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Current News / Archived News vol. I                      All articles printed with permission.

Benco Steel’s 31-year-old, 300-ton Chicago press brake could bend half-inch-thick steel plate to within one-eighth-inch tolerance of a targeted angle.

Of course, that was years ago, and on a good day, said Dale Erikson, BENCO Steel’s plant engineer.

“And that might as well be a mile when you’re bending a part today for customers who require tolerances of one-sixteenth or better,” said Ron Borders, vice president of plant operations at the Hickory-based steel service center.

“The old brake was just worn out and could not stand up to the demand of exacting customer requirements in today’s operational environment,” Borders said.
“We wanted more accuracy and more consistency.”

The 45-year-old company got both by purchasing a 440-ton, computer numerical control (CNC) Durma press brake. The largest Durma press brake in North Carolina, the Turkish-made piece of equipment is well worth its price tag, said Jay Tate, BENCO Steel Inc.’s executive vice president.

“Our intention is to be a one-stop shop for all our customers, including one-man welding shops, residential home builders, commercial builders and manufacturers of steel-based products,” Tate said.

“This is one more service our customers are now going to be able to get without leaving the Hickory area or any of the other areas we service.”

Dave Watson, a representative of Virginia-based Southland Machine Tool Corp., from which BENCO purchased the press brake, said the new equipment offers numerous advantages over the company’s old unit:

  • Accuracy and consistency are increased tenfold;
  • The new press brake can bend 14-foot-wide sheets of half-inch-thick steel plate to 90-degree angles compared to a 4-foot-wide limitation on the old equipment;
  • The new equipment can create an 8-inch-deep box, doubling the depth capacity of the old press brake;
  • Setup time is greatly reduced;
  • The need for manual intervention with shims is eliminated;
  • Three-point bending is now possible;
  • The potential for human error is greatly reduced with the increased CNC capacity.

The new press brake is but the latest equipment upgrade BENCO has made during the last few years.

Among other equipment the company has added are a CNC, high-definition plasma cutting system by Controlled Automation; a high-speed hydraulics computerized shearing machine by AccurShear; a fully programmable CNC miter saw by HE&M; two MIG welders by Lincoln and Miller; a CNC Peddinghaus iron worker; and an automated machine for shearing and forming rebar.

Tate estimates the total investment in new equipment at $1.5 million. It’s part of a five-year plan initiated in 2000 to modernize the company’s plant, sales, purchasing and billing/accounting operations. Tate said all goals outlined in the five-year plan – including meeting ISO 9001-2000 certification – were accomplished early.

In January, BENCO initiated a new long-range plan that will take it through 2008. The plan includes an expansion of the company’s administrative and plant operations facilities on U.S. 70, SE.

BENCO recently partnered with ThomasNet, a nationwide, Internet-based industrial materials search site.

“Customers can now receive price quotes through the company’s revamped Web site, and will eventually be able to buy products and services online as part of our evolution to electronic commerce,” Tate said.

He said the company viewed the economic downturn of 2001-03 as an opportunity to modernize in anticipation of better times to come.
“And it’s paying off,” he said.

“We’re starting to see a healthy return on our investment.”


           

 

 

STEEL MAGNOLIA

Novice CEO Judy Tate uses a gentle touch to bend Benco Steel into our Small Business of the Year.

By Irwin Speizer

Joel White had a reputation in Hickory as a gruff, opinionated guy. “There was a saying: Don’t ask him a question if you don’t want an answer,” his widow, Judy, says. “People would say, ‘I don’t know how you can live with that man.’ ” On the phone, it was easy for people to imagine him as a menacing hulk, recalls Leon Jeffreys, a longtime friend. They were often surprised when they met him. “He was 132 pounds, soaking wet. He was kind of like anybody who is an entrepreneur, a little tough. But he was good, and he was fair.”

He built Benco Steel Inc. — a processor and distributor of pipes, sheets and other steel products — from somebody else’s sideline into a $10 million-a-year business that produced enough income to support a second home in Florida and a 48-foot yacht. To Judy, he showed a softer side. And he inspired loyalty from those who worked for him. He was a soft touch if somebody needed an emergency loan, often not asking for repayment. Many of Benco’s employees have been there for decades.
When White died of a brain tumor in 1999, his wife knew he had wanted their daughter, then 9 years old, to get a chance to run his company someday. The thought of running the company until then terrified the widow. Before marrying him, she had been a legal secretary. She had helped out around the office some but devoted most of her time to motherhood and playing golf. Selling the company would have been the easy thing to do. Running a steel-service center can be a cutthroat business. “I thought to myself, ‘Why do I want these headaches?’ ” But there was something else on her mind: the need to test herself. And running Benco Steel would do that the way nothing else in her life ever had.

She took over as president early in 2000, and Benco had its best year ever, posting more than $11 million in sales. Her efforts to move the company out of the small man’s long shadow — and her ability to survive the crucible of her first two years in charge — earned Benco Steel Business North Carolina’s Small Business of the Year award. Judging the competition, sponsored by Winston-Salem-based BB&T, were Rick Carlisle, former state commerce secretary and managing partner of Raleigh-based Dogwood Equity; Pat Renfro, president of Warsaw-based Accu-Form Polymers, which was last year’s winner; and David Kinney, BNC’s editor-in-chief and publisher.

A petite, green-eyed blonde with a shy smile and a soft voice, she is 51 but looks a decade younger. On a warm September morning, she dons a hard hat and picks her way past stacks of steel bars, beams, sheets and rods on the concrete-slab floor of the Benco warehouse, which is almost as big as a football field. Brawny men in overalls muscle steel around the floor, then on and off trucks. Wearing a knit suit, her nails perfectly manicured, she checks inventory.

This year’s economic slump has hit steel distributors hard, and Benco’s sales will probably slip back to about $10 million, where they were the last few years of White’s life. But since taking over, she has added a big-company management structure, computerized processing equipment, replaced older trucks and given salespeople laptop computers for quicker transmission of orders. By early 2002, she aims to have Benco welding structural beams for homes. Recession or not, she plans to double sales in five years.

If that happens, some of the credit will go to another of the changes she has made. Jay Tate became Benco’s first executive vice president in February and, in October, her new husband. A Hickory native and retired Army officer, Tate was working as a management analyst for the Defense Department in Washington when he ran into her at his uncle’s funeral in May 2000. She hired him to study Benco, then made him her second-in-command.

Tate comes off as a management wonk. He loves to talk about organizational charts, strategic plans and mission statements. Leaning forward, he gestures energetically to punctuate his points or scurries to another room to retrieve a chart to bolster one. But get him talking about Judy, and the confident chatter stops. He gets a little tongue-tied. “Through our discussing the business, something just magical happened. It was just . . . I don’t know. It was just the most wonderful transformation. She’s my boss. I marvel at her business acumen. I really do — aside from the fact that I love her dearly.”

Joel White’s drive was what kept Benco going in its early years. He had grown up one of seven children in a poor Hickory family. His father, a cab driver, died when he was 15. He started earning money at odd jobs as a teen-ager. White had a knack for selling, which got him a job as a salesman for a company that supplied radio and television parts. “I don’t think he ever had a vision,” Judy says. “He was just a workaholic.”

In 1960, David Kraus, who owned a scrap-metal yard, expanded into steel supply. The new company — called Benco after his son, Benjamin — was just a sideline, run out of a shed not much bigger than a camper. In 1964, White took a sales job with the fledgling company, becoming its third employee. Three years later, he and two investors purchased Benco for about $35,000. The next year, at age 32, he bought out his partners. For the next three decades, White managed the company almost single-handedly. He bought and sold the steel and often supervised its movement around the yard. No decision was too small for him to make.

Benco bought steel in sheets, bars, tubes, pipes and other forms from big manufacturers, including Charlotte-based Nucor. Some of it was sold as is, the company making money from its markup. Benco could make more by processing the metal — cutting, bending or otherwise shaping it to fit customers’ specific needs. It has always been a tough business. Make a mistake on the margin — buy too high, sell too low or misprice what people will pay for value added — and competitors pounce. But Joel White knew his stuff. In 1968, sales totaled $400,000. By 1979, they had reached $3.6 million. That year, he bought 11 acres in an industrial section for about $250,000 and spent $200,000 to build a new headquarters and warehouse.

Judy was still in high school when he was starting to build his steel business. During her senior year, she married a soldier who became an insurance adjuster. The marriage lasted 11 years. There were no children. She worked as a secretary in a Hickory law office. White was a client of the firm and rented space next to it for document storage. She handled some of Benco’s paperwork. Sometimes they chatted. White had been separated from his wife for about two years when he started asking her out in the early ’80s. There was a lunch, dinner, movies. They married in 1982.

To outsiders, she might have looked like a trophy wife. But they were a good match, friends say — the hard-edged businessman softened by his quiet, attentive mate. “He was different at home,” she says. “He was a man full of compassion, but he didn’t want people to know it.”

She was canny enough to help with the company’s books and legal work. She had not gone to college but had learned legal research at the law firm. White made her Benco’s debt collector, and she politely pestered the deadbeats. They traveled a lot, joining other couples on golf outings. She was and is a duffer; he was a scratch player and fanatical competitor. They bought a house in Longboat Key, Fla., where he set up an office and kept the yacht. They adopted Amber in 1994.
In 1996, he started getting headaches and dizzy spells. On the way to a convention in Colorado, he checked into a hospital, where he was diagnosed as dehydrated, given fluids and sent home. The spells continued. Back home, he had a magnetic-resonance imaging test done. Doctors concluded he had suffered a mild stroke. He got worse. He started having trouble getting words out. He dropped things. In 1998, he went to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where a neurologist diagnosed the cause: a brain tumor.

Its location made an operation too dangerous. Doctors tried radiation and chemotherapy. Nothing helped. Finally, he went to Duke University Medical Center, where a surgeon removed what he could of the tumor. Then came more radiation. Other risky treatments followed — and failed. In August 1999, a frail and exhausted White, no longer able to walk or talk, died.

During those final six months, she often thought about the company, weighing feelings of dread and loyalty. What finally persuaded her to keep Benco was what she had learned in her discussions with those interested in buying it. Most were competitors who wanted its customers rather than the business itself. “I’d ask them, ‘Why do you want to buy Benco?’ What I found out is that we were a thorn in their side.” She concluded that her husband had left a business with a solid customer base and an able staff.

But rumors of an impending sale roiled the company. A month after the funeral, she told the staff she wasn’t selling — she would run the company herself. Despite her inexperience, nobody bolted.

She sent letters to reassure customers. And she visited some to introduce herself. One of them was Bob Hege, president of Meadows Mills, a sawmill maker in North Wilkesboro. He had been buying steel from Joel White for 30 years, but he was researching other suppliers in case the new president didn’t measure up. He was impressed by her determination and the support she had from her employees. He also liked the services she added. “Our business with them has increased since Judy took over,” he says.

Even as she calmed customers and workers, she felt herself coming apart. She knew her husband had been a micromanager but never realized what that meant until she sat in his chair. The phone rang all day with employees asking for decisions on everything from accounting and inventory to sales and purchases.

Enter Tate. They had chatted briefly at his uncle’s funeral about her problems. He volunteered that he might be able to help since his job at the Defense Department was management analysis. They set up a dinner meeting.

They met at 242, a trendy Hickory restaurant. They talked over cabernet — or rather she listened while Tate talked. He eventually got so carried away that he began jotting ideas for a management reorganization on the butcher-paper place mats. “I was sitting there drawing out all this stuff, and I think it was kind of the moment that there was something special happening between us. She just sits back and lets the other person talk. I think we complement each other. She kind of brings me down to earth, and I elevate her with my enthusiasm and exuberance.”

He quickly sized up the situation. “I asked her about her long-term strategic plan. There was no plan. I asked about her management structure. She had none. She basically did everything. It was like here’s a person who wants to make things happen but has everything bombarding her at one time. It was like a fire hose going straight into her office.”

She liked what she heard and asked Tate to write it up. He took his notes back to Washington and drafted a management structure and strategic plan. He flew back to Hickory in June. They toured the plant. She introduced him, dressed in sneakers and a Hawaiian shirt, as a management consultant from Washington. She asked her managers for comments on the plan, made a few refinements, then adopted it. The plan split the company into four divisions, each headed by a vice president. They would report to a new executive vice president, who answered to the president and was responsible for day-to-day operations. That would give the president more time for planning. And she knew whom she wanted as her second-in-command.

In December 2000, she asked Tate to take the job. He agreed, going on the Benco payroll in February. Over lunch one day in April, with Amber watching, he presented her with an engagement ring. After getting her daughter’s approval, she accepted. His arrival had raised eyebrows around Benco, where employees had just gotten used to the idea of working for Joel White’s widow. Suddenly, she wasn’t only getting remarried, but they would be working for her new husband — who had never worked in a steel warehouse before.

Tate says he’s not concerned about those who might think he’s a gold digger. “I had a very successful career in government. I was one step away from being the highest I could get. I had consulted throughout the government. I had consulted for NATO. I had consulted in Europe.”

His management plan was designed for the company, not for him, he adds. But he admits he was eager to take the job for the challenge it presents and for the chance to be with her. Judy, he says, has the self-assurance needed to run Benco. Her refusal to sell the company shows that. Now all she needs is more knowledge and experience. “Perhaps she was a closet CEO all along, and now she’s come out of the closet.”


Benco moves forward despite slow economy

By JOHN DAYBERRY
Record Business Editor
Saturday, June 7, 2003

HICKORY - In many ways, a new piece of machinery at Benco Steel Inc. mirrors the company’s business philosophy: It’s fast, it’s precise, and it’s designed to meet customer needs. The CNC, high-definition plasma cutting system, purchased from Arkansas-based Controlled Automation at a cost of more than $200,000, cuts shapes of near-laser quality. It can cut multiple metal parts at the same time on a 10-by-20-foot burning table, leaves a minimal amount of scrap, reduces cycle time, and can be programmed with as many as four separate orders at once. The system, which has high-definition cutting capabilities on materials of up to 1 inch thickness, can be operated by one person. “It puts us one step closer to our goal of being a one-stop shop for our customers,” said Jay Tate, executive vice president of Benco, North Carolina’s only steel service center west of Charlotte. “The biggest advantage for our customers is that they can now get high-definition, near-laser-quality cuts without going to a fabrication shop or paying the higher cost of laser. We’ve got new customers who are waiting in the wings for this." The high-definition cutting machine, which replaces a slower, less precise, conventional plasma system, was being installed and fine-tuned to Benco’s needs last week by technicians from Controlled Automation. Expected to go into production this week, the system as equipped for Benco is unique in North Carolina, said Jay Perkinson, vice president of Greenville, S.C.-based Fabricating Machinery Sales, which arranged the equipment purchase. The new system is but the latest equipment upgrade Benco has made during the last 18 months. Among other equipment the company has added are a high-speed hydraulics computerized shearing machine, a fully programmable HEM saw, a MIG welder and a new punching machine. During the same period, Benco has added priming capability, increased its work force from 38 to 42 employees, added to its truck and tractor-trailer fleets, and expanded its service territory to include all of North Carolina and parts of South Carolina. The company recently met ISO 9001-2000 certification requirements, is updating its office procedures with new software, and is planning an expansion at its U.S. 70, SE, location that will include a new office building and an enlarged warehouse. Tate said that while many companies have retrenched during the last 18 months, Benco has looked at the economic downturn as an opportunity to ascertain its customers’ needs, and to prepare for better times that are sure to come. “During this downturn, we’ve had to make a major effort to really listen to our customers, to look at their needs and at the services we offer and could offer," Tate said. “This new equipment is one way we’re meeting those needs.” jdayberry@hickoryrecord.com / 322-4510 x 275


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