Michael Siegal holds a special place in his heart for people.
Although he’s now chairman and CEO of Olympic Steel Inc., big
business wasn’t always his aspiration. Instead, as a young man, he
went to school for and earned his degree in education.
“People were always important to me,” he says. “Teaching was
always important to me.”
Although his path shifted and he’s now the leader of the steel
processor and distributor, he ensures that while the materials he
makes are hard, that his heart stays soft for the ones that handle it.
“Steel’s neutral ...” Siegal says. “Steel doesn’t care. The truck
doesn’t care, but the truck driver has to deliver it well. The guy
who loaded the truck has to load it to the customer’s specifications. If the person doesn’t care if we loaded the truck wrong, we
look like an idiot to the customer. ... It’s not that the steel was
loaded wrong — it’s someone loaded it wrong. It’s always been
Olympic Steel was founded more than 50 years ago on that
employees-first principle. That focus still holds true today, as its
1,200 people have garnered some handsome results — $1.03 billion in net sales last year, up from 2003’s $472.5 million, while
also earning five years on the NorthCoast 99 list, which recognizes the top places to work in Northeast Ohio. Siegal says the
key to creating and maintaining a culture as solid as steel lies in
articulating your company’s values, hiring and advancing the
right people, getting feedback, and rewarding people.
“At the end of the day, all that matters is people,” he says. “People
say, ‘Oh, the CEO says that — they’re supposed to say that,’ but the
reality is everything else you do is neutral.”
Articulate your values
It’s a simple illustration — 10 jigsaw pieces interlocking to a centerpiece and forming a circle. The centerpiece reads “Olympic
Steel,” and each of the other 10 has a different value on it. The illustration represents the ideas that are most important to the company
“Every corporation has a values structure, and the company has
the opportunity to articulate their own value structure, and if you
don’t do that yourself as a corporation, then the employees will
determine what that value system is,” he says.
To clarify Olympic Steel’s values, Siegal took his management
team off-site, and he told them to think of anything that they
thought the company stood for and put it up on a blackboard. That
resulted in about 70 values, and from those, the team had to cut
them down to 10.
“We said, ‘God came up with 10 commandments, so that’s a
workable number,’” he says.
They started with the easiest cuts.
“It’s more that you’re eliminating the duplicates of words that
maybe had the same meaning or weren’t the accurate expression
that we wanted to make,” he says.
For example, some liked the word “honor,” but others thought that it was difficult to understand what it really meant.
“If you’re in the military, you understand honor,” Siegal says. “If
you’re the everyday person, honor is a difficult construct as
opposed to integrity and respect.”
Then you have to look at values and see which ones embody
what you believe but are also going to reflect well on you to external constituencies like customers.
“Should you tell your customer that, gee, you actually do make a
profit?” Siegal says.
In this case, “financial stability” made the cut as opposed to just
The process was collaborative, and it promoted debates that
would yield group decision-making and consensus; however,
sometimes you also have to overrule the group. Siegal had to force
in one value that others didn’t agree with because he knew it was
important. He won’t say which one though, because he says that
it’s just as important as the other nine, even if he had to force it in.
“The good news is organizations aren’t necessarily democracies,”
he says. “You basically say, ‘Look, this is one that has to be here. We
don’t all have to agree on it, but it is one that Olympic Steel stands for,
and that’s the end of the debate, and let’s move on.’”
Once you identify the values that your organization embodies,
you then have to get buy-in for them.
“It starts at the top,” he says. “There has to be a buy-in always at
the top. If there is hypocrisy, employees will see it.”
In order for employees to understand the importance of buying
in to the values, they need to see that management buys in to them
and lives them every day.
“You have to be, both in good times and bad times, consistent,”
he says. “Certainly, in good times, it’s easy to be consistent, but in
more difficult times, you have to act with consistency around the
value structure because you’re always going to be challenged on
your integrity in business — profit versus doing the right thing.”
For example, safety is one of the company’s values, and it’s one
of the most evident ones to employees.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Well, maybe we don’t have to buy safety equipment in the periods of time where you’re not doing well financially,’ and the answer is, ‘No, that’s not a sacrifice we can make,’”
Siegal says. “We have to constantly be sure that the things that are
valuable are always reinforced, regardless of the circumstances of
Lastly, the way you communicate the values is also important.
“We list them alphabetically, not in order of importance, because
they’re all equal,” he says.
Once you tell them what the values are, you then have to go a
step further so they’ll hop on board.
“You have got to tell them why,” Siegal says. “‘Why are we doing
this?’ is as important as ‘What are you doing?’ but if you’re just saying, ‘Come to work every day, work really hard, and trust me,’
that’s the mouse on the wheel. ‘Why? Why would I trust you? You
can’t tell me why I’m doing this, then I’ll give you my minimal
effort, and I’ll go home and do what’s important to me.’”
Hire and advance the right people
Once the values are in place, you need the right kind of people to
integrate them into the culture.
“In the cycle of the employee development, it starts with a good
hire,” Siegal says. “That good hire means, are they capable of doing
the job you hire them for?”
Siegal says he has a constant struggle with one of his managers, who consistently hires really nice people, but really nice
people who aren’t qualified for the positions he’s putting them
in. So first check a person’s qualifications and make sure they
match with the job for which you’re hiring.
Once you’ve established that, then you need to find out what’s
important to the job candidates. Siegal says it’s crucial that people
who join Olympic Steel care about something.
“If you can’t say, ‘I care about something,’ you probably aren’t going
to care about your job, so the first priority is caring,” he says.
During interviews, Siegal will bluntly ask job candidates what
they care about. It may be their family or it may be the environment, but regardless of what it is, if they can’t articulate something,
then that’s a sign they may not be committed to your business.
“We’re happy to invest in you as long as you’re willing to invest in
yourself, but it’s a partnership,” he says. “I’m not going to invest in
you if you don’t care.”
Once you’ve hired someone who is qualified and cares, then you
have to advance that person through the organization if he or she
is a top performer. Choosing the right people to advance can often
prove challenging, but Siegal says to start with the people who buy
in to your values.
“If you share our values and perform, you have no issues,” Siegal
says. “If you perform, but you don’t share our values, you probably
won’t have a sustainable job here.”
Once you’ve identified someone, then you have to see if that person is ready for the next level.
“Put new people on projects, and see how they perform,” he
says. “If they’re saying, ‘I don’t have time,’ or, ‘I’m too busy,’ or,
‘I’m coaching my kids in softball,’ or, ‘I have life issues,’ or, ‘My
parents are sick,’ at a certain point, we keep asking you, and you
keep saying no, you’re not going to get a lot of chances.”
It’s also important to communicate to your employees why it’s
important to take the opportunities the company presents.
“You tell the younger people who aren’t experienced, ‘Look, if I
ask you to do something, and you say no, it’s a test. It’s a test of
who I can count on and who I can trust,’” he says.
Once you have someone who is both aligned and has stepped up
to the plate, then you need to talk to that person about his or her
“They have to say what they want,” he says. “If you cannot tell me
what you want for your career, it’s very hard for me to meet your
standards. Start off with, ‘What do you want? How do you see yourself? Where do you see yourself when you’re 45 years old?’ If you
can’t articulate that vision, then I probably can’t help you get there.”
If someone says that he or she wants to have a full career and
wants to stay with you, then that’s a person you want to invest in
and help get to the next level, so point out what needs to be done
to get to there.
“Here’s the skills you need to get there — you don’t have
them yet,” Siegal says. “Here’s how we can help you get there,
but it’s going to take commitment for you to go back to school,
go to seminars. You’re going to have to do things at night.
Homework doesn’t end when you graduated high school or
college. It goes on. The stuff you do at home is a lot more valuable than just doing homework. It’s doing lifework.”
It’s also important to identify what an employee isn’t willing to do to reach the next level.
For instance, Siegal says that if someone refuses to leave
Cleveland, then he may not be able to advance that person
because the next opportunity may never come up here, but it
might come up in Georgia or Minnesota.
“You have to go out to the world, and then you can come back,
but the world is not centered in Cleveland, Ohio, so you have to be
able to also be willing to commit to your career as much as the
company is willing to commit to you,” he says.
Get employee feedback
You might think you’re doing a good job in your culture-strengthening endeavors, but it’s best to go straight to the source to find
Start by building relationships with employees so they feel comfortable talking to you.
“You can’t have relationships if you don’t have any time with people ...” Siegal says.
“If you make the statement that people are our most important
asset, then you can’t say that people are my most important asset
but never go visit your physical facilities. ‘Oh, I’ve got to go see the
customer. Oh, I’ve got to go see the shareholder. Oh, I never have
time for my employee — but my people are my most important
asset.’ I have to be visible to them.”
Some leaders may say they spend time with employees because
they have every fancy teleconference gizmo there is, but Siegal
says you can’t rely on virtual communication.
“It’s not how fast the Internet can go — there are no relationships
there,” he says. “Relationships are spending time, building a personal relationship, so that when you have to pick up the phone, the other
guy on the other end of the phone actually picks it up.”
Siegal’s also realistic about how much information he can gather
in those conversations.
“You can’t get to everybody when you have 15 or 16 locations, so [a
survey] is a great tool to use to essentially communicate and let the
employees communicate back.”
Olympic Steel administers surveys electronically and in person
to all of its employees.
“We do opinion surveys with the employees every year, regardless of the market, because we want the feedback from the
employees,” Siegal says. “The employee opinion survey is predicated around the value system. We get feedback from all of the
employees, and you get the good, the bad and the ugly.”
When you administer surveys, it’s important that the feedback is
“If you ask people, they generally will tell you if they feel there is
value to and respect to their opinion, and that’s why we do it blind
so they don’t feel threatened if they have something negative to
say,” he says.
Once the surveys are complete, that feedback goes to an external
source for processing, and it’s important that it’s external as opposed
to someone internally. Siegal has seen firsthand situations where
internal people try to hide information.
“Sometimes, you have an individual who may sanitize the information if they think there may be something negative about them,”
When you get the survey results back, keep in mind that the goal
isn’t to get mad at requests or to find people to tattle on.
“You get the constant, ‘I want more money,’ the constant sort of
stuff that you expect, but there’s lots of valuable information, and it’s
not a witch hunt,” Siegal says. “The purpose is to find out, are we
being competitive in our universe. Are we doing things the way
we’re suppose to all the way down the line?”
Armed with information, you then have to gauge what is and isn’t doable.
“You sort of absorb between the ‘need to haves,’ the ‘want to
haves,’ to the ‘Boy, we better because it really is telling us something we’re doing wrong,’” he says.
To make those decisions, Siegal says to view each suggestion and
decision as if it were part of a three-legged stool.
“You really serve three different constituencies,” he says. “You
serve your shareholder — that’s true in a public company, but it’s
also true in a private company because you serve yourself if you’re
100 percent owner — but you serve the shareholder. You serve
your employee, and you serve your customer. That three-legged
stool can never be out of balance.”
For example, your employees may want you to double their
vacation time, which would be a great perk for them, but then you
wouldn’t produce as much product, so you may not be able to fill
customer orders and you won’t make as much money, so both the
customers and the shareholders would be hurt. Weigh suggestions
against all three constituencies to make sound decisions about
what to move and hold on.
“If you see the elastic band pulling too far in one direction, it will
snap back, whether you like it or not, and if you pull it too far, it
Olympic Steel gives out several awards to recognize attendance,
safety and company culture efforts as well as performance. It is
also active in the Make-A-Wish Foundation and awards college
scholarships to employees’ children. All of these programs and
rewards are important to building a strong culture, but you also
can’t deny the power of showing people you care with the almighty
“There’s rewards, there’s recognition, there’s all kinds of stuff along
the way,” Siegal says. “Money matters. People will tell you that money
doesn’t matter, but they’re kidding you. ... People will tell you the pat
on the back goes a long way — it goes a long way, it really does — but
at the end of the day, money also matters. A pat on the back is great,
but I can’t fill my gas tank up with a pat on the back.”
If you create a program to financially reward your employees,
those pats on the back will go much further.
“The key is, everybody rewards their sales guys,” Siegal says.
“How do you reward your administrative people?”
To do this, the company has a profit-sharing program for everyone.
The more money the company makes, the larger the percentage of
profits people get.
“Now everybody says, ‘How are we doing, and how can I help
you make more because if we make more as Olympic, I make
more’ ... and your administrative people go, ‘Gee, business doubled; I’ve got twice the paperwork, how come I don’t get any
upside of this?’ Well, you do,” Siegal says.
Rewarding people communicates that you care about them and
helps them better buy in to the values you established. When people
buy in to what’s important to the company, your business will grow to
“Have a vision and focus and a strategy that says, ‘If I have the
right people to execute on that, we’ll get there, and there’s something for everyone at the end of the rainbow —not just me but for
everyone at the end of the rainbow,’” Siegal says. “I’d rather have
the momentum of 1,000 people moving in that direction than one.
The energy, mass and force will get you there. You could be the
best rower in the world, but give me the physics of 1,000 people
saying, ‘I get it, I know what’s in it for me, and I’m willing to buy
HOW TO REACH: Olympic Steel Inc., (216) 292-3800 or www.olysteel.com