Holman Head, former President and Chief Operating Officer of O’Neal Industries, Inc., recently sat down with Metal Market Magazine to discuss how ONI evolved over the course of his career and how the use of big data has fueled innovation across the metals industry. Below is a snippet from the full interview available in the January 2021 issue of Metal Market Magazine.
Holman Head ‘ONI is utilizing big data to drive improvements’
Holman Head retired from his role as president and chief operating officer of O’Neal Industries, Inc. at the end of September. He recalls the substantial growth of the business during his 40-year career with the company and discusses likely future trends with Bette Kovach.
In reflecting on his 40-year career with O’Neal Industries, Inc. (ONI) of Birmingham, Alabama, Holman Head thought about all the changes that metal service centers faced and his response to them. Considering four decades of profound change in nearly all facets of how a successful business operates – and his many roles in managing that change – Head said, “I feel like Forrest Gump,” the fictional lead in an American movie of the same name about facing – and successfully managing – life’s twists and turns.
“Like Forrest, I too have been in the right place at the right time in many aspects of my life. He embraced hard work and integrity to become successful in many different roles, and I think for the most part, I did too,” said Head. And much of Head’s life and career followed Forrest Gump’s most memorable quote, “Like Momma said, life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get,” as Head tackled and conquered myriad positions in his years with ONI before he retired on September 30, 2020 as president and chief operating officer.
Those virtues of hard work, integrity and the ability to embrace and master change have been mainstays in the evolution of ONI, which was founded by Kirkman O’Neal in 1921. Centennial plans for 2021 are under way. Today, led by the third generation of the O’Neal family – Craft O’Neal serves as chairman and chief executive officer – ONI is the United States’ largest family-owned network of metals service centers and component and tube manufacturing businesses. The firm employs 2,500 people working in more than 70 locations and creating revenue in 2019 of about US$2.4 billion.
The business that is today’s ONI began operation in Birmingham when Kirkland O’Neal started a steel fabricating business that would later be called O’Neal Steel. The firm quickly became known for its dependability and performance, which became hallmarks of its nearly 100 years. Kirkman O’Neal in a 1926 interview with The Birmingham News said, “We turn out each piece of work and each contract the very best that can be done, and we are determined that it shall be satisfactory.” By the 1930s, O’Neal Steel was the largest metal service center in the Southern United States.
During World War II, the firm was the nation’s largest producer of general-purpose bombs, employing more than 1,300 men and women, who also fabricated other materials for the war effort. The next few years saw the second generation of the O’Neal family enter the business as Emmet O’Neal, Kirkman’s son and former chairman of O’Neal Steel, joined the company in 1946, setting the company on a strategy of geographic growth, and in 1952, the company opened the first satellite district in Jackson, Mississippi. That first satellite location was followed by significant expansion, by both corporate expansion and acquisitions, with the addition of numerous facilities throughout the South, Midwest and Southwest USA.
Holman Head started his career with O’Neal Steel in 1980, two years after he graduated from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. His decision to attend the prestigious university was heavily influenced by his mother. “I have frequently done things in my life that were what other people wanted or expected. Many got me out of my comfort zone, but all of them have helped me grow. One of those was going to Washington and Lee. Even though I was disappointed that it was a male-only school at the time, it gave me the focus to concentrate on my studies and not be distracted by girls who we would see only on the weekends from all-girls’ schools in the region,” he quipped.
The skills taught by liberal arts colleges and universities have served Head well. “One of the advantages of a liberal arts education is developing both as an individual and acquiring critical thinking skills. It was a period of tremendous personal growth that has served me well during the course of my career,” Head reflected. Armed with his Bachelor of Arts degree in economics, Head moved to Birmingham, long known as the Pittsburgh of the South, to work in outside sales for Vulcan Materials Corporation, selling aggregate and crushed stone.
Old pricing methods
Head joined O’Neal Steel in 1980 in inside sales. In that position building off his outside sales experience, Head quickly realized that pricing was not very sophisticated at both the supplier and customer levels. “Back then, steel companies published pricing books, and they were simply based on adding all costs and putting a profit margin on top. No one questioned the price. It wasn’t until after rampant inflation gripped the United States in the very early 1980s followed by a deep recession was the true cost of steel products questioned. The growth of low-cost mini mills in the United States made inefficient costs more apparent,” he said.
The year 1982 was a major turning point in the US metals industry as companies used a laser focus to identify and reduce costs. “A two-year move within O’Neal Steel to its district office in Memphis, Tennessee, outside sales really taught me how to listen to and communicate with many different kinds of people. I also learned how to communicate with people in a group and recognize that while everyone was hearing the same thing at the same time, not all people were understanding at the same time. Sometimes the timing of the message is even more important than the content,” he explained.
Period of rapid change
When Head returned to Birmingham in 1984 to work in marketing, O’Neal Steel was rapidly changing. The company began using telemarketing, implemented Electronic Data Interchange and initiated business development efforts. Product marketing and purchasing groups were more closely aligned to further expedite response to the customer.
But in thinking about the tremendous change in how companies conduct business since the early 1980s, Head quickly points to the evolution and integration of information technology as the most impactful trend that changed both the face of O’Neal Steel and the entire service center sector. “When I started, O’Neal Steel had a huge mainframe computer with a room full of tape drives. There were no word processors or personal computers, and fax machines were barely making a mark. As technology advanced, those who understood its power and could invest reaped great benefits from increased productivity, improved asset management and better competitive knowledge.
“Information technology also increased transparency throughout the supply chain, which eliminated waste and forced extreme discipline on operating cost. In 1980, we quoted on the phone using price pages. Today, a significant percentage of O’Neal Steel’s line items go through the ecommerce site PRONTO®. That same system notifies the customers when they are the next delivery stop. ONI is utilizing big data to drive improvements. We’re able to measure and analyze things in ways we’ve never been able to do in the past,” Head explained. And then, linking his retirement decision to the continuing and quickening advances in technology, he quipped, “I’ve realized over the last couple of years that changes in information — and all — technologies are faster than I can stay abreast. The younger generations who grew up with laptops are better able to see around the corner than those of us who grew up with slide rules.”
Read more about Holman Head’s experience in the full Executive Interview.
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