Ken Suggs never stopped caring for his family or his company before he passed away in August 2010.
Nor have his family or his company stopped caring for him as they have rebuilt Allstate Steel since a horrendous economy and his untimely passing brought it to its nadir.
Annual revenues had plummeted to $11 million at the depth of the recession, from as high as $40 million. The structural steel company had lost $1.2 million as Suggs neared the end of his battle with complications from a lung transplant—a battle that required him to take as many as 22 medications daily.
Suggs knew that his successor would face a steep climb, so he did not demand that his wife keep the business going after he died. Rather, he left it to her to decide, though he knew she was up to the challenge, even if she did not.
“When he was sick and in the hospital he was telling me, ‘Sharon don’t worry about anything. I know if you have to do it you can handle it,’” said Sharon Suggs.
“He said, ‘If you want to sell, make the decision to sell.’ But he kept saying, ‘I believe in you and know you can do it.’”
Though selling the company would have spared her much effort and additional heartache, Suggs persevered.
“I didn’t’ have a choice,” she said. “It was who my husband was and if I had let the company go it would have been like letting him go.”
Allstate Steel has since climbed from the abyss—reaching almost $21 million in revenue in 2014— and is seeking a new summit. “It’s been a slow mountain climb but we’re reaching it and we’re doing well. We’re not cash flush like we used to be but we’re doing better,” Suggs said.
The cash reserves that the company had accumulated under her father-in-law, Clarence Suggs, who had founded the company in 1963, and then her husband helped immensely, she said.
“That was a gift to us. Because they didn’t drain it we were able to dig ourselves out of the mess we were in at the time.”
Suggs also brought structure, which had been somewhat lacking during the year and a half in which her husband had been in and out of the hospital. “We had lost some customers over that period of time because some people thought the company wasn’t stable with my husband sick,” she said.
Suggs started by assessing the company’s people and processes with help from a consultant. Then she set about her restructuring, which included shifting people between positions and elevating long-time employee Eddy Barrera to general manager. With about 60 employees, Allstate Steel’s workforce is now less than half its peak size of 130.
The company also established bidding parameters to ensure that jobs were profitable, which they had not always been as it had fought through the recession, and set up new safety procedures and performance-based pay scales in its shop.
“I wanted to bring the company to a whole new level for the employees. I just wanted to step it up a notch.” Suggs said.
She established similar expectations for customer service. “We let our customers know we appreciate and value them, and that we’re not just looking to make money from them. If we see we can help them save money on something we’ll do that.”
A long-time customer of Allstate Steel, Stellar President and Chief Operations Officer Mike Santarone, said that Sharon Suggs is approachable and open. “She’s shown tremendous leadership.”
Santarone applauds Suggs for meeting with customers like him, as well as insurers, bonding company representatives and other influencers of Allstate Steel’s success.
She was trying to meet as many people as she could and to learn about the business and what had worked and had not worked, so that the business would not only survive but be healthy and thrive. – said Santarone
He remembers suggesting that she increase the company’s community presence. Soon after, Allstate Steel was one of the most visible sponsors at a charity golf tournament, passing out water and golf balls and warmly greeting golfers.
“They were the only vendor that had set up with such presence,” Santarone said. “She had listened and taken the advice. That’s when I knew they would make it.”
Barrera, who Suggs had promoted to GM, cites her willingness to commit personal resources so that the company could bid on larger projects as a turning point. “”The bonding capacity and the credit line that she helped Allstate reestablish was huge in our success in getting back to where we are today,” he said. “She signed on the bottom line for us.”
Employees appreciate her loyalty and have worked hard to reward her commitment, Barrera said. “We know what she’s been through. We know what she’s sacrificed to keep this place open.”
Though Suggs has run Allstate Steel differently than her late husband had, she knows he would have expected her to do so. But she also knew prior to coming in that employees may not have been so understanding, particularly since she had spent little time at the company prior to her husband’s passing.
“When I first got here everyone was scared because they didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said. “I had to come in and prove myself and talk to each one of them and see what they wanted. I had to come in and let people know me first.”
Employees no longer question her commitment, Barrera said. “You could see it in her eyes and in her emotion that it had nothing to do with her. It was about keeping the people who worked here employed and keeping the business open because her father-in-law had started it and her husband had continued it.”
Suggs said, “This is basically a man’s world in structural steel. Any woman needs to have an inner drive that keeps them going. They need to believe to in what they’re doing and why they’re doing it to continue.”
Suggs remembers crying often as she mourned her husband while trying to stabilize the company that he had loved so dearly. But she drew comfort from him still.
“I felt he was cheering me on. I felt him saying, ‘I want you to do this and you’re on the right track,” Suggs said.
Her husband would be thankful that she and the company have persevered, she said.
Santarone, who had been a close friend of her husband, agreed.
“I can’t imagine what it was like to lose your husband and pick the business up at such a low point in the economy,” he said. “She’s a hard worker, she’s a good listener, she’s very honest and she wants her legacy to be to have this business carry on to honor her husband.”
Just as Ken Suggs would have wanted.
Word of Advice: Have a Succession Plan
Allstate Steel President and CEO Sharon Suggs regrets that she no longer has sons working at the company.
But she still views herself as a bridge between her late husband who ran the company before her and the sons that she hopes will eventually assume control after she leaves.
“I would love for my children to be here but it just didn’t work out,” Suggs said.
The lack of a formal succession plan for her husband exacerbated the challenges that her family faced with his passing in 2010. Already struggling with a wretched economy on the business front and reeling personally from the emotional loss of their husband and father respectively, Suggs and her sons immersed themselves in their work.
“I wasn’t able to stay at home for a month and grieve and the boys didn’t either,” Suggs said. “We were doing what we needed to do.”
But seeing her in their father’s chair and making the decisions he used to make was difficult for her two sons, Suggs said. “It was like I was trying to take their dad’s place but I wasn’t.”
Suggs intends to create a written succession plan to avoid similar turmoil when she is no longer president. “I would suggest that anyone that has a family business have a succession plan and they have it written and they clearly go over what will happen if anything happens to that person. The worst thing is not knowing.”
Looking back, the company may have recovered a bit quicker if she hadn’t been so hesitant when she started, she said. “I didn’t trust my own intuition on a lot of things.
“Sometimes I didn’t make decisions quick enough that could have saved us some money, some time and maybe some bad situations. But it all worked out in the end.”