Sheet Metal Supply Ltd.
Designs on the future
Business View Magazine interviews Ben Kweton, President of Sheet Metal Supply Ltd, for our focus on the U.S. Construction Industry
A few minutes’ drive West of Lake Michigan and about 40 miles north of Chicago’s downtown lies the village of Grayslake, Illinois – home to Sheet Metal Supply (SMS), a materials and fabrications supplier. The company, which services customers across the country, makes one simple promise: to supply exceptional, consistent sheet metal profiles fabricated from architectural metals with unmatched lead times.
SMS delivers on this promise by leveraging over 30 years of experience working in the industry. Over this time, it has perfected the science and art of materials and fabrications to become one of the foremost suppliers in North America. Adding to this brand promise, the company commits to offering customers competitive pricing, rapid lead times, regionwide shipping, and extensive product capabilities delivered from its state-of-the-art Grayslake facility.
But to comprehend the height of this towering company is to appreciate how deep its roots go… and they do, indeed, run deep. “My dad, Phil Kweton, started the company in 1991 in a 16 by 30 foot garage space with equipment that was all operated by hand,” shares Ben Kweton, VP at SMS. “At the time, the focus was on roof perimeter edges for residential and commercial roofing, and over the years, we have just evolved from there.”
Having outgrown its 30,000 square foot facility in Mundelein, Illinois, the company decided in 2018 to move to its current 82,000 square foot facility. This move couldn’t have been better timed, wrapping up just before the pandemic hit in late 2019. Kweton admits, “During the move, we also had two major pieces of equipment coming in, so we struggled to get everything installed and get all our technicians trained, but we managed to fight our way through that challenging time while retaining all our employees.”
SMS’s products and services span a wide gamut of materials and fabrication processes, including low slope, steep slope, and façade fabrications. The company is also North America’s largest distributor of German-made RHEINZINK materials, a suite of architectural zinc coils, sheets, gutters, and accessories, besides S-5! snow retention systems.
Currently, SMS has a talented workforce of 33 working out of its Grayslake facility, led by the brother-sister duo of Ben Kweton and Phoebe McCorkindale. While the company has a family-oriented culture that fosters inclusion and a sense of belonging, McCorkindale points out that the recent pandemic has tremendously impacted its ability to find new workers.
“We’ve seen the labor market change so much in the last two years,” she explains. “Two years ago, we would place job openings on Indeed and get 50 to 60 applicants overnight. Last summer, we posted two job openings, and we had one applicant over two weeks. Now, we’re in a position of hiring again, and we are inching back to the 2018 – 2019 numbers, which is a great sign. We have more skilled people applying, plus the sheer number of applicants is increasing, showing the market is getting back on track.”
The move to a larger facility also brought some fortuitous benefits. It afforded the company ample space to allow everyone on the shop floor to work while abiding by social distancing protocols. “Our new facility was designed to allow for lots of space, lighting, and air in the shop,” says Kweton. “So, while the protocols required six feet, most of our workers are in some cases as much as 24 feet apart, which allowed us to keep working throughout the pandemic.”
Like most companies in the building and construction industry, SMS faced severe materials shortages and delays at the height of the pandemic, something Kweton and McCorkindale agree compelled the company to adjust. “We were fortunate, timing-wise, that we moved right when the pandemic was starting because we now had all this extra square footage that we didn’t have at our old location,” McCorkindale explains. “As lead times from some of our critical vendors went from one week to between four and eight months, we could now bring in more inventory, helping offset these delays, bulk up inventory on the floor, and continue servicing our customers.”
Other areas of adjustment have been in the costing matrix, which, as Kweton points out, is influenced by a surge in upstream pricing. “On the incoming side, we’ve seen sea containers go from three to four thousand dollars freight cost from Europe to our door, to current prices of twenty-three to twenty-four thousand dollars,” he explains. “That’s besides rising costs in trucking due to labor shortages and higher fuel costs.” The company has implemented workarounds to lower costs and maintain more stable pricing. For example, instead of using trucks and semis to transport smaller deliveries, the company is now using hotshot trailers, which Kweton says are more cost-effective, nimble, and accessible.
SMS has supplied materials for stunning architectural works in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, among other states. Although the company does provide some off-the-shelf products, most fabrication works respond to customers’ specifications. The company is incredibly proud of one notable project: the Chicago Park District’s Eleanor Boathouse. “We worked on this project with Studio Gang, one of the hottest urban design companies in the country right now,” says Kweton. “We supplied German-made RHEINZINK zinc panels, and it came out so great the project won the MCA Chairman’s Award Municipal in 2018!”
Although the company has similar iconic projects under its belt, most of its work comes from the roofing industry, augmented by façade and glazing projects. One area that the company has never ventured into and does not plan to do so any time soon is installations. “We don’t do installations because it’s what our customers do,” explains Kweton. “Doing that would put us in direct competition, inevitably hurting our core business of supplying materials.”
As the pandemic unfolded in 2019, the company quickly realized a lot was changing, especially in the supply chain. True to this hunch, by 2020, companies were scrambling to replenish shrinking inventories as supply chains constricted. For SMS, a simple strategy proved effective in ensuring supplies kept up with customer demands – relationship building.
“One of the things I learned at the time was that to survive through the pandemic, we needed to have sound finances and remain attractive as a customer to vendors,” says Kweton. “We’ve always believed that you buy from somebody that you like. Similarly, you sell to people you like and take care of them. So, part of our success was understanding that even though supply chain dynamics were constantly changing, we had to keep paying our bills like clockwork. In so doing, we presented ourselves as very easy to deal with to our vendors, allowing us to get a lot more inventory in shorter lead times and helping balance out the peaks and valleys in the supply chain.”
Eastlake Metals was one such vendor. “We’ve worked with Eastlake Metals for many years, but our relationship really took off during the pandemic, primarily because their business model supports rapid lead times of more exotic fabrication jobs,” says McCorkindale.
Looking to the next 30 years, the company is clear about one thing; the building and construction industry is rapidly evolving, and SMS must keep innovating and changing to survive and thrive. For example, as the company pushes into newer, different markets, it is seeing that the importance of custom colors is becoming much higher because people don’t want standard colors anymore. “People have a dream, and they want to see it come to fruition,” says Kweton. To this end, Sheet Metal Supply Ltd. plans to continue experimenting with new products and processes, as architects and their customers push design boundaries even further.
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AT A GLANCE
Sheet Metal Supply Ltd. (SMS)
What: An innovative materials and fabrications supplier
Where: Based in Grayslake, Illinois
East Lake Metals – eastlakemetals.com
East Lake Metals purchases mill direct from domestic steel producers, which gives us the ability to offer very competitive pricing. We offer a wide range of galvalume and galvanized products and are the leading provider of mill finish aluminum and painted coil in gauges ranging from .012” to .040”. Our background in mill, paint line, and supply chain management allows us to develop programs specific to the unique needs of our customers. Our goal is to support them in any way we can.
Founded by veterans of the aluminum and steel industry, East Lake Metals is advantageously located at the crossroads of I-80 and I-65 with access to the International Port of Illinois and Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor. In addition to our proximity to steel and aluminum mills, we are also conveniently located to coating lines, slitting lines, and other production facilities. This allows us to offer our customers a wide range of production options. We also offer in-house slitting and cut to length services as needed.
ELM would also like to recognize the success and excellence of Sheet Metal Supply of Grayslake, Illinois. With over 30 years of success, SMS is the type of customer East Lake Metals was created to support.
Please reach out to us at (219) 655-5526 with your material and customer needs, whether they be architectural, building products, transportation, or construction. We have an excellent sales force, and our customer service department is always ready to serve you.
The Management Team, East Lake Metals