BUSINESS QUARTERLY: Business-owner keeps an eye on politics

By SCOTT MERRILL

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Published: 10-25-2022 3:00 PM

Peter Sirois, co-owner with Cliff Thornberry of American Steel in Greenfield, is a local business leader who stays tuned in politically.  

American Steel in Greenfield is a full-service steel shop that produces the structural steel framing and 3D modeling of steel skeleton orders. The company purchases material from supply houses and fabricates steel for building projects and uses erector companies, such as American Steel & Precast Erectors in Peterborough— a former sister company to American Steel Fabricators— to set it up.

Sirois, who with Thornberry bought the company from Mark Carter in 2019, said the biggest news in his business recently is that the Steel Fabricators of New England (SFNE), a trade association made up of small, often family owned companies that buys steel from mills and modifies it to their customers’ requirements, helped make sure a bill was passed earlier this year to protect American companies from foreign competition.

Sirois and Thornberry spoke in front of the state Legislature earlier in support of the law,  which requires that any state-administered public works project over $1 million must give preference to American-made steel, but only if it is cheaper than the alternative.

Sirois said the biggest challenge to steel fabricators in New England is the low cost of doing business for Canadian companies.

“They get government-subsidized electricity, government-subsidized health insurance and government- subsidized insurance programs that protect them in the case they don’t get paid by a customer, as well as virtually free health care,” he said. “If Canada wants a job in the states, we can’t compete with them. We would have to lose money just to match their price. It’s not competition.”

The bipartisan bill to prioritize American-made steel in state contracts was originally filed by state Sen. Tom Sherman, a Democrat who is running for governor this November.

Sirois said when the law was passed to protect steel mills in America, the problem was moved from the mills to the fabricator. The other thing that helped Canada, according to Sirois, was a tariff loophole allowing them to buy steel from cheaper producers like China as long as they modify it.

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“All they have to do is drill a hole in it to modify it,” he said. “So not only do they have all of these subsidies, but they can also buy steel cheaper than we can because they can buy from countries we’re not allowed to buy from because of the tariff.”

Sirois said the SFNE is trying to get Massachusetts to do what New Hampshire has done so that at least publicly funded work would be competitive regionally. American Steel Fabricators recently secured a letter of intent with Landry/French Construction in Scarborough, Maine for 1,100 tons of steel, Sirois said. 

“We were competing against two Canadians, and I gave [Landry/French] the stats,” he said, explaining that 180 percent of all revenue spent on construction stays in local communities through the recycling of payroll purchasing, restaurants and other business, and creates more tax revenue for community. “I was able to convince them to give us the  job. It might be the owner felt patriotic and did it. I’m pretty confident I didn’t beat them on price and I know I took the job cheap, but it’s a big job that will keep people busy for the next four or five months.”

When Sirois and Thornberry bought the company, they had 14 people in the shop and eight in the field. Today, Sirois said the company has 16 people in the field, 27 in the shop and 65 overall, and is still looking for help.

“Shortly after the purchase, COVID hit, but we were deemed an essential business so they couldn’t shut us down,” Sirois said, adding even in the midst of the pandemic, the company doubled its size.

Historically the company has had revenue of $8 million to $10 million in revenue. Last year, revenue was around $19.5 million.

“Our revenue is on pace for $15 million this year,” Sirois said. “This year we hit a lull because our chief estimator left and there was a three- or four-month window where the company couldn’t produce estimates fast enough.”

Currently, Sirois said, American Steel just secured more work and is booked solid for the coming months. 

“We’ll be working overtime until next May,” he said. 

Sirois said the company’s goal is to run 30 people in the shop and 21 people in the field, but that it’s very difficult to find staff at the moment. 

“If I could find five more guys tomorrow I’d hire them,” he said, adding that this summer the company lost some of its staff to higher-than-normal wages at places such as Target and other retail jobs. “Not everyone has a long-range outlook. A lot of guys live paycheck to paycheck. We’re expecting that when the economy tanks, we’re going to pick up more staff. So if the economy tanks, I’m actually looking forward to it.” 

Business and personal politics

New Hampshire state Rep. Peter Leishman, who has owned the Milford-Bennington Railroad Company since 1992, is focused on politics for reasons that align with his business and for personal reasons.

He said he has donated money to U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas from New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District, who serves on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, primarily because Pappas’s views on women’s rights align with his own.

Leishman, a Democrat who was a Republican until six years ago, said he made the change due to attacks by his colleagues surrounding his pro-choice stance.

“I do what little I can to support fellow democrats like Pappas and other organizations such as the Harris Center,” Leishman said. “The Republicans used to go after me with a vengeance for my pro-choice stance, and my business has been healthy enough to support to support various local interests.” 

And then there are business owners like Microspec founder and CEO Tim Steele, who said he resists getting involved in partisan issues.

“I do not want to fracture working relationships in the company,” Steele said. “The polarization that has developed significantly in recent years and largely based on untruths is something I wish to keep out of the company. Our people come first, and anything that may tend to be a detriment to the efficiency of the way we work together is unwelcome.”

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