Smith Earns Chamber Award

October 13, 2003
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HOLLAND — The crossroad came suddenly and without warning.

Following the loss of his father, Dean Smith was faced with deciding which path to take: Move on to something else; or take over the reins of the family business and go forward.

He chose the latter route, and after overcoming what he calls “one of the greatest challenges of my professional career as well as my personal life,” helped build on the foundation his father, the late Ron Smith, set down at Specialty Heat Treating Inc.

Through continued innovation and a dedication to employees, the Grand Rapids-based company, which has a sizeable plant in Holland, has enjoyed an average 13 percent growth rate over the past 14 years.

Not bad for a guy who “really didn’t feel prepared” to take over the family business 14 years ago following the sudden death of his father and mentor. Looking back, he’s “pleased to say I think I made the right choice.”

For his success in business, Dean Smith last week received the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual Small Business Person of the Year Award.

“When my father passed away, I was faced with the choice of continuing on with the business, which I felt totally unprepared for, or sell the company,” Smith said in accepting the award during the chamber’s monthly Early Bird Breakfast.

“I like to joke that the real deciding point for me was the fact that heat treating was the only thing I knew how to do, plus I really needed a job,” he said. “Many years later, I can actually laugh about it, along with others who knew my father well, and feel that it was just another of his ‘life training’ techniques, much like throwing someone into the deep end of the swimming pool just to teach them how to swim.”

The 44-year-old Smith, now the company’s president and CEO, was vice president and manager of the company’s Grand Rapids plant at the time. He succeeded his father after coming up through the family business that his parents founded in 1973 in the back of a vacant building in Grand Rapids, with four employees and 2,000 square feet of space.

Over the years Specialty Heat Treating, with a current work force of about 100 employees, changed with the times, moving from the salt baths once used to treat metals to vacuum treating.

He recalls how the past process required employees to remove heavy, red-hot metal parts from salt baths using metal hooks on long poles. The work was hard, hot and filled with the potential for burns and singed hair. But it was the beginning of a ‘vision,’” Smith said.

Specialty Heat Treating, Smith said of the early days, “was determined to be on the leading edge” of transforming the industry. His father wanted to transform the business into a clean, neat, organized and technically advanced environment.

Those changes came during the 1970s and 1980s, as did strong growth and expansion of the business.

Firmly established in Grand Rapids, Specialty Heat Treating opened a plant in Elkhart, Ind., in 1982 to serve the northern Indiana market, a venture that Smith recalls as a “monumental task” as the family balanced the new operation with maintaining the business back home.

A third plant came in 1989, in Athens, Ala., where Specialty Heat Treating began serving the blossoming aerospace industry and manufacturers drawn to the southeast. In opening the new plant, which the company sold in 1997, Specialty Heat Treating followed the core belief that “one of the keys to success was investment in technologically advanced equipment.” Many of the strategies and quality systems in place in Michigan and Indiana were used in Alabama and helped to make the Athens plant a “great success.”

But advanced technology and strong business systems aren’t the only things that make a business successful, Smith said.

Specialty Heat Treating works equally as hard to sustain a corporate culture that fosters success and allows employees to strike a balance between work and home while promoting teamwork and camaraderie. The company in June was named one of “West Michigan’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For” by the West Michigan Business and Professional Association.

At work, employees go through an extensive in-house training program. Virtually all employees receive basic or advanced computer training and training in interpersonal skills, as well as advanced instruction in their particular field.

“All of the finest equipment, facilities and quality systems available are nothing without a dedicated and well-trained team,” Smith said.

A supportive workplace environment is essential, he said. His advice for anybody struggling in business is “to find individuals who support your basic business culture and have the training or expertise to tackle the things you are not equipped to deal with. Then stand back and marvel at the skill, pride and pleasure they experience in their work.”

“One of the most important lessons life has taught me is to recognize what you do and do not know. Acknowledge that as an individual what you do is sometimes not as important as what you allow others to do and the best choice you can make is to allow others to deal with things you know little about,” Smith said. “I found that after many years of trying to do everything myself that we had become a one-dimensional operation. It wasn’t until I decided, or was forced, to allow others to spread their wings and grow, much the same as my father had done for me, that we truly became a successful organization.”

That success brought Specialty Heat Treating to Holland in January 1996 when the company opened a new 14,400-square-foot plant to serve the growing local market. The Holland plant was Smith’s first opportunity to design a heat-treating operation “from the ground up,” and it marked “the turning point” in his leadership of the company following his father’s death in 1989.

The move to Holland was wildly successful, as the company landed new accounts and took on new business that would lead to future expansions.

The support of the local business community was beyond my wildest expectations and I very quickly found that although we had a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility, we were destined to run out of space in a very short period of time. Fortunately, we had planned for just such a problem,” Smith said.

Soon after opening in Holland, the company went on a “construction frenzy,” buying land adjacent to its Grand Rapids facility to build a 33,000-square-foot addition that opened in 1997. Specialty Heat Treating added on to the Holland facility in 2000 and is planning another 12,000-square-foot addition, with construction beginning late this year or early 2004.

“Expansion has been a way of life for the company since the beginning.  Even though all of the plans seem to be well thought out, inevitably, the 10-year plan turns out to last for five years and the five-year plan seems to only meet your needs for two or three,” Smith said.

After receiving the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2003 Small Business Person of the Year Award, Smith is now eligible for the same statewide honor sponsored by the Michigan office of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

In the past 19 years, seven business owners who received the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce’s recognition went on to win the SBA’s Michigan Small Business Person of the Year Award.           

Name: Dean Smith
Company: Specialty Heat Treating Inc.
Position: President and chief executive officer
Age: 44
Hometown: Grand Rapids
Residence: Dorr

Biggest Career Break: Building the company’s Holland plant in 1996. It was his first opportunity “to do something entirely on my own making. That really was the turning point” in his leadership of the company following his father’s death in 1989.

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