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Sunday, 10 May 2015 22:00

Lambert’s focus on capital availability, communication drive Mill Steel’s growth

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Eric Lambert, Mill Steel Co. Eric Lambert, Mill Steel Co. PHOTO: KATY BATDORFF

Eric Lambert is not one to talk about himself or his accomplishments.

Despite playing a leading role in several high-profile acquisitions as CFO at Grand Rapids-based Mill Steel Co., he deflects the lion’s share of credit for the success of those deals to the rest of the company’s executive and financial team.

The winner of the 2015 MiBiz CFO of the Year Award in the Corporation category, Lambert exudes a humility that is well-known both inside the organization as well as among its various stakeholders and partners. Yet beyond his modesty, fellow executives at Mill Steel cite the seasoned CFO as a shrewd, patient negotiator and effective communicator who constantly weighs the next best step for the organization.

“He’s always out there and trying to get the best deal for Mill Steel,” said Pam Heglund, vice president of sales at Mill Steel, a manufacturer of flat rolled steel. “He’s the master of negotiation — patient, knowledgeable and motivated to wait (a deal) out until the time is right. We all trust Eric wholeheartedly.”

Over his career with Mill Steel, Lambert has closed three significant deals that have helped continue to grow the company. In 2014, he oversaw a $16.1 million investment in a new facility at the Port of Indiana and piloted the acquisition of assets of the former Steel Structural Systems, a Louisville, Ky.-based steel stud manufacturer that had encountered financial difficulties. Both deals significantly enhanced the company’s logistical and distribution network, and the new Louisville plant will expand the Mill Steel’s access to the construction market.

FINANCING GROWTH

While each deal presents its own unique set of challenges, effective communication with the company’s financing partners and lenders to ensure access to deployable capital was integral to pushing each deal over the finish line, Lambert said.

“At the end of the day, you have to finance growth and capital isn’t infinite,” Lambert said. “We’ve got a great track record of executing and I think our lenders are very supportive of companies that execute day in and day out and are transparent and deal with issues in a timely and effective manner. They’ve got great confidence to extend the financing to make those transactions happen.”

Beyond having access to the capital needed for growth, Lambert cites a nimble operating structure and experienced staff as being key to success.

“You need to make sure you have a team that is going to not only be able to integrate those acquisitions but also continue to propel that growth and accelerate the business going forward,” Lambert said.

Lambert’s focus on communication goes beyond the company’s financial partners. During the distressed acquisition of Steel Structural Products, the CFO worked with the target company’s management and financial team to form new growth strategies, shore up any post-integration issues and ensure that “people were running hard” following the acquisition.

In 2010, Lambert used those same strategies to successfully acquire a plant in Birmingham, Ala., the company’s first venture outside the Midwest that helped spur significant growth in the years since, he said.

Those deals combined with effective cash management during the recovery period have proven to be the primary drivers for the company’s growth trajectory. Mill Steel is currently on a run rate of $600 million in revenue for 2015, compared to $140 million in 2009.

“Clearly, those three transactions stand on their own two feet and are great opportunities for our business going forward,” Lambert said. “Mill Steel overall is by far my biggest personal and professional achievement. We’ve got a great team and a lot of great things here going on.”

COMMODITY CHALLENGES

While Mill Steel primarily works on contract with its customers and has access to long-term steel production forecasts because of its work in the automotive industry, Lambert still maintains a diligent focus on the commodity market to navigate the business through any price fluctuations with an eye toward maintaining growth.

“It’s more secure but you’re still faced with a company that wants to grow at double-digit rates and you need to finance that growth,” Lambert said. “The nice thing about what we’re dealing with today is that a lot of our industry sectors are kicking in on all cylinders.”

To help manage any price fluctuations that do impact the company, Lambert stays in constant contact with mills and Mill Steel’s back office to sort out the quantities and timing on steel purchases.

Lambert and the rest of the executive team have focused the company’s post-recession growth strategy on diversifying away from its primarily automotive customer base. The company used the recession as an opportunity to diversify its operations, Lambert said. Mill Steel’s Alabama acquisition added painted steel operations to the company’s portfolio and opened the doors to its construction and building customers. The company also works with tubing, general fabrication and a handful of appliance and furniture customers.

To diversify further, the company recently opened its Steel Plus Solutions LLC subsidiary to buy excess steel from mills and supply it to other accounts — a move that has “tremendous growth,” Lambert said.

Amid rising production volumes in the automotive industry and as the construction industry continues to find its footing, Mill Steel executives are confident about its growth trajectory going forward.

“Frankly, I’ve never been more bullish about our business in terms of revenue growth than I am today, and I think we have a great team to execute on it,” Lambert said.

WEST MICHIGAN TRANSPLANT

Although Lambert spent the majority of his career in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. area, he now considers West Michigan his home and notes that it is an “unbelievable place” to do business.

While Mill Steel manages plants across the Midwest and Southeast, the company has chosen to maintain its headquarters in the region because of its access to a skilled talent pool and its proximity to professional services, Lambert said.

“You have all the benefits of having big market support and activity while not being in a big market,” Lambert said. “We have all the same attributes here at our fingertips.”

Lambert began his career working under the tutelage of business mogul Wayne Huizenga at Blockbuster Entertainment, where he focused on mergers and acquisitions for nine years.

After spending two years with car dealer AutoNation Inc., which is also owned by Huizenga, Lambert worked in a CFO role for a variety of companies before meeting David Samrick at a holiday party in 2004.

The two developed a friendship over the next year and a half, and by 2006, Samrick had convinced Lambert to move from his home in Florida and relocate to Grand Rapids to work at Mill Steel.

“Our family was disenfranchised with Ft. Lauderdale, and for a variety of reasons, I was considering alternatives,” Lambert said. “David was dealing with the growth issues at his business and that created the opportunity to have broader discussion on the things we’d be able to do together.”

ERIC LAMBERT

  • Organization: Mill Steel Co.
  • Annual Revenue: $550 million in 2014 with a run rate of reaching $600 million in 2015
  • Transformational Moment: For Lambert, the most influential moments in his career came through working with two high-level, talented executives. At both Blockbuster Entertainment and Auto Nation, Lambert was influenced under the leadership of business mogul Wayne Huizenga. Later, while at Mill Steel, Lambert deemed working with David Samrick “the best professional and growth experience I’ve had.” He referred to Samrick as “a great leader. I hold him in the highest regards.”
  • Mission Critical: The company’s strategy hinges on everyday communication with the company’s financial partners, including those at the steel mills, to coordinate purchasing activity and ensure it has the necessary support to finance future growth, Lambert said. Diligent management of accounts receivables also allows the company’s stakeholders to “put their heads on their pillows at night” and in turn allows prompt payment to vendors, he said.
  • Academic Degree: Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Barry University (Miami, Fla.)
  • Community Involvement: Active in the East Grand Rapids Foundation and public school system and participates in philanthropic work through Mill Steel, including work with Big Brothers Big Sisters. Board Member, Precision Metalforming Association.
  • Personal: Married to Doreen; one daughter and one son, ages 15 and 14.
  • Company Advisers
    Accountant: Plante Moran PLLC
    Legal: Barnes and Thornburg LLP
    Banking: JP Morgan Chase, PNC Bank and Mercantile Bank of Michigan
Read 6835 times Last modified on Sunday, 10 May 2015 21:02
John Wiegand

Staff writer

jwiegand@mibiz.com

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