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Yardie Interviews → Paul Brancato

October 23, 2009 - Sparkie Interview with Paul Brancato of Ideal Steel


Starting with this issue of the Spark, we’ll be introducing you to a range of people who support the Yard’s work in a variety of ways that are often unsung.

This month, we’re focusing on Givers of Stuff.

One of the many unusual things about the Steel Yard is our unique ability to take advantage of gifts of material and equipment. In short: gifts of stuff. Stuff goes a long way here-whether it’s material for our classes, tools, safety equipment or even an old piano that we strip for sculpture material.

We hope you’ll enjoy this conversation with Paul Brancato of Ideal Steel, NY (a giver of stuff).


SY: Tell us a little about how Ideal Steel started.

PB: How far back should I go? My father, Vincent, was a Sicilian blacksmith, and his dad before him.  When my dad arrived in the NYC, USA at the age of 19, his only skill set pointed him to a job for an iron works company.  Like so many immigrants, he worked hard enough to be able to buy his own truck and tools and started his own iron works company in the Jamaica, Queens section of NYC.  For decades he ran a successful iron works company that outfitted many homes in Queens and Brooklyn with fences, railings, window guards, etc.

In the mid-1980s my older brother, Jack, took over the company, affording my father time to pursue other interests. While continuing the iron works business, my brother experienced a lot of competition from small startup fabricators that had little overhead.  While these small fabricators often underpriced my brother in bidding for jobs, they did not have the shop space to purchase steel materials in bulk so as to meet the minimum orders required by steel distributors.

“If you can’t beat them, [supply] them.”  Jack found a niche in supplying these small contractors with materials that they needed on a job-by-job pickup basis.  In essence, we moved one step up on the “food chain.”  The analogy is that we went from being “carpenters” (making cabinets) to being a “lumber yard” (just supplying the lumber to carpenters). Ideal Steel Supply was born.  We were able to expand this supply model by opening other locations throughout the NYC area.  

 

SY: What makes Ideal Steel different than other steel suppliers in your area?

PB: A lot of things make us different. Here are a few:

Our places: we are located within NYC and growing. We are adding or building locations within NYC.  Other steel suppliers have moved away from the individual customer base to huge mega-warehouses in CT or NJ, which on a pure dollars and cents basis may seem cheaper.  We stay and grow in the city—higher real estate taxes and high real estate costs, but much more convenient to our customer base.  If you are an artist or ironworker and you need a few lengths of material on a Saturday morning, you can drive up and get it.  None of the out-of-NYC suppliers are going to dispatch a truck from NJ or CT to serve that need.  Even if they did, you’d get it a week later.

“One Stop Shopping”: because we are selling convenience to our customers and they often come in to pickup materials, we also sell a full line of castings, hardware, welding supplies, paints, etc.  The small fabricator wants to be able to get everything she needs to do the project at one time, without scrambling around a town known for its traffic jams.

Our people:  we don’t have departments; we are small enough and location-based enough that all our employees are customer-service driven.  We all interact with the customers at some point during the day.  We work extra hours and Saturday, speak foreign languages (Chinese, Spanish), and go those extra miles to deal with the customers on their terms in their comfort zone.    

 

SY: A lot of family businesses we encounter have trouble keeping the newest/next generation on board. Knowing that you pursued a law degree and then returned to the business, I am curious if you have any thoughts about this trend or your own decision to re-engage?

PB: I think the more you try to push children in a direction, the less you’ll succeed.  For us, my parents never suggested or encouraged us into the steel business. I always wanted to work there during summers and breaks from school and college. It was an interest that we independently developed.  We also were allowed to pursue that interest on our own terms and in our own time. My brother Jack, served as a Nassau County Police Officer, prior to joining the business and I went to Fordham Law School.  I don’t think Jack or I ever had to re-engage: we had other careers along the way, but that did not wash away the interest in the business we had as children, throughout school and even while pursuing other interests.  While studying law, I always related the lessons to the business.  It was easier to learn the law of contracts, property, tax, etc., with real life examples from the steel business. When fellow students would ask me what I was going to do after law school, steel was the immediate answer. They all thought I was crazy, but I could not imagine being in the business without the context that a legal background affords.  It made perfect sense to me. I guess they were right--I am crazy.  

 

SY: When I visited, I had a chance to see your newest location. Would you share some of the plans for that site?

PB: All of our locations are primarily steel supply locations. We recently built a brand new facility in Jamaica in conjunction with the NYC Economic Development office.  At its core it is a basic steel supply facility with cranes, racks, shears, iron working equipment, etc. However there are ongoing plans to devote some of the shop space and an adjacent dead-end street for the purpose of creating and displaying metal sculptures.  We hope to partner with a local college arts department to develop the talent.  We can donate the metal, space and equipment. The dead-end street would, in essence, be a sculpture garden. Of course, we need the city’s approval and are in the application process.  I think it is a win-win-win scenario if we can pull it off.

I should also point out that we have additional plans to expand in the Bronx on a site that we are in the process of acquiring.  The site will have extensive incubator space for metal artisans.

 

SY: You recently made an amazing donation of materials to the Steel Yard. What excited you about us and prompted you to reach out in this way?

PB: I don’t know about “amazing.” It’s what we do for a living--load trucks up with material and ship them out.  This was special in that it went to your very impressive organization and a noble cause. 

For so many years, I was a simple merchant.  I understood that our customers make things with what we sell, but visiting The Steel Yard just “freeze-framed” a fuller appreciation for the process of fabrication and a respect for the energy that goes into it.  I could not do anything else, but try to help The Steel Yard.

I left your facility with a brand new perspective on an industry and art form that I had grown up around, but had become a little numb to over the years.   The 2-1/2 hour drive back from RI seemed like 15 minutes because the visit put my mind in high gear.  I thought about our place in the larger process that Ideal Steel is just part of when it simply sells a bar of steel to someone.  To have done any less than make the donation, would have been a form of “shoplifting” on my part.

Since making the donation, I have looked at so many issues differently than I did before. I feel like I and my business can be an increasingly integral part of that larger fabrication/design process.  It is directly because I visited that I have been aggressively pursuing the sculpture yard in Jamaica. But that is just one example, I cannot think of a more productive expenditure than the donation we made and the resulting expansion of perspective I obtained.  

Find out more information on Ideal Steel.

 

P.S. We believe everyone has a resource to share. What’s yours? We’d love to tell your story here one day.