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CI recently sat down with Robert Stevenson, the president of the new company and a long-time industry veteran, to discuss some of the recent shakeups in this industry and how those changes have paved the way for this new business venture.
What do you hope to achieve with Stevenson Specialty Refractories, Inc.?SSR has been formed with the goal of providing state-of-the-art, value-added refractory specialty products to customers in a select group of markets. By combining a team of seasoned professionals with a highly focused set of market offerings, we believe that we can do a better job of servicing the specialty refractory market than the collective of suppliers who are currently in this space.
But why begin now?Because, incredibly perhaps, the time is ripe for a new entry in this market. Due to recent market consolidations on the part of some of the industry’s largest suppliers, the refractory marketplace is in a state of disarray. As a result of this confusion, many consumers have experienced disruptions in service or, when product is delivered, they find the refractory specialty products do not perform as expected.
Concurrent with these product issues, many industry customers have begun to feel increasingly isolated. As a result of suppliers’ decisions to cut back and consolidate sales and customer service staffs, consumer loyalty has suffered dramatically.
SSR will focus its energies on remedying these product and trust issues. From day one, SSR will provide the highest quality specialty refractory product available through an efficient, lean and customer-responsive organization focused on fostering loyalty between the customer and supplier.
But most market analysts would say that this consolidation you talked about is evidence of an overall decline in the refractory product market. So isn’t it a bad time to start a new company?No, it’s not a bad time to start a company as long as you start the right company.
While it is true that the heavy industrial market has experienced a significant downturn, the impact has largely resulted from falling sales in just one segment of the refractory market: brick. Largely tied to the domestic steel industry, brick sales have fallen for many years as the health of that industry has faltered. And since brick has historically accounted for more than 50% of market share, any decline in brick sales will disproportionately affect the apparent outlook for the refractory market as a whole.
But there are segments of this market that are healthy. The specialty refractory segment of the refractory market has remained profitable and shows every indication that it will stay profitable in the years to come. In short, it’s the perfect opportunity for a company like SSR. We plan to stay focused solely on specific markets and to stay as lean as possible to provide those markets with the highest quality specialty product they need when they need them.
Do you have any concerns that this focused approach will unnecessarily limit your company’s future growth?Not at all, because I believe that specialties are the place to be. As I said before, sales of specialties or refractory concretes are increasing and there are a number of reasons why.
First, with recent technological improvements, specialties now provide performance that equals or exceeds that of brick, a trend that will most likely continue as technology advances.
Second, the monolithic specialties that SSR plans to supply are easy to install and do not require the upfront costs of brick, such as qualified masons, which means that installation costs for specialties are significantly lower than for brick linings.
Finally, and this is probably one of the most important factors, the time to install and return a process unit to operation is less with specialties than with brick. So customers that use specialty refractories are back to making money well before their competitors who rely on brick.
As you can see, each of these factors plays to SSR’s obvious advantages as a supplier focused solely on specialties. And when you examine each of these factors, you see that just as they are true now, they are likely to remain true well into the future. Each will play a part in SSR’s success both in the short and the long run.
What specifically have you done to prepare for the road ahead?We’ve brought people on board with years of experience who understand this marketplace and have firsthand experience not just at creating quality, cutting-edge specialties, but also at getting that product into the hands of a satisfied customer. I spoke earlier of a two-fold problem with this industry: product or performance issues and customer relations or loyalty issues. The members of our management team have been chosen because their backgrounds have given them the experience to combat these problems directly.
But we also recognize that holding the line isn’t enough, and so SSR will continually work to advance specialty technology, focusing on what affects our customers’ operations the most: downtime. As a leader in the specialty market, SSR’s new product offerings will focus on products that reduce downtime by reducing installation and heat-curing schedules and products that can be used for perpetual lining maintenance—thereby reducing the need for scheduled extended and costly shutdowns.
In both of these cases and aligned with our goals in general, SSR will succeed by giving our customers the products they need for the problems they face both today and tomorrow. By working together, in a partnership with customers, SSR will secure its future as it wins the loyalty and trust of the customers it serves.
Admittedly we are stepping out in a less than robust economy, yet everyone at SSR is very enthused about this new vision, frankly rooted in old traditions of service. The reception we are getting is reinforcing our belief that this is what we all should be doing.