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Man of Steel

T his past August, the Steel Framing Industry Association hired Larry Williams to be its executive director. AWCI’s Construction Dimensions sat down with Larry to discuss the current state and future of the cold-formed steel industry.

ACD: What are the three top issues facing the cold-formed steel industry today, and how is the Steel Framing Industry Association addressing them?

LW: One of the key issues is the low price of wood that we’ve experienced over the past five or six years. We used to beat the wood industry “stick for stick” on prices, but we don’t anymore. When the housing market collapsed, so did demand for wood products—and the cost of a wood stud followed suit. Then, with its most important market on life support, the wood industry stepped up their efforts to grab a meaningful share of the non-residential market. Today, it may be true that wood studs are cheaper on a one-for-one comparison. But that’s where the cost advantage ends and our opportunity begins. We’re looking to make decision-makers aware of the many cost advantages CFS has over wood after framing material is purchased. We can start by educating the construction industry on the lower total installed cost that steel can bring to the equation because of faster construction times, lower insurance costs for non-combustible construction, and less jobsite waste, to name a few.We can show builders that by using CFS they can actually increase their profitability through designs that maximize the potential for leasable space, and shorter construction cycles that enable them to begin generating revenue more quickly.

As an industry we also need to continue to leverage the material characteristics of CFS to further increase our cost advantages over wood. We can do this in a number of ways, especially through encouraging innovation across the board—in design, construction and manufacturing—in ways that take advantage of the unique performance and material characteristics of CFS. Another example is re-establishing insurance industry reclassification of steel framing as non-combustible and better enabling access to insurance products with consistently lower rates.

Another key issue is that we sometimes forget who the competition is. I remember the days, not too long ago, when the steel framing industry was coming together to focus on common objectives. Some of us called it “defragmentation,” but whatever name you chose, it enabled us to make some real progress toward important technical, educational and marketing goals. That’s why I’m distressed when I see a manufacturer or distributor of steel framing products challenge another manufacturer’s or supplier’s products in a way that suggests the product could be dangerous. In marketing parlance, it’s called the FUD-factor—meaning fear, uncertainty and doubt. The technique is used because it works. But today, the only industry it’s really working for is wood. And I’ve heard some plausible tales about wood distributors using some of these ads to promote their product to builders and specifiers who have been made to question whether any cold-formed steel product is safe.We, as an industry, need to confront, match and exceed the wood industry’s technical, marketing and communications efforts, and the only way to do that is if we work together.

Finally, at a time when we’re re-energizing the industry’s market development and outreach, we’re in danger of re-creating the wheel—again. As an industry, we need to capture the knowledge and resources that are relevant today, update them to current standards when necessary, and then make sure the information is available to members of the CFS industry and the marketplace.

ACD:Where do you see the industry five years from now?

LW: Today the industry is coming through a time of significant disruption. There have been divisions. And like a lot of other industries, there have been some great losses. But these are all just speed bumps. Five years from now the industry will have again come around to the central proposition that we must stand together in the effort to grow our share of the market, and the combined industry effort will have some very powerful impacts.

By 2017, I believe the steel framing industry will develop systems that will simplify stocking and inventory management in the distribution network. Business planning and the development of sales and marketing programs will not take place in a vacuum of information, but members will be able to glean insights about the potential material price changes, where the market is growing and why, the cost-competitive position of steel framing in the marketplace, and what factors are causing specifiers to choose one material over another.

In addition, the steel framing industry will no longer be on the defensive when it comes to building codes and standards, but will be effectively anticipating issues and creating opportunities in the regulatory processes. The work to promote recognition and the sustainable performance of the industry will be starting to pay off as more and more specifiers think “silver” when designing “green” structures. It’s inevitable that there will be continuous improvements to manufacturing processes and products, helping make steel framing even more competitive than it is today.

Finally, through the efforts of the SFIA, members will know which architects and builders are specifying wood, steel or concrete—or planning projects where CFS is the most effective solution. Members will then have access to data and sales tools that effectively communicate the advantages of steel to help support their marketing efforts with data and sales tools.

And through it all, I believe that the SFIA will be playing a fundamental role in making all that happen by delivering the fundamental programs, services and information that members need—or providing access to organizations that can meet those needs.

When we hang together, the industry has an opportunity today to turn the headwinds we’ve faced over the last couple of years into tailwinds that will help propel the growth of our industry. If we’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s that the same economic conditions that have driven down wood prices will reverse themselves, resulting in significant spikes in the cost of lumber. When that happens, the nonresidential builders who crossed over to using wood—or never developed competencies in steel—will still be trying to catch up with their competitors who chose to stick with steel.

ACD: What makes SFIA different from other trade associations?

LW: The SFIA plays an essential role in encouraging the forward-progress of the industry by ensuring that there are no unnecessary barriers to innovation and that it can take place in an environment where there are clear standards and guidelines that ensure quality and safety are not compromised. We’ve taken an important step forward with the development of the code compliance certification programs for studs and for connectors, and we’re committed to being completely transparent in how the standards are developed and what the requirements are.

We also believe that the work of the SFIA is only strengthened through the collective effort of members who represent every link in the supply chain and when we work in collaboration with other organizations that serve the steel framing industry in one or more ways. To that end, we have established an all-inclusive membership base that gives everyone—steel producers, builders, designers, manufacturers, fabricators and distributors—a seat at the table and a say in the direction of the organization. And make no mistake: This broad membership is one of our greatest strengths.

It’s tough to have a successful construction project unless everyone on the team is on the same page. By working through industry and organizational strategies and tactics with everyone in the room, the SFIA has the opportunity to ensure that there are no unforeseen problems with a program or initiative before one dollar is invested. We’re also committed to conducting our business in the open so that our members know what the industry strategies are and have an opportunity to participate by providing feedback, comments, ideas and solutions.

We have a broad agenda that is intended to serve the interests of all our members by addressing the issues that touch them all, whether it’s technical or related to marketing and manufacturing. One of the key elements of the agenda is promoting quality manufacturing, and to that end our manufacturer members actively participate in our code compliance certification programs for cold-formed steel framing and a second program for CFS connectors that is the first of its kind.

We’re a national organization, and our members also give us a unique ability to reach into the marketplace throughout the United States and collect intelligence on trends or issues that could have positive or negative implications for the use of cold-formed steel. This gives the SFIA the opportunity to anticipate or capitalize on these issues early in the game. Conversely, the location of these members throughout the country also provides the industry with the kind of grass-roots network that can extend the reach and impact of industry initiatives.

Although the SFIA has accomplished some key objectives, we’re still building momentum and finding ways to fully leverage our unique strengths. In the coming months, we’ll be introducing new programs and tools that our members have been asking for and that will help them in their business planning and marketing efforts. Also, we’re launching new committees on data and statistics, market development, and education that will provide members with a more clear-cut way of participating and helping guide the industry’s work.

ACD: You are charged with “developing programs and initiatives to meet the education and training needs of members, support continuous industry innovation and promote broad awareness of the many advantages of cold-formed steel.” What is the plan?

LW: First, we are establishing SFIA as a key data source that the industry and our members can use for marketing and managing their businesses. This includes annual market share reports, but also builder and architect perceptions studies that are essential to crafting effective marketing programs, and studies that will give us real-world comparisons of the cost of steel versus other structural systems—including an accounting of the savings from soft-costs and revenue projections that are possible through shorter construction cycles and more leasable space. Working with organizations like the American Iron and Steel Institute, we hope to have LCA and sustainability studies that finally provide the steel framing industry with reliable ammunition we can use to combat false claims by competing materials. We’re also working with the AISI and International Zinc Association to establish a benchmark for the corrosion resistance of hot-dipped galvanized steel.

A second major area of work is a significant outreach to builders, architects and other system and material decision-makers to create visibility and awareness of the advantages of CFS. Within this overall program, we plan on using both traditional and new media platforms, and leveraging the large and broad SFIA membership base by providing them with educational and sales tools that are designed to help them promote steel framing at the grass roots.

In the short term, each of these programs and products will need to be supported with programs that will help our members understand how to interpret market data, apply the results of perception studies and how to make effective use of the new resources that we are developing. We’ll also be using current technologies to make educational programs available when and where our members need the information. Longer term, the SFIA will develop a more comprehensive program that seeks to promote education and training programs that may already be provided by selected organizations and then fill in gaps according to member needs and requests. The Steel—Doing it Right® program is an example of an educational resource that was developed by other organizations, and that we would actively support.

ACD: There was a national search. Why do you think you were selected as SFIA’s executive director?

LW: In a few words: my broad range of experience in associations, in professional disciplines, in steel framing—and still loving it.

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