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Chamber salutes locals

NILES — An anecdote from Barry Zekelman’s upbringing provides a glimpse of how the chief executive manages Chicago-based Zekelman Industries, the largest independent steel tube manufacturer in North America.

He worked as a hand on a tobacco farm as kid near Windsor, Canada, owned by his mother’s family and once asked: Why rotate the crops when tobacco is the most profitable? Why not just keep planting tobacco year after year after year?

The answer he was given: Tobacco sucks the nutrients from the soil and what’s left of the farm wouldn’t be able to grow the crop. Rotating the crops helps the soil rejuvenate, ensuring the farm’s long-term future.

“Too often, corporations, companies, leaders just want to grow tobacco and keep growing until it’s done and then walk away,” Zekelman said. “I want the farm to live forever. I want the company to live forever … to bleed it dry by not sacrificing some short-term profits is irresponsible and the community suffers for it, the families, the teammates suffer for it and I’m just not going to do that.”

His view of business is the long game, which along with his introduction to the steel industry and practices he imparts across the company’s 17 manufacturing locations in North America is what he discussed Thursday at the Youngstown / Warren Regional Chamber’s annual Salute to Business.

Among the facilities are Wheatland Tube in Howland and a branch of Farrell, Pa.-based Sharon Tube in Niles.

Zekelman grew what he called a “tired old little tube mill” left to him at his father’s death — that had five employees, old machinery and was losing money — into the massive steel tube and pipe-making operation that employs thousands.

“I think probably the strongest learning lesson and the biggest secret to our success that I realized very early on is the strength to your company is your teammates,” Zekelman said. “I don’t care what equipment you have, the people who drive that and want to drive it to its fullest are the teammates. I realized leveraging that asset and taking care of that asset was the most important thing.”

Zekelman Industries has developed programs to take care of employees, strives to pay them as much as possible and empowers them to earn as much as they can, Zekelman said.

In addition, he said he gives them a voice for safety and the direction of the company. This week he put into a place a policy prohibiting employees from working more than 60 hours per week or more than 200 hours per month.

He knows it may ruffle some feathers, but believes it’s what best for the employees.

“I believe that we don’t live to work, we work to live and I want everybody in our organization to have a life,” said Zekelman. “You’re no good to me if you go home after an 80-hour work week and your kids are running amok and in trouble and your wife is (angry) for you not being there, or your husband is (mad) at you for not being there — and then you have a bad family life. The stress there, you bring it back to work.”

At the Howland facility on Dietz Road NE, a $30 million investment is planned to add an 85,000-square-foot fully automated storage and retrieval warehouse. Zekelman said the project supports growing demand and will improve worker safety.

“The product will come off of the tube lines, go into the warehouse, get stored and once the trucks come in, it will called for it to be picked, it will be ready and then people will load it onto the truck,” Zekelman said.

The fireside discussion-type chat with Zekelman was led by Jon P. Arnold, CEO and co-founder of the investment firm J. Arnold Wealth Management Co. in Canfield.

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