Division chief aims to energize old plant


February 01, 1993|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

Duane R. Dunham -- an enthusiastic, buoyant man of 51 -- is intent on transforming Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point steel mill from a lumbering, slow-moving giant to a spritely, energetic plant that worships the customer.

"Get your seat belt fastened," he said, summing up the new approach at the massive steel plant in Baltimore County.

Recently selected as president of the Bethlehem Sparrows Point Division, Mr. Dunham is part of a new decentralization strategy of creating separate business units for Bethlehem's major steel mills -- each with its own top officers and marketing and sales department. The units will take the credit, or the blame, for their individual performance.

Mr. Dunham says he's ready.

"I look at it as an exciting opportunity," he said. "We've got good people down here. We've got people who want to win. I've not been associated with a loser yet. And I sure don't plan on it now."

He brings to the job 28 years of experience in Bethlehem's sales and marketing department, where he rose to vice president of marketing. With no experience in operations, Mr. Dunham will be relying on Carl W. Johnson, the former vice president and general manager of Sparrows Point, who was named vice president of operations in the new arrangement.

"There is nobody better in terms of running an operation or knowing operations than Carl Johnson," he said

Competition from within

Sparrows Point's chief in-house competitor will be Bethlehem's brawny Burns Harbor, Ind., mill, which has also been split off into a separate division.

Built in the 1960s, Burns Harbor is considered one of the most efficient integrated steel mills in the country. In contrast, the Sparrows Point mill was established in 1887 and has been one of the chief reasons for Bethlehem's losses in recent years.

But pointing to a $1.5 billion investment in equipment during the last 10 years at Sparrows Point, Mr. Dunham says the plant can hold its own against a younger brother plant.

"Things have changed and changed rather dramatically," he said. He particularly points to new finishing mills, which have been coming on line in the last several months.

Mr. Dunham does not expect any head-to-head competition with Burns Harbor since most of its customers are in the automotive and heavy machinery business, while Sparrows Points provides sheet products to the construction industry and container industry. Even so, 20 percent of their business overlaps, he said.

The bottom line

With new facilities and a new vision, Mr. Dunham has one goal -- profits.

"We have put together a very aggressive marketing and business plan for 1993 that dictates that we will be profitable this year," he said.

The keys to profit, according to Mr. Dunham, are efficient operation of the mill and knowing the needs of the customers and meeting them -- goals that Sparrows Point have fallen short on in recent years.

"Frankly, we have struggled at this plant, and there have been some

very good reasons for that," Mr. Dunham said. There have been particular problems with the plant's new hot strip mill, which produces steel sheets used in most of the mill's other finishing operations.

The hot strip mill has not been able to consistently produce the 50,000 tons of steel sheet every week that is necessary to provide the needs of the rest of the plant. But in recent weeks the mill has been meeting this goal, and Mr. Dunham expects this to continue.

Coupled with the better operation of the plant, Sparrows Point is getting a new 60-person marketing department that has a direct link with the plant, rather than being 140 miles away in Bethlehem, Pa.

"All functions of the business reside here," he said. "We've got to respond quickly, precisely to inquiries, customer information, standards. They are changing rapidly. And the old way of doing business isn't going to make it happen any more.

"You can have all the meetings in the world, but the fact is, the plant stays there and everybody goes back to Bethlehem [Pa.] and sometimes communications are successful and sometimes they're not," he said. "One sure thing is, you're not going to move Sparrows Point and Burns Harbor to Bethlehem, Pa. So if you are going to change something, you're going to have to go the other way."

Mr. Dunham wants all 5,800 workers at the plant to share his vision.

"We've got to make sure that the knowledge of who the customer is and what he wants permeates the entire organization," Mr. Dunham said. "And I'm not just talking about salaried [employees]. I'm also talking about the hourly people."

Along with faster reflexes, the new operation will also have more of a community orientation.

"We want to be a good corporate community citizen. We think that is a key part of business," Mr. Dunham said, noting that he will be the company's chief representative in the community, joining various civic and business groups and even talking to such groups as the Rotary or the Civitans.

But he stresses the division's chief concern will be profit.

"All the other activities are important, but none are as important as that right now," he said. "We just have to get that accomplished."

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