Huntington helps Corken Steel expand into flooring, heating & HVAC
The Corken Steel Products Co. continues to expand and diversify to better serve customers
Change has always been a constant at The Corken Steel Products Co., as steel markets and related industries shift over time. But because Corken’s other constant is a focus on customer service, the company has stayed ahead of changes and continued to grow.
After working for a sheet metal supplier and seeing an opportunity to provide better service in the industry, Don Corken Sr. started his company in 1955 with his three brothers, a friend and a cousin. The company launched as a wholesale distributor of metal roofing products, because that’s what Corken sold at his previous employer. But with the goal of providing better service than anyone else, Corken soon discovered other opportunities to meet customers’ needs by diversifying the business.
For example, Cincinnati’s winters didn’t allow for much roofing work, so roofers looked for other ways to earn income during cold months. Many of them did furnace repair work, including making metal parts for the furnaces, so to serve them better, Corken expanded into heating products.
“Roofers made metal furnace parts back in those days,” says Don Corken Jr., director of roofing. “That’s why we ended up handling a line of furnace parts and ductwork back in the early ’60s and then started selling furnaces. Then, when air conditioning hit, that changed the game for roofers because they couldn’t do the mechanical work required on air conditioning. Now, they either do roofing or HVAC.”
As contractors became specialists, Corken kept pace with its customers by expanding to meet their demands. For more than 60 years, Corken Steel has listened closely to shifting customer needs and entering into new markets to better serve the contractors who depend on it.
Today, Corken Steel has three divisions: heating and air conditioning, roofing, and sheet metal fabrication, making it a one-stop shop, says President Jeff Corken. With 13 locations in Ohio and Kentucky, the company continues to expand with a simple service-based motto: “The answer is yes; now what’s the question?”
Corken Steel still caters to roofers and HVAC contractors by continuing to expand within both markets, under the second-generation leadership of brothers Jeff Corken and Don Corken, Jr. On the roofing side of the business, Corken Jr. says the company expanded from metal roofing into single-ply about eight years ago. “It changed our company because it opened up rubber roofing and all the things that go with it, like skylights and roof hatches and metal edging,” he says. “It turned our business around.”
On the HVAC side, Corken Steel found major opportunity in geothermal heating and cooling systems, which tap into stable temperatures underground to heat and cool buildings more efficiently. It began with a contractor request for geothermal units. Soon after that, the company learned that a nearby distributor was exiting the geothermal business, so Corken took over the territory, an acquisition that jumpstarted the geothermal business.
“We got heavily involved in geothermal about 12 or 15 years ago,” says Jeff Corken. “The government supported it with (30 percent) tax credits to help drive renewable energy, so it’s become a big deal.”
In 2016, geothermal sales accounted for 20 percent of Corken’s HVAC equipment sales. But since the federal tax credits expired at the end of 2016, the business has taken a big hit. “It’s down about 45 percent,” Corken says, “so we’re trying to expand into some different products. We found that we’re selling more high-efficiency traditional heating products and air conditioners than we ever did before, so that has helped soften the blow.”
Diversification has been key to buffering the business from market swings. Both of the Corken brothers say their father’s fearlessness was critical in establishing the company’s growth culture early on. “Even though he was older and semi-retired in the early ’90s, he encouraged the expansion,” Corken Jr. says. “He loved the challenge of it. It wasn’t easy, but he was pragmatic about it.”
As part of the expansion plan, Corken Steel started buying smaller companies; the first acquisition was a Louisville-based company in 1992. “Of course, we needed help with financing, and that’s how we got involved with Huntington,” Corken says.
He says Huntington met his father’s high standards for delivering excellent customer service and maintaining long-term relationships. “They’re kind of like Corken Steel – the answer’s always yes,” he says. “Whenever we have come to them with any request, be it property purchases or a line of credit, they’ve always been there. They’ve helped us understand our options.”
The brothers joke that Huntington has grown right alongside Corken through the years, allowing them to keep up with the growth of their customers. By championing that chain reaction, the bank’s reliable support over time helped fuel Corken’s business to new heights.
“You never know what’s going to come down the pipe in this business, so we have to remain flexible and welcome change,” Corken Jr. says. “That’s the culture here. You can’t be afraid of these things, they’re going to happen, so you always have to be ready to go.”
“And that’s where Huntington comes in, because when these opportunities do appear, they have to be financed,” Jeff Corken says. “That’s where the bank has been really helpful, because they’re very responsive.”
With the ability to move quickly in response to market trends and demands, Corken Steel has averaged about 10 percent annual growth for the last several years. And while that is great for business, it has created some growing pains inside the company’s facilities.
“Our roofing division had been suffering from a significant lack of space for a number of years,” Corken says. “They were out of space for their products. We were storing stuff in multiple locations, running around doing pickups and deliveries, it was just crazy. We had to do something.” Material was being damaged, and employees were frustrated because they’d “have to move 10 items to get to one item,” Corken Jr. says.
Finally, to give the roofing division – and the rest of the business – room to grow, the company purchased a $2.1 million distribution building in Evendale, Ohio, in early 2017. Around the same time, Corken Steel completed a $390,000 expansion of its warehouse in Milford. Within the last few years, the company also doubled the size of its Dayton location.
“We don’t worry about making money this week or next week or next month; we worry about being successful five or 10 years from now.”
— Jeff Corken, president, The Corken Steel Products Co.
Almost immediately after the expansion, they began to see a difference – most noticeably in employee morale. “You just see it in the guys, the way they walk around,” Corken Jr. says. “That alone has been a turnaround. It’s all about people, and we’ve been blessed with great employees.”
The brothers agree that Corken Steel’s 250 employees have been key to the company’s growth, and the relationships they’ve built with customers are what differentiate Corken from the competition. That’s why the company has been successful, they say – because it prioritizes long-term relationships over short-term profits.
“We don’t worry about making money this week or next week or next month; we worry about being successful five or 10 years from now,” Corken says. “The bottom line is that people who buy from us can buy from numerous other places just like us, so we have to differentiate ourselves – and the relationships are what separate us.”
For more information, visit corkensteel.com.