Every summer, the consumer woodworking industry converges either in Atlanta or Las Vegas for a huge trade show. You could say, it's the "Comic-Con®" of woodworking. If you want to see and be seen as a tool or product supplier, the International Woodworking Fair (IWF) in Atlanta or the Association of Woodworking Furnishings Suppliers (AWFS) event in Vegas are the places to be.
Or at least that used to be the case.
For three or four of the last trade shows, one disappointing trend has continued to gain momentum: several of the major power tool manufacturers have, one by one, decided not to show up. Now, there are lots of reasons for opting out of a trade show, not the least of which is cost. It's very expensive to rent a big booth and truck your latest machinery to fill it up. The less you have to show that is truly "new," the harder the cost is justify. But, suffice to say, when a big player stays home instead of coming to the party, it gets noticed by everyone who attends.
However, some tool companies remain loyal to the trade show public, despite the challenges of doing business in a heavy-manufacturing industry during and after a global recession. One of those companies is Steel City Tool Works. You probably know Steel City as that "new kid on the block" machinery manufacturer that got its start during the middle of the last decade. They're the ones with the granite-topped table saws, band saws and jointers that had all of our industry buzzing in 2007, when their stone-topped machines first hit the market.
"We're very proud to say that since our start as a company, we've never missed a trade show," says David Campagna, Steel City's vice president.
At this year's AWFS, Steel City was not only there as always, but there in force. Its booth was sizable and filled to the brim with both new-to-market tools and pre-existing models. David took the time to show me a couple of new Steel City 15- and 20-in. thickness planers (to watch the video, click here). He also very much wanted to shake hands with attendees, introduce himself and talk about all of Steel City's tool offerings.
The clincher here is that, for a number of years prior, Steel City had much less on display at the shows. For a time, their focus was on carbide insert cutterheads, which the company had begun to provide affordably for small jointers and planers. That was helpful innovation, to be sure. But, during those years the booth was smaller, and it seemed most or all of the familiar faces from the company's original sales force were gone. What had begun with gusto in 2005 — 30 new pieces of machinery from a brand-new company — then risen to new heights with an industry-first shift to granite tabletops, seemed to have lost its way in the late 2000s. Steel City's "mojo," in my opinion, was gone.
So, stepping up to the company's expanded booth this past July, I was more than curious. The changes were unexpected and welcoming to see, especially considering that several other leading machinery suppliers were missing in action. David and I needed to have a deeper conversation. First and foremost, he was honest.
"When the recession hit in '08, we had to reorganize and hunker down."
Campagna, who started with Steel City's sales in marketing in Canada in 2006, after a career with both Delta Machinery and Black & Decker, says many tough changes were necessary. In 2009, as the U.S. economy continued to plummet into recession, a significant change in Steel City's management took place. Efforts were made to reduce expenses and lower inventory levels. Budgets for marketing and advertising shrunk, which explains why the Steel City ads you had grown accustomed to seeing seemed to vanish. The goal was to "maintain positive cash flow," David says. "This helped us continue our development internally and operate a lean organization."
Steel City also sought to centralize its offices and distribution channels. Several warehouses in Canada were closed, and the company moved its original headquarters from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to the Chicago area. It now occupies a 26,000-square-foot facility with a newly renovated office space, warehousing and multifunction showroom in Bolingbrook, Illinois. Campagna, who left Steel City for a time, returned this past January to accept the position of vice president.
"We've also realigned our factories in Asia to better control quality and steady the supply chain of inbound products. We've expanded from three to five factories to alleviate some pressures there," David says. Incidentally, he also clarifies, Steel City isn't actually a "new kid on the block" within the woodworking tool industry. "One arm of our company, Orion, has been designing and manufacturing power tools for several decades as an OEM supplier to other power tool companies."
In hindsight, timing definitely was a factor in Steel City's setbacks, Campagna believes. "The recession was a tough time for our entire industry, and starting a new woodworking machinery company in a slowing economy is really difficult! We tried to service our dealers as best we could during that time, too, but some dealer programs just didn't work out as planned. It was tough. Since then, we've learned a lot from our mistakes."
But that difficult learning curve, combined with hard work, a sense of tenacity and "the results of our team working in the shadows for the past 12 months" has begun a new chapter of opportunity for Steel City, Campagna believes. At AWFS, the company launched seven new products aimed at budget-minded woodworking hobbyists who don't have the floor space for larger machines. Informally called the "Blue Line," Steel City's new benchtop/light stationary tools include a 13-in. variable-speed drill press, 10- and 12-in. band saws, two combination belt/disc sanders and a pair of universal and heavy-duty portable tool stands. While not listed yet on the company's current website, you can get a closer look at several of the new Blue Line tools on Steel City's YouTube channel. The the Blue Line will be available in mid to late October of this year.
Steel City also is committed to expanding its offerings of stationary/light industrial machines and building even more industrial tools. David says Steel City table saws and band saws, small benchtop jointers and planers are among its most successful tools for serious hobbyists. So is its 65-120 Air Cleaner. David showed me a pair of new planers at AWFS for a video blog, and you can watch it by clicking here.
True to its heritage, Campagna assures me that Steel City will continue to offer granite-topped machines, which he says deliver the flatness, corrosion resistance and vibration-dampening characteristics woodworkers want, plus cast-iron for those customers who prefer conventional table surfaces on their machines. He also teased with what's coming in 2014.
"We're launching 16 new products when many of our competitors are now going into cost-cutting and restructuring phases," much like Steel City did years ago.
However, the process of reinventing the company will go above and beyond expanding the tool lines. That's the traditional approach to growth for machinery manufacturers. What Campagna also wants is for Steel City to be more "socially engaged" with end users, "so that we can learn not only how you like our tools or what new features you're looking for, but also what you plan to do with them."
That "dynamic" evolution, as David calls it, involves more and diverse social media platforms. To that end, on October 15 the company will launch a brand-new website showing its latest tools, including the Blue Line, plus an online sales portal. There will also be a new Steel City Wood Shop Blog, which will be an interactive platform for presenting and sharing woodworking news, tips and techniques.
"We know we've always had a place and something to bring to this industry. What we want to be now is not just another tool manufacturer but also a more accepted part of the woodworking community. We want to talk the same language as you and share the same passion in a much closer way," Campagna says.
"Our entire team is extremely motivated and proud of the vision and common goal we have set for ourselves... Quality, innovation, value and service. This new stage in Steel City Tool Works' evolution promises to be exciting, and we hope (our customers) will join us for the journey."