespread conviction that the U.S. economy is, in her words, “ready to explode.” And she has had her fill of headline after headline summarizing the domestic steel market’s lack of pricing power in one word. “Every day there is an article on oversupply,” Goldenberg said. “I’m a little sick of it, to tell the truth. So what? The fact is, manufacturing numbers in every sector are better today than they were last quarter and last year. It depends on what you are looking at, but they are better. And they are going to get better. So while I believe there is a supply issue, demand solves everything. And I believe American manufacturing is growing, just slower than we dealers and traders would like to see.”

If there is a black cloud forming somewhere in the recesses of Goldenberg’s upbeat psyche, it is tethered to the downbeat mindset of the steel supply chain. “I think people need to feel a little bit more open and generous with their time and resources and not be so fearful,” she said. “When times are difficult, people get a little desperate, a little paranoid. I think we need to take a deep breath. I am pretty much a fastball-down-the-middle kind of gal. I believe in talking about your company. I believe in sharing information, not in a collusion type of way but in a promoting and growth way.”

Looking ahead, there is no question in Goldenberg’s mind that the worst is “absolutely” over. At the same time, she has five words of advice for colleagues, customers, suppliers and competitors alike: Get tough and get ready. “There is a big mountain to climb,” she said. “But I believe we are prepared. I believe the companies that are positioned well and have ridden out these 10 years--which it will add up to by the time we get through this storm--are going to be very well positioned and prepared for growth.

“That would be my bottom line,” Goldenberg said. “I think we have to be a little tougher and prepare for a big uphill climb.”


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