Suburban Steel of Indiana: Building a business

September 4, 2006

Suburban Steel customizes structural steel for building projects, mostly residential, at its 20,000-square-foot workshop on Indianapolis' far-southwest side. In a way, it might be considered the metalworking equivalent of a fast-food joint, where customers always "have it their way."

"A builder can call at 1 p.m. and we'll have it for him the next day," said Mark DeBellis, president of Suburban Steel's parent company, Suburban Steel Supply of Columbus, Ohio.

The local company's market exists because wooden beams aren't strong enough to support a home's first floor without pillars or load-bearing walls-structural elements that get in the way of open basement space.

DeBellis said the company stockpiles structural steel in various standard lengths, shapes and thicknesses. When an order comes in, an appropriate piece is cut, trimmed and otherwise fine-tuned, then turned over to the customer. Suburban Steel will do any last-minute work on site, and its staff will even install the piece if the customer isn't comfortable working with steel, DeBellis said.

Suburban Steel of Indiana also has a considerable business in ornamental metalwork, such as railings, driveway gates, exterior fences and stairs, though the fabrication work for those custom pieces is done at the parent company's Ohio facilities.

Suburban Steel of Indiana started out as a strictly local concern, founded in 1978 by Indianapolis resident Donald R. Short. Operating as D.R. Short Steel Co., the firm eventually found a niche as a supplier of structural steel for large school projects. By

Location: 1110 W. Thompson Road Phone number: 783-6555 Web Site: www.suburbansteelsupply.comE-mail: sales@suburbansteelsupply.comFounded: 1978, as D.R. Short Steel Co.;

purchased by Suburban Steel Supply in 1997 Founder: Donald R. Short Owner: Suburban Steel Supply Product: structural steel, rebar and

ornamental metal work fabrication Employees: nine Revenue (2005): $2.4 million One-year goal: increase revenue to $3.2

million in 2007 Industry outlook: The market overall is strong,

particularly for large commercial projects.

The residential market is weakening, but

more structural steel is being used in the

homes that are being built.

the time Short was ready to retire in 1997, no one in his family was interested in taking over the business. So he sold the firm for a little less than $2 million to Suburban Steel Supply. DeBellis said the Ohio company wanted to expand, and liked the idea of being able to graft its custom steel services onto the Indianapolis company's existing operations. The company kept its separate legal structure, and its name was changed to Suburban Steel of Indiana in 2000.

Still, it was not a match made in heaven. "It could be a case study for how things don't always work out as planned," DeBellis said.

The problem was that the school market involved long lead times, large quantities of steel and rigid timetables-pretty much the opposite of what the new owners were used to. The two sides of the Indianapolis company couldn't see eye to eye on anything, DeBellis said.

"All we did was butt heads," he said.

After six years of this, DeBellis-as much out of sheer frustration as insightful business judgment, he's quick to admit-took the radical step of simply eliminating the school business. Overnight, the company dropped from 25 employees and $6 million in annual revenue to eight employees and revenue of $500,000.

DeBellis had modest goals for rebuilding the company. When it was bringing in only $40,000 a month, he hoped to increase that to $50,000 a month by the end of 2003. Twice that year, Suburban Steel's revenue hit $100,000 a month, and growth has been steady ever since.

"It turned out to be the best thing I ever did," DeBellis said.

The company has built a sturdy customer base among local builders.

Jeff West, president of Greenwood-based Greg Allen Builders, said his company uses Suburban Steel of Indiana exclusively for its custom steel work. Suburban Steel started doing customized stair railings-now a big item in high-end home construction-well before other metal fabrication companies.

"They were kind of ahead of the curve on that," West said.

Brett Wilson, operations manager for Indianapolis' Drees Homes, said his company has used Suburban Steel of Indiana more than five years. In that time, it has provided Drees with more than a thousand custom steel beams for use in single-family homes.

"We've never had any problems with their product," Wilson said.

Suburban Steel of Indiana's Mark Butler cuts support beams at the company's Indianapolis facility. The local firm is growing thanks to demand for large basement areas.
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