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Steely determination Featured

9:16am EDT May 24, 2005
When it comes to running Casey Equipment Corp., President Carrie Casey gets a lot of help. Her father, Don Casey, founded the company in 1962, and, although trending toward retirement, is still active in it.

Her brother Kurt, vice president, handles equipment sales and wears several other hats, and brother Sean, owner of the Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville, lends his engineering expertise to the family business when needed.

That brain trust has come in handy. When the U.S. steel industry took a dive four years ago, Casey Equipment's business in the remanufacturing, buying and selling of steel mill-related equipment sagged as well. To counter the downturn, the Caseys put their heads together and opted to buy up entire mills at distressed prices, and dismantle and sell off the equipment, mostly on the international market where steelmakers were doing well.

Along with the equipment sales, Casey saw an opportunity to develop the real estate where some of the mills sat and turned sites in Ohio, Illinois and Alabama into industrial parks, leasing space to other businesses. The company also got into the steel processing business, establishing a bar finishing mill at its Youngstown, Ohio, industrial park.

Casey Equipment continues to remanufacture and take mill equipment from steel companies on consignment, displaying its merchandise and industrial parks on its more than two dozen Web sites. The company employs about 80 people permanently, but assembles teams that can number 100 or more to work on individual projects.

The family members work well together on the home front, too. Says Casey: "Because we all have families, we do some flexible hours, we cover for each other."

Casey talked with Smart Business about overcoming obstacles, finding good opportunities in bad times and what it takes to make them work.

What kind of obstacles did you face when you were going into your real estate ventures?

We're not political people. We had no experience with it. We had never had to talk to politicians; they never impacted our decision-making.

Suddenly, they're calling you, they want votes, they want jobs, they have to show that they're creating jobs. We hit legal obstacles.

We also hit new competitors, people who were in that business who don't take kindly to seeing the new kid on the block come in.

We even got some threatening letters from a local government official who wanted somebody else to get it, so they'd threaten to go after you on environmental issues.

How did you overcome the political resistance?

We found that if we educate them and tell them what we're doing, they might help you instead of hamper you. One gentleman that actually had written us a letter became an advocate and is thrilled with what we're doing.

We've been blessed in both Sterling (Illinois) and Gadsden (Alabama). The communities have embraced us after seeing how we were committed.

How do you make strategic decisions about the direction of the business?

One thing that I think we've done well is we sat down and brainstormed. We talked about what direction we wanted (the Youngstown) facility to go.

Years ago, my brothers had been at a Nucor Steel facility and they saw what's called a bar finishing line. It runs a piece of bar steel through and grinds and polishes it so it becomes a clean bar.

What we thought was, we're in the business of selling used equipment. If we sell the equipment we've sold over the years to people, they install it, they operate it and they make a lot of money on it for a long time. Why shouldn't we, since we're the experts on used equipment, install some and operate it just like these other people do?

Well, we did, and we rebuilt all the equipment ourselves. The first line we did wasn't easy. If we do it again, we will sure do it differently. It was doing really well for the first three years, and then that crisis (Sept. 11) hit in the United States and things were just terrible.

Then we thought, how can we turn this into an opportunity? We thought if we could supply people with larger bars and round out their truckloads with other sizes of bar, they could fill up a truck completely. When the truck's full, their costs come down on a unit basis.

We decided to look for equipment to do bigger diameter stock and we were successful, so now we have a line for three-inch to eight-inch bar. When we did the one-half inch to three-inch bar, my objective was how to get other tenants in. We found a company that does what I'll call transloading (holding product for reshipment to a secondary destination).

We thought that would work out but it didn't. So then we brought in a tenant that buys bar all over the world and stores it there.

We could now buy bar from our tenant, and we could finish it. That worked out really well. We had been looking at buying furnaces that could change the metallurgical structure of the bar.

We found out that they were doing it, so we decided against it. They installed that equipment in our facility, so now there's this great synergy.

We have the bar finishing, and they can treat the bar that they bring in. So now we'll look for another tenant that complements that.

How would you advise businesses owners whose companies are facing shrinking markets for their product or service and who are considering a major revamping of the way they do business?

First, you've got to look at your market and you've got to be comfortable with what you're doing. And you take little baby steps. It sounds like we've done a drastic change, but remember that everything was well-planned.

Don't be afraid of change. You've got to adjust to the market. You have to be able to anticipate change, figure out how you can continue in this market without getting hurt.

And then you always have to listen to who's paying you. Talk to your customer and find out what they need. You've got to look at your lifestyle and what you're capable of doing. If you realize something's going to involve 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and you don't want that lifestyle, you're going to fail.

What you have to be willing to do is be realistic about it and say OK, I know this is really going to be a time suck, and I'm not going to be able to do my other job. If you're not realistic about that, you set yourself up for failure.

How to reach: Casey Equipment Corp., www.caseyusa.com