May 5, 2017 / agility, best practices, continuous improvement, Cost Management, industry news, optimization, strategic planning
Although 2016 didn’t end on a high note for metal service centers, many industry leaders and experts are confident about 2017.
Overall, 2016 wasn’t a stellar year for service centers. According to the Metals Service Center Institute (MSCI), service center shipments in the U.S. and Canada finished 2016 with year-over-year declines in both steel and aluminum. Inventories mostly remained below prior-year levels, though stocks crept up at year’s end.
Coming into 2017, forecasts were hopeful but guarded. As reported here by Metal Center News, analysts like Chris Kuehl of Armada Corporate Intelligence warned that factors such as the interest rates, inflation, the strong dollar, government grid lock, and tax reform would all play a role in determining the health and strength of the U.S. economy in 2017. In late January, M. Robert Weidner III, president and CEO of MSCI, voiced his concerns and urged the new Trump administration to take serious and immediate action to restore growth and to help the industrial metals supply chain fully recover from the lingering effects of the Great Recession and government policy.
Confidence, however, is growing in recent months. As stated in LIT’s 2017 Industrial Metal-Cutting Outlook, metal service centers and other industrial metal-cutting organizations are getting more and more optimistic about the near future, and the latest market data looks promising.
After a flat February, U.S. service center steel shipments grew substantially across the board in March. Specifically, steel shipments increased by 9.7% from March 2016, and shipments of aluminum products increased by 13.0% from the same month in 2016. Inventory levels also showed improvement.
Meanwhile, industry leaders like Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co reported strong first-quarter results. According to the company, sales were up 11.9% from the first quarter of 2016 and up 17.4% from the fourth quarter of 2016. Gregg Mollins, president and CEO, said that improved demand, higher metal pricing, and continued strong execution resulted in record quarterly gross profit dollars and Reliance’s highest earnings per share and net income since the first quarter of 2012.
“2017 is off to a great start,” Mollins said in a news release. “Both pricing and demand levels are better than they were a year ago, and we are optimistic with regard to increased infrastructure and equipment spending on the horizon. We will continue to focus on maximizing our gross profit margin while diligently managing operating expenses and inventory levels as well as maximizing market opportunities to drive our earnings higher.”
In an April press release, Ryerson said it is “cautiously optimistic on demand for metal products in the first half of 2017.” The company anticipates higher revenue for the first quarter of 2017 compared to the fourth quarter of 2016 and the first quarter of 2016, with higher average selling prices and higher tons sold for the current quarter as compared to both periods. The key, the company states, will be to see “how positive sentiment ultimately converts to real demand for industrial metals.”
According to a report from MetalMiner, positive sentiment was also evident among attendees and speakers at this year’s S&P Global Platts Steel Markets North America conference, held in Chicago in late-March. Presentations and forecasts were mostly optimistic, MetalMiner writes here, although there were differences in opinions of what attendees should focus on in the coming months.
One of the conference presentations, given by Roy Berlin, president of Berlin Metals; Donald McNeeley, president of Chicago Tube & Iron; and Michael Lerman, president of Steel Warehouse, offered attendees three ways service centers can offer more value to the market. As reported by MetalMiner, these included the following:
- Embrace change but find an identity. Berlin noted that finding an identity in the industry is key. “Decide what it is you’re going to do and do it well. No, do it great, actually,” he said.
- Do more with less. According to McNeeley, service centers have to interject more automation. He said they need to do more with less and they cannot drive input costs down any more. On output costs, McNeely said companies cannot get customers to pay a premium for the market, so the only thing left in that channel is “operational excellence.”
- Tackle your internal costs. Lerman concluded by sharing that his company stays competitive by attacking its main internal costs: logistics, scrap, safety and healthcare. He also said that in today’s volatile market, service centers should seriously consider learning how to use and apply financial hedges where appropriate. “I know we have been taking advantage of it, and I think it is going to be more and more important as we move forward,” he noted.
Another key strategy will be for service centers to think outside the box when it comes to spending—and saving costs. According to the news brief, Resource Allocation Strategies for Leading Industrial Metal-Cutting Organizations, managers focused on continuous improvement should explore all of the ways they can save their operation time and money. For example, if new equipment isn’t in the budget, perhaps second-hand equipment is an option. Although there is some risk in buying used equipment, when done correctly, this can be a cost-saving alternative for companies looking to expand their capacity or capabilities.
Onward and Upward
Most companies know by now that there are never any guarantees when it comes to the industrial metals sector. As stated in a recent article from Modern Metals, projections “still err on the side of caution, but much less so than their forecasts of previous years.” With renewed confidence and a few strategies in their back pockets, service centers can position themselves for both new opportunities and growth in 2017.