In honor of National Safety Month, we decided to put our Vice President of Safety, Health, Environmental, and Sustainability in the hot seat for this month’s AMA. Rick Gruca is the composed impetus behind all our safety innovations and program development. He handles each of his charges with a cool head, and when you’re discussing any tasks related to his department, you can tell he considers his responses deeply before answering.
So how does someone become a safety leader? How does that path unfold? Everyone’s story is different, but this one is Rick’s.
From Biology to Metals
Lauren Wiggins: This is the easy one. 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?
Rick Gruca: “I started working when I was 14 or 15, mowing lawns and parking cars in Downtown Pittsburgh for various events. However, my first “real” job after graduating college with a BS degree in Biology, was working for an environmental consulting firm as a field technician. It didn’t pay well, I think $6.50/hr. What I really loved about this job was the variety of work, as well as the travel associated with it. One day I would be sampling a groundwater well at a local US Steel site, and the next day I would be traveling to upstate New York to operate a wastewater treatment plant.
I put in a lot of hours and worked a lot of overtime. I quickly realized that I had leadership qualities that were also recognized by my employer and was made a field supervisor in short order. I learned that hard work and a willingness to learn pays off. However, there is also a trade-off. I spent a lot of my time those first five years traveling and missed significant time with my new bride, and, shortly after, my first-born son.”
LW: Yeah, there are trade-offs to everything. How did you end up in the metals industry? What brought you to Kloeckner?
RG: “Growing up in Pittsburgh, the home of the “Steelers”, it was very easy to find yourself in the metals industry. Steel’s in your blood. My dad was a plant engineer for a company (Herr Voss) that manufactured roll machines and levelers that we currently use at several of our branches. So it was definitely in my blood.
I worked an operation in Blytheville, AR. Spent six weeks there. In fact, for the entire six weeks, we were dismantling an old steel plant. So we had Jackhammers inside the different pipes, clearing all the old slag and steel out of the ductwork so that they could dismantle everything. It was interesting.
I have been very blessed in my career and have always looked for opportunities that challenge me, whether inside a particular company or finding a new job. Every change that I made was an advancement or a unique opportunity. I have worked for an environmental consulting company, an aluminum door, and window manufacturer, a chemical manufacturer (carbon black), and a third-party logistics company. I wanted to get back into metals and my roots in environmental management. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to find both with Kloeckner. Hopefully, this is the last stop for me.”
LW: That’s awesome! Working in industrial spaces isn’t for everyone, but I share that love.
RG: “Yeah. The other thing about steel that I would say is just the process itself is so cool, right? I mean, I worked at the coke ovens in US Steel, and you’ve got these big batteries where they put the coke in and out and heat it up. Just the processes, smells, the heat, and the people are all so cool.”
LW: You’re active on several boards – President of the Magnalia Foundation, past president of the GA Chapter of the American Society of Safety Professionals, and Assistant Secretary on the Kloeckner Metals Relief Fund board. That’s a lot of extra-curricular activities! How do you balance all those responsibilities? Do your efforts in one seat inspire your work in others?
RG: “While my titles may have changed through the years on those boards, I am still active on most. Fortunately, they do not take a lot of my time as they only meet a few times per year, but they’re still very important to me.”
“I don’t think that any of my efforts on the various boards inspired my work on others, but I do believe it is very important that we find ways to give back to others. I think it’s paying it forward, you know mentoring, and I do a lot of mentoring. I do it for a Christian organization I belong to. We’re actually mentoring some high school kids and are having a blast. I haven’t done it for a couple of years now, but I just think there’s something to sharing your knowledge, your experience.
My mom was a nurse, so I think that service attitude rubbed off on me.”
LW: Absolutely. Having the heart of a servant is everything and there’s never enough of it. Okay, here’s a crucial question and I will judge you based on your answer. Favorite music or band? Do you have an all-time favorite song?
RG: “My taste in music varies. I enjoy all types of music – anything from ‘80s alt-rock to classical, to Oldies or Doo-Wop from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and even some country (just don’t tell my wife that). But, my go-to is usually ‘80s or ‘90s. My favorite band continues to be U2, although I much prefer their earlier music because I think they got too commercialized. But their earlier stuff was almost Christian Rock, with very selfless lyrics. My favorite songs would probably be “Pride,” or “Beautiful Day” if we’re talking about their more recent work.
LW: Okay, let’s clarify. When you say the ‘80s, are we talking hair band at all? Or are we talking about more New Wave ‘80s, like INXS, The Cure, and Tears for Fears?
RG: Yes, exactly. That’s me! I love Talking Heads and The Smiths too.
Passion, Never Settling & Service to Others
LW: Good deal, you’ve passed the music snob check. You graduated from the University of Pittsburgh – if you were giving a speech to their graduating class today, what’s the most important piece of advice you would give them?
RG: First, follow your passions. It’s not about the money. It’s not about notoriety. My dad didn’t care if I became a garbage man or whatever; he always told me it was about loving what I do. Second, don’t settle. That’s part of the passion. You should always challenge yourself to be even better. And finally, always look to serve others. Being a servant leader is my constant. I ask how I can make my people successful and keep them safe. There’s no better way I can think of to serve employees than to keep them safe and guide them.
LW: I love that answer, and I want you to know that I feel that from you just through emails and chat. Sometimes, I feel like I’m bugging people when I’m trying to write something that I need more context for, but you’re always responsive and helpful. So thank you.
Here’s one I’m very curious about. You got your BS in Biology and your career path seems to have been pretty focused on Safety from the beginning. Now, you’re our Vice President – Safety, Health, Environmental & Sustainability. How did you create such a clear path for yourself? How did Safety become your work passion?
RG: Well, let me first say it was not a clear path. I had no clue what I wanted to do when I graduated college and it was months before I got a job, to be honest. It certainly wasn’t intentional at the beginning of my career. I really had no idea what I wanted to do, especially with a BS in Biology. I knew that I didn’t want to teach. I had originally planned on going to med school or becoming a doctor, but that didn’t pan out.
When I left the environmental consulting firm and started working at the aluminum window and door manufacturer, I got involved with safety as part of the safety committee. That was my first real exposure to safety. I saw a lot of crossover between environmental and safety and was interested in getting more involved with safety. Both disciplines are about protection and that really sold it for me. I also felt that safety was a good fit for my medical interests.
I eventually moved to Georgia and worked out of the corporate office for a chemical company in Marietta, where I was the Global Safety Manager. I did a lot of traveling and met a lot of good folks all over the world. That was fun and, you know, I started growing, got a lot more into auditing and that sort of thing, and just really enjoyed it.
Then, I came to Kloeckner back in 2015 as the Environmental Manager because I had missed that piece of it. I knew my predecessor was likely going to retire in a couple of years, and there was a good opportunity for me to be mentored and maybe grow into that position
LW: Very cool. When you look at someone’s LinkedIn profile, and it’s as tidy as yours, you never get the whole story. I appreciate you sharing.
RG: What’s really interesting is a lot of colleges now have safety courses and degrees. So there are a lot more professionals, if you will, starting right out of college. That really wasn’t a career path, it wasn’t an opportunity for me.
LW: Good point. I mean, it’s an evolution thing. When I was in college, there weren’t social media classes, and now it’s a whole major.
Okay, follow-up question: what kind of doctor did you want to be?
Still Inspired by Medicine
RG: Medicine runs in my family, and I ended up looking into physical therapy. Did a lot of work when I was in college volunteering in internships with physical therapy locations, which was kind of cool. Did a year-long stint with a spine and neck injury Rehab Center, which was both very exhilarating, fulfilling, and very depressing.
LW: I bet. So that explains why you’re so passionate about this MoveSMART initiative that we’re pushing out. I’ve only done cursory research on that, but it’s a martial arts-based ergonomics program? Did I get that right?
RG: Yeah, it’s all about knowing your body. It’s not about getting stronger; it’s about utilizing your larger muscles and getting away from putting so much stress and strain on specific muscles. And it’s based on balance and psychology and martial arts. For instance, we’re told to lift with our legs, not our back. Bend your knees, squat down, and pick up whatever you’re picking up. MoveSMART says that’s great for a 22-year-old, but your body changes. Sometimes, you cannot bend the same way you could before. You have to know your limitations and how to adjust your posture.
Hobbies & Heroes
LW: Sounds like something I could have used in my warehouse days. Here’s another fun one! Do you have a hidden talent? If not, what’s your greatest passion/hobby when you’re off the clock?
RG: I used to be very good at juggling a soccer ball, although it’s not as easy now after having undergone knee surgery a couple of years ago. Soccer is definitely a passion of mine. I helped start the boy’s soccer team at my high school many years ago and spent a lot of time coaching my three kids. I also like to run a few times per week. On Sundays, I run a 10k (not competitively) with my oldest son.
LW: That’s a nice father-son activity, and the soccer ball juggling has to be a cool party trick. Do you like Atlanta United?
RG: Oh yeah, we enjoy them a lot.
LW: Here’s one that stumps people. 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?
RG: My dad. He was a great man and taught me to always work hard. He would always tell me “nothing is for free.” He was another servant. There’s also John Wayne. He’s always been a hero of mine. I loved his no-nonsense attitude, patriotism, and real grit. Finally, St. Pope John Paul II. The way he remained faithful after being shot and living with his Parkinson’s disease, was very impactful for me. He taught me that we all suffer in some way, but that we can still find peace, hope, and joy.
Tight-knit Family Time
LW: Beautiful. Now, how about your family – what are your responsibilities like at home, is there a fun activity/tradition you enjoy together? I’m freshly married and always looking for good advice.
RG: Family is really important to me. My wife, Cindy, and I have recently become “empty nesters,” which has been a huge change for us. We go to dinner or play pool. We have a Golden Doodle that keeps us on our toes. Fortunately, our kids, Zach, Jacob, and Ashley, are all still close and we’re able to get together fairly often. Sundays are my day to go running with my eldest and grill or griddle dinner. We usually spend the rest of the afternoon or evening playing games, such as spike ball, roof ball, or board games.
I have been very fortunate to have married my best friend, and we have now been married for 29 years! It hasn’t always been easy but is well worth the work. I have found that it’s critical to always want the best for the other. It also helps to remember these critical 2 words – “Yes dear!”
LW: Okay, I’m learning that one, but what in the world is roofball?
RG: During the pandemic, we invented it. You hit the ball off the roof and sort of play volleyball with it.
LW: That’s ridiculously cute, and I get it; we all had to get creative to survive. Okay, here’s the final question – 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?
RG: I did a lot of thinking about this one. I used to have regrets that I didn’t take college more seriously, or I thought that I missed an opportunity to be a Physical Therapist or doctor. At the end of the day, I can’t regret any of that. I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have married my best friend, I wouldn’t have my three children, and I wouldn’t be working for Kloeckner!
Well, there you have it. Some paths aren’t as clear as they appear, but staying true to your personal values will get you where you want to be. A big thanks to Rick for being so candid with us and spending a little time telling his story!
Lauren is the Communications & Engagement Manager at Kloeckner Metals, spearheading different programs that facilitate conversation throughout the entire organization, while enhancing company reputation across digital mediums. Lauren has a background in experience in social media management, as well as copywriting for big brands from an ad agency position. She’s a graduate of the University of South Carolina, an AmeriCorps alumna, and a published storyteller.