November 1, 2007


“Metal, intrinsic value, deep and dense, Preanimate,
inimitable, still …”
—Yvor Winters, from his poem “John Sutter”

This view of metal from the late Stanford University poet Yvor Winters has foreboding overtones. The poem, after all, is about the wild desecration of California rivers in the frenzied 1840s and 1850s search for gold.

But I like this characterization of metal because it suggests something must be done to bring metal from its “still” state in nature to the dynamic, essential position of strength that it occupies in our lives and economy. Metal is inimitable—impossible to imitate— and its intrinsic value is deep and dense until we unlock it and put it to use.

That’s what we in the metals industry do. Through great and truly complex efforts, we turn earth, rocks and castoffs into useful and critically important products that benefit all economies, all people and all endeavors. I suppose there remain a few small isolated pockets where people use wood, bone and animal sinew to provide structures, tools, weapons and methods of conveyance. If so, they are among the most remote individuals on the planet.

We spend a lot of time in our industry thinking about today. Today’s prices, today’s orders, today’s production issues all pressure us to perform, right now, quickly. It’s easy, even likely, to lose perspective on what it is we do for a living, and what an honest and worthwhile industry we mutually create.

I’ve been associated with the metals industry for a quarter of a century. During that time, I’ve witnessed enormous change. As businesses, our producers of aluminum, steel, alloys, stainless, pipe and tube have never been more efficient than we are today. Mills that used to be jammed with workers now function smoothly and safely, with comparatively few employees and a great deal of sophisticated automation to control powerful processes.

Our industry’s capacity to provide first-stage fabrication, kits of parts and just-in-time delivery has never been more consistent or reliable. Our ability to devise sophisticated new metallurgies has never been better.

What’s more, the metals industry almost always goes about its business with great integrity. It’s rare when a coil or sheet of metal doesn’t perform as expected or is something other than what the customer wants it to be. The quality management imperative of the last two decades permeates the metals industry and is, in and of itself, one of the great positive factors that build integrity and trust in our output.

At the heart of it, though, is the fact that we make things and help others make amazing, soaring, intricate structures of value, beauty and strength. There is a certain sense of satisfaction that comes from making worthwhile and necessary things. It’s part of what makes the metals industry satisfying; it’s an important reason why so many family-owned companies in our business are passed on to succeeding generations.

As we enter the last weeks of 2007, I hope you have an opportunity to reflect on the best parts of your life and lifestyle, and the benefits of your association with metal. We’re not as sexy as high-tech companies. As an industry, we’re still waiting for our first computer game.

But as a way of life, there’s few better than what we have in metals. It’s worth remembering.

All of us at the Metals Service Center Institute wish all of you our very best—health, prosperity and joy— for the holidays and 2008.