Building integrity: the strength of steel with a woman’s touch
Not often is a woman found at the helm of an industry-leading structural steel company. Then again, Sharon Suggs is not your run-of-the-mill executive. Today, she is a strong and focused leader, embracing technology on the path to success. However, things were quite different five years ago when her husband, former Allstate Steel President Ken Suggs, passed away after a lengthy illness. At first, Sharon was hesitant to step in as President and CEO of the family business, but she has proven to herself and the industry that she’s more than capable. The post-recession struggle has been tough, yet ultimately rewarding, as Allstate Steel is once again a thriving entity respected by customers, suppliers, and employees, alike.
Suggs recalls, “My father-in-law started the company in 1963 as a small business, and moved it to our present location in Jacksonville, Florida in the late ‘60s. At the time, they were working on a NASA platform out of steel and it was a big deal. Ken and I were dating back then, and he was working on the project… well, actually, he was the janitor/cleanup guy. All our employees have to work their way up! I started in the accounting department in ’72 – no computers, we did it all by hand.”
Ken Suggs came to Allstate right out of high school, started in the shop and learned all other phases of the business before joining the head office. He was a gifted salesman, intent on growing the company. By developing relationships with contractors out-of-state, he expanded the local reach, and increased both sales and revenue. Today, Allstate Steel employs 71 workers at the Jacksonville shop, and provides a variety of highly-skilled services including: single source Design Build concepts for structural steel systems, Detailing and Engineering, and Fabrication and Welding. Territory stretches as far north as Baltimore, and as far west as Texas, with project specialization in multi-story office buildings, retail centres, hospitals, and schools; 60 percent of the work is retail construction.
According to Allstate Steel General Manager, Eddy Barrera, the company is customer-driven. “After 53 years in business, we have a big customer relationship database. Almost every general contractor out there knows us, or has heard of us. We make sure people understand that even though we’re located in Jacksonville Florida, we do work all over the country. Many of our customers have offices and locations across the U.S., so we try to build an extended relationship with their sister companies in other regions.”
All projects are based on a bidding system done electronically. Invitations to bid are sent out to companies; contractors use multiple software programs to track the bidding process and forward the plans. Barrera explains, “90 percent of work is by invitation to bid. We receive and review invitations, and make a decision as a company whether to bid or pass. If we pass, it doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t like the project – sometimes we just can’t get to it. All depends on the schedule and when the bids are due.”
The other 10 percent comes from customers who want to pair up with Allstate to help them establish a budget when the project is in preliminary design. Suggs remarks, “Even when we do all the leg work on the front end, that project is still sent out for bids. Our relationship and participation plays a role; we know most about that project, because we worked on it with the client. But there are also two or three other fabricators bidding along with us.”
So, what sets Allstate apart from the competition? “Customer service,” says Barrera. “We go above and beyond to satisfy our customers’ project needs. Of course, there are issues that arise – schedule delays, rain delays, materials missed. Much of the material we supply on the front end, a sub-contractor installs before we can even mobilize. If there’s a problem we react quickly. We’re set up in a way that we can usually turn anything around within a day. That’s what we sell to our clients – that we value their schedule, and supply them the service they need, when they need it most.”
Allstate doesn’t keep inventory on hand, it orders raw materials as needed from service centers (warehouses that buy and store material from steel mills). Mills have a rigid time frame for rolling out certain shapes and sizes, and they aren’t always accurate. Even though there is a small upcharge, Allstate appreciates the flexibility in timing from large service centers, such as Infra-Metals and Allied Crawford, which can be passed onto customers.
Investment in equipment and technology are crucial for future growth. Suggs notes, “The machinery we have is old but very good. The kind you don’t replace over and over, but do upgrade. We’ve done all the technology upgrades, and just purchased a new piece of equipment that will speed up production and increase efficiency. We hope to have it fully operational by January 2016.”
The steel industry runs on high risk and low profit margins. Any error in a project and the profit can disappear. Suggs suggests a backup of cash is the saving grace. “Over time, it’s important that a company doesn’t spend every dime they make. When the economy went down in 2008/2009, we were selling work under cost and losing money to keep projects going. What saved us was my husband and father-in-law being smart enough to save beforehand, so the company had a decent cash flow. Yes, you have to reinvest, but only when the time is right. Now that the economy has turned, construction is up and hopefully that will continue.”
Looking ahead, the plan is to expand into different industry sectors by opening a second location near the current facility for a miscellaneous shop that would help Allstate, but be a separate entity. Barrera says they look forward to the payoff in efficiency from new equipment, and increasing revenue 30 to 40 percent. They’d also like to get in on the ground floor of upcoming projects in their own city. Jacksonville is growing – bringing in more work and more jobs for the community.
Allstate Steel is like a big family, with many long-time employees and little turnover. Suggs believes in keeping her people happy. “We’ve implemented a lot of incentive programs for workers, and Eddy and I work together to ensure everyone is satisfied with what they’re doing. We commit to our customers to finish the project on time and in budget. Our employees are willing to put in extra time to do that.” Finding new workers to take the place of retirees is a difficult task. Most steel companies pass tradespeople from one shop to another, following the jobs. Allstate is currently working with the University of North Florida to find young people interested in this field of work, so they can train them in the shop.
One last piece of advice from Suggs: “Marketing is a big deal, especially in our business. With a product like steel, you need a good website to draw people and build sales. If your name is out there and they know you’re a substantial company, they tend to give you a chance to bid their work. The days of door-to-door sales are long gone.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Allstate Steel Company
WHAT: A steel fabrication, steel erection, and design-build company
WHERE: Jacksonville, FL
Suwannee Iron Works & Fence, Inc. – www.suwanneefence.com