Man of steel Featured

8:00pm EDT October 28, 2006
 Steel is hot, especially at Suburban Steel Supply.

The 27-year-old company has recently undergone fast growth, says President Mark DeBellis. Suburban Steel employs 93 and posted $19 million in 2005 revenue. DeBellis projects $21 million in sales this year.

Originally a pioneer in and developer of the use of structural steel in residential construction, the company has evolved into a steel service business with facilities in Gahanna, Louisville, Ky., and Indianapolis. Today, Suburban Steel provides structural steel, stocked rebar, concrete accessories, field erection, crane service, and ornamental steel design and fabrication.

Smart Business spoke with DeBellis about how he solves customers’ problems by listening to their needs.

How can corporate leaders make their customers’ jobs easier?
It’s easily said, and very few people do it: Listen to your customers. I don’t mean survey your customers; I mean roll up your sleeves, get in front of your customers, listen to their feedback because it’s genuine, and from there, step back and say, ‘What could we do to make that easier?’

If I can’t help my customers solve their problems, they are going to look for a different way to get what they want from a different product than steel. By listening to their concerns, we’ve turned it into an opportunity.

We’ve developed an internal person who can go to job sites and make the process almost pain-free. We’ve decided it’s had such a positive impact on our business and our customers, we’re developing a second person to expand that service.

When you say that you’re going to make your customers’ jobs easier, it’s a great buzzword, but we actually have listened to that. We’re very close to our customers, and it goes back to the very beginning of our company.

When Chuck Boster and Bill Jaeger started this business back in 1979, the use of our product in the residential housing market was very limited, and it was because our customers saw the product as difficult to work with and difficult to get. It’s easy to say, ‘That’s my customer’s problem.’

It’s a lot harder to say, ‘What can I do to solve that problem?’ Then you have to ask yourself, ‘Can we get paid for doing that? Will they value that service enough to pay us for it?’

When somebody says, ‘Can you do this?’ you can look at it two ways. Other companies look at it and say, ‘I wish they wouldn’t call me.’

We look at it as the best call we’ve ever gotten. Part of it’s creating an attitude that you want to help and participate.

Most companies are frustrated when somebody on the other end of the phone doesn’t know exactly what they want. We want that phone call. It can be frustrating when you have 12 people calling you that need your help at that hour, but it beats the alternative of having nobody call you.

How can companies increase their customer base?
For us, being a very localized business, our growth strategy is to grow geographically; we’re going to go to new markets. We do a lot of business in Central Ohio, but we can expand our culture and our sphere of influence. That’s our first growth strategy.

The second growth strategy that people overlook — and we’ve been very fortunate to have actually accomplished this — is not due to acquiring new customers or more customers; we’ve just sold our existing customers more stuff. It goes back to solving their problems.

A lot of the things that we do today are the results of listening to our customers who brought us into these businesses. Our basic business represents about 50 percent of what we do today; the other 50 percent are new services that we’re selling basically to our same customers.

They said they were having trouble getting this type of product so we evaluated and asked ourselves, ‘Is this the type of product that fits with what we do?’ and ‘Can we handle that type of product?’ If the answer was yes — and we felt that we could do it better than they were getting it — we sold our customers more services and more products.

We have great relationships with our customers, so when we came to them and said, ‘We’d like to talk about doing this for you,’ they listened. If we can perform, why wouldn’t they do it?

It’s easier to sell your existing good customers more stuff than it is to go out and acquire a new customer, because they like you and they already know who you are. If you do the right job for them, they have no reason to believe that you won’t continue to do the right job for them.

HOW TO REACH: Suburban Steel Supply, (800) 927-5502 or