Guest Column

Ken Perel

My writing this column is a result of the periodic Sassda e-mails under the banner “REFLECTIONS”, which contain historical snippets about the industry* of which we are a part.

Having been involved in the stainless steel supply chain for some 35 odd years there is much about which I can reflect but I am also mindful that this needs to be relevant to you, the readers. History is “his story”; memory, reflection, is my story.

When I joined this industry I thought that I had been employed by a family business. Little did I know that the Jacksons’ family was in the process of selling the business and I was embarking on a career that would be a roller coaster ride for some years. I came to accept the uncertainty and in fact, probably even enjoyed it. It was certainly a good training ground for the business world we currently operate in. In place of the family business I had been expecting, upon reflection, I realise that I had joined a “family industry”.

In the early years apart from Sassda there was the “benevolent monopoly” in the form of Southern Cross, aka Middelburg Steel and Alloys aka Columbus Stainless, at the centre of the “family”. Of course it pre-dated globalisation and the emergence of low-cost manufacturers. The local mill
did a great deal to keep a relationship with fabricators, manufacturers and its distributors. Sassda had sectors, some of which were more vibrant than others, that would meet to promote matters of mutual interest. This would probably be difficult today with competition laws in place. The industry was nurturing and it led to the establishment of many entrepreneurial businesses that thrived.

Taking the metaphor of the industry a stage further, there was also the “extended family” – a range of suppliers around the world with whom one had business dealings but who also in some instances became friends to share a meal or a drink guest column with when the opportunity arose. For many
in the local industry knowledge of and a relationship with the overseas company was a differential to be guarded as it could be a key to success.

Search engines changed this but one only has to attend an international trade event to see that in some way this extended family endures.

The role that Sassda fulfils in our industry has had to be redefined periodically to keep abreast of the needs of members and available resources.

Education has, however, been a key pillar of Sassda’s offering for many years. It was not always so, however.

My entre to the industry required that I attend the stainless steel course then on offer. Even as a trained metallurgist! The reason was simple – training in stainless steel formed a small part of the academic course and besides I had spent seven years in another industry- a subsidiary of a subsidiary of the then mighty Anglo American Corporation. The course had the same modular format as the stainless steel Information Series but was purchased at some cost from the American Society of Metals and presented by Eric Smith from Southern Cross. In time there was a need to localise the course and this was undertaken by Sassda as was its use.

An appreciation for the importance of training in an industrial sales and marketing organisation came about in the following way. In the pre-Google days an invaluable tool in the metals industry was a “Stahlschlussel” a hand book that cross referenced steels and provided some basic information about them. My predecessors at Jacksons had left me a good library and it fell to me to look up the information for colleagues. When I complained to the boss at the time that with my background I could make greater contributions to the business, I was told in no uncertain terms that until I trained someone else to do what I was doing, it was I that needed to provide the information that sales staff requested.

From this grew the understanding that a successful sales person is a confident one and a significant contributor to confidence is product knowledge.

Sassda as is the case with other voluntary associations (faith based organisations, service organisations, professional bodies, sports clubs etc.) is challenged by a phenomenon referred to as “bowling alone”. At worst it’s an unwillingness to join at best it’s a case of joining the organisation but no desire to participate in its activities. Yet today we are active in engaging with others on social media!! I was hopeful that the Technical Evenings that Sassda arranged would be a way to encourage participation in a forum that may contribute to the long-term health of the industry but it seems to have not caught on.

Perhaps a column such as this, each written by a different person, can be another means to reflect facets of our industry – Facets which have shaped the development of the industry, its challenges and the opportunities on which we can build in the future.

Ken Perel is the Director at Multi Alloys and writes this column in his personal capacity.

* Industry is used to describe the business comprising producers, suppliers, service providers, converters, specifiers and users of stainless steels.