Today’s AMA takes us to one of three Kloeckner branches in the Chicago area, our South Metron metal supplier. In that mammoth 360,000-square-foot service center, there’s a larger-than-life, seasoned Warehouse Supervisor doing his part to keep operations top-notch. Big John Brown is a man of few words, but just like the music he prefers, anything he says has meaning behind it. Here’s our candid conversation about his almost 40 years of working in steel.
Lauren Wiggins: What was your very first job? What’s something you loved about it and hated about it? Did you learn anything from it that you still use today?
John Brown: Back in high school, my first job was dishwashing. I just took it so I could start making my own money, but I learned about efficiency and running a clean dish pit.
LW: I’ve also been a dishwasher, and keeping the pit clean is harder than it sounds. So how did you end up in the metals industry? What brought you to Kloeckner?
JB: Well, dishwashing was a good starter job at 0.80 cents per hour, but I wanted to make more. I heard about some good-paying jobs at a place called Trim Steel. I was happy to leave the dishes behind and stay in steel.
LW: I bet. You’ve been working in the metals industry for 39 years, and there are several people at your branch who also have tenure. That means you’ve spent a lot of time with the same people for a long time, which has to feel a bit like a second family. What’s it like having such a strong bond with the people you work with? Any special traditions?
JB: They’re the second family I never had! Before COVID, we used to go to work breakfasts all the time. We should start that up again.
But a key moment for me is when my mother passed away. Bart, Sue, Adam, and others joined me at her wake to pay respects and be there for me. At that moment, I realized that I was surrounded by family.
LW: I’m sure that was a very touching thing to experience in your moment of loss, to know so many people were lifting you up.
Let’s shift gears – what’s the coolest thing you’ve done or project you’ve been on in your time with Kloeckner?
JB: I enjoy my daily grind because there is always a new challenge with either a customer deadline to hit or a new job that we want to try to get. I have worked my way from the bottom up over my 39 years, and when you truly enjoy what you do for a living, it doesn’t feel like work.
A few years back, we did something called a Kaizen, and that really fascinated me.
LW: You’re going to have to tell me what that is.
JB: It’s a Japanese philosophy, a system for continuous improvement in warehouses. I’ve always been hands-on in production. I’ve done just about every job you can do on the floor – sheer operator, crane operator, forklifts – and when we did the Kaizen, I got to learn more about the money and the business side of steel. They put it in a way that clicked for me, and I realized there are smarter ways to do something from a cost perspective. Then, they started teaching me more about the management part, and that’s what got me to where I am now.
LW: Yeah, it always feels good to be invested in like that. Sounds similar to LEAN management. I’ll have to do some Googling. Okay, here’s one that stumps folks – do you have a hidden talent? If not, what’s your greatest passion/hobby when you’re off the clock?
JB: No hidden talent, but I do love sports. I watch it all. I played baseball and football in high school, so those two have always been my thing. That’s my passion!
LW: That’s what I was looking for, whatever feeds your soul! Do you have a favorite team?
JB: White Sox all the way! Can’t stand the Cubs.
LW: There you have it, folks; John Brown lives in Chicago but is not a Cubs fan.
Here’s a good one. If you were giving a speech to a class of high school seniors today, what’s the most important piece of advice you would give them about their final year in high school?
JB: I’d tell them to be passionate about whatever they do. We need all kinds of workers, and to be good at something, you just have to do it to the fullest. That, and approach everything with love and kindness.
LW: Absolutely. I couldn’t put it any better myself. Alright, here’s where the judgment starts – what’s your favorite music genre/band/performer/song?
JB: I’m big on Jazz, Blues, Bluegrass, and some R&B. When I was coming up, music had meaning to it. You know, it wasn’t all that screaming and hollering; it had a message, especially Blues.
LW: You mean you’re not a fan of today’s mumble rap?
JB: No, you won’t catch me listening to that.
LW: Love it! Tell us about your hero, a leader, or a public figure you admire – is there a principle they stand for that you’ve adopted as your own, or something in their work that inspires yours at Kloeckner?
JB: I had an Ops Manager named Tom Thompson, and I still share his words with the young people I work with today. His advice was to eliminate “I can’t” from your vocabulary. He felt that the moment you say “I can’t,” you’ve already defeated yourself.
Here’s the perfect example. We used to do about two or three rail cars a day, and he told us we’d need to start doing four. I made up my mind that it just couldn’t be done that way. He sat down with me, and we put a plan together that worked. That’s the kind of leader he was.
After that, I thought twice before I said I couldn’t do something. Now, I tell new warehouse workers to try first. Whatever it is, you might just find that it’s easier than you thought.
LW: That’s right! Having mentors you can identify with is important to any career, and that piece of advice can be applied to anything. Plus, now you’re a great mentor for the next generation. Let’s talk about your family – what are your responsibilities like at home? Is there a fun activity/tradition you enjoy together?
JB: Being a grandad! I’ve got four kids and 10 grands between them – ages 7 to 27 years old. The grands are always fighting over me, but my little granddaughter has me wrapped around her pinky. She’s so cute, but she thinks credit cards are magic money.
As a family, our favorite thing to do is go to Sunday breakfast, and we go on vacation together whenever we can. They excite me! I just love being around them.
LW: You mean credit cards aren’t free, Granddad? Okay, final question and this one is only as tricky as you make it – if you could turn back the hands of time and do one thing differently at any point in your life, what would it be, and why would you change it?
JB: I could go two ways on this one. On one hand, I would go to college and get a higher education. On the other, I learned so much from struggle and real life that I wouldn’t bother with college.
I bought my own first car, and I was so proud of that. My parents couldn’t afford it. My mother worked two jobs, and we struggled through a lot. But we ate every day, we had clean clothes, and I was proud of what I learned and how I provided for myself.
I wouldn’t be the man I am today if I made any changes along the way.
Another poignant ending to another fantastic interview. We thank John for his contributions to our operation and for spending a little time talking to us. Tune in for our next AMA when we head over to the west coast to talk with our Santa Fe Springs Production Manager.
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