Where Service and Steel Come Together
Caring culture guides Central Steel Supply Company, Inc.
Recently, when a parking garage partially collapsed in Waltham, Massachusetts, the owner placed an emergency call to John de Vries, President and CEO of Central Steel Supply Company, Inc. (Central Steel). Though it was the weekend, de Vries and the employees of Central Steel rallied to the cause. By Sunday morning, the owner had the steel needed to make a timely repair.
That level of dedication, which is a hallmark of the 71-year-old company, has created a devoted customer base, according to Kristina Iovine, Marketing and Business Development Manager. “A customer once told me that our founder, Walter, gave his father credit 35 years ago when he needed it, and because of that, he’ll always stay loyal to us. We pride ourselves in taking great care of our customers and employees.”
Headquartered in Marlborough, Massachusetts, Central Steel provides steel products and processing services to customers across Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, as well as parts of New Hampshire and Southeast Maine. “We cover the entire Southern New England region, with nine trucks that deliver every day of the week from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m.,” de Vries says.
The company primarily serves the construction industry, but also provides materials and services to customers that include fabricators of stairs, railings, cellular towers and ATM machines. “The world is constantly changing, and we work to meet the needs of a wide array of industries,” he says.
Central Steel carries 7 million pounds of inventory and stocks over 1,700 different items in its 54,000-square-foot warehouse, including angles, beams, mouldings, hot and cold rolled sheets, plates, tubing, pipes and wire mesh. “We leverage our industry relationships to offer a diverse range of products at competitive prices,” de Vries says.
The company’s state-of-the-art processing equipment allows it to customize most of the material it stocks. Central Steel’s specially trained technicians provide high-definition plasma and oxy-fuel cutting services for quick, accurate plate cutting and to create custom shapes based on CAD drawings. Additionally, the company provides shearing, saw-cutting and drilling services. “A large amount of the steel that we sell each day is processed, whether it’s drilled holes or creating a plasma cut plate or bending rebar. We process more than most steel service centers,” de Vries says.
A Rough Start
Though Central Steel may run like a well-oiled machine today, the company experienced a less than auspicious start. In 1948, fresh out of college, Walter Lipsett was presented with an opportunity. The four owners of Central Steel wanted out of the fledgling and failing business. They were willing to sign over their stock to Lipsett, who had recently started working at the family-owned business. With a loan from his uncle, one of the four original owners, and just $1,500 in cash, Lipsett found himself the owner of a business on the verge of bankruptcy.
“I was in my early 20s and only had four months of experience working in this business,” Lipsett says. “I called my accountant for advice. He said he didn’t know how to salvage the company other than the bank giving me a loan.” With a statement from his accountant, Lipsett sat down with the president of the loan department. “He gave me a stern look and said, ‘How in the world do you think you can compete against all of your competitors?’ And then he named off 10 different businesses. I told him, ‘How many captains of industry heard that same comment in their first meeting with their banker?’ He was stunned by that statement.”
The banker was so impressed by Lipsett’s tenacity that he gave him a $100,000 line of credit, allowing Lipsett to pay the loan to his uncle and get the jump-start he needed. “In those first few months, I’d look through the Yellow Pages and call every company I could think of who needed steel,” Lipsett says. “I did sales, I loaded the truck and I unloaded the trucks. With no employees and no overhead, I couldn’t help but make money.”
Talented Employees, Sophisticated Equipment
While Lipsett’s original business model was that of a supply house that offered saw cutting and delivery, Central Steel has transitioned into a full-service steel service center under the leadership of de Vries, Walter’s son-in-law, who took over as President and CEO in 1992. In the last 20 years, the company has invested in state-of-the-art processing equipment, including a shear, plasma table, an anglemaster, a Ficep CNC drill line and rebar-bending equipment.
CAD technicians and qualified machine operators run the robust service center. “We have an enormously talented staff of industry veterans and energetic newcomers,” de Vries says. “Our sales team alone has a combined experience of more than 270 years in the business.” The company has fast turnaround with next-day delivery available for most in-stock items. “Special orders and larger quantities can take longer, but we work to get orders delivered as quickly as we can,” Iovine says.
Her favorite piece of equipment bends rebar. “We feed a giant, 3,800-pound coil of rebar into a machine. The equipment reads a barcode with design specifications, and then automatically cuts, bends and shapes the rebar. It’s so impressive,” she says. “After years, it’s still my favorite machine out there on the floor.”
“We leverage our industry relationships to offer a diverse range of products at competitive prices.” John de Vries, President and CEO, Central Steel Supply Company, Inc.
A move from Somerville to Marlborough in 2011 allowed Central Steel to expand its delivery radius, and the company extended its sales hours from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. to be more available to customers. “Our product offerings and the exemplary service employees provide to our customers is a true reflection of our tagline: ‘Where service and steel come together,’” de Vries says.
Central Steel is very devoted to its employees. When a warehouse fire in 1982 threatened the company’s future, Lipsett managed the hit, with the help and loyalty of employees. “I always paid my employees well, and even with that fire, they never missed a weekly paycheck. They received sick and vacation pay and even a bonus at Christmas.”
That culture of caring remains at Central Steel. “My people meant everything to me,” Lipsett adds. “I took care of them, and they were intensely loyal to me. John feels the same way.”
The strong loyalty of employees is evident in the generations who have worked with Central Steel over the years. “The grandson of my very first warehouse employee manages our warehouse today,” Lipsett says. “His grandfather was second in charge of my warehouse. His father also managed the warehouse and now his son, Brian, is Central Steel’s Warehouse Manager.”
“We have people on the sales floor who have been with the company close to 40 years,” de Vries adds. “We encourage employees to have a work-life balance. If a child is sick or there’s an event at school, we always try to accommodate employees’ needs.”
Lipsett recalls making time each week to walk to the warehouse and visit with employees. “I would talk to every employee there. I’d learn about their wives and children. I knew their hobbies, and I would hear about their problems. We were family.”
That feeling of family exists at Central Steel today. “We know each other so well. We eat together and have drinks after work,” Iovine says.
These long-lasting bonds extend to customers as well. “I have a customer with twins who we sent gifts to when the kids were first born,” Iovine says. “Now those same twins are starting high school.”
She adds that loyalty comes from investing in relationships: “We have a large network of partners that we work with. For example, a developer might call and ask for a recommendation for a detailer. We’re happy to share that info. Customers know they can call me at home at 5 a.m. and I’ll help with whatever they need.”
“One of the things I really like to do is visit my customers,” de Vries says.
“I like to walk around the shop and see what they do. What products are they buying, what are they making and can we help them in that process in any way with our automated machinery? If I can help my customer make more money on each job, then we become true partners.”
Central Steel is active in the community and encourages its 64 employees to give back. “We offer flexible scheduling to those who volunteer. It’s a core part of our culture,” Iovine says.
Having lost his wife and daughter to cancer, Lipsett is passionate about supporting Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “We give to the hospital, and our family has been riding bicycles for years in the Pan-Mass Challenge, which benefits Dana-Farber,” he says.
The company also supports camps that benefit children with life-threatening illnesses and has organized food and supply drives to help community nonprofits. Additionally, Central Steel works with the local vocational high school. “We’ve had seven interns from the high school since 2011, when we first moved to Marlborough. They get hands-on training in metal fabrication and in the business office, and we have the opportunity to promote the trades,” de Vries says.
Whether it’s serving community or serving customers, Lipsett gets to the heart of Central Steel. “We lead by example. That’s what we’ve always done here. We bring integrity and honesty to all that we do. We’re a company that cares.”