When someone has 45 years of experience holding up their career, chances are they’ve seen a few things. If that career is in steel, you better start taking notes when they speak. This month, we were honored to chat with Ron Atilano, who calls our Kloeckner Metals Santa Fe Springs metal supplier facility his home branch, though he travels to many others. Here’s what we learned about what it’s like to be a traveling trainer in the steel industry.
Lauren Wiggins: Here’s our first question – 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?
Blueprints & Stepping Stones
Ron Atilano: My buddies and I had a pact to go into the Army unless we got jobs. I was about 19 years old and decided to follow my dad to Airdyne to work on giant commercial air conditioners. I’d call that my stepping stone job because it gave me some exposure to blueprints.
My first real job was a few years later at a place called US Filter. It’s an ASME type of factory, and they make pressure vessels. It was a lot of welding, rolling, and assembly. They kept giving me opportunities and teaching me things. That’s how I started learning how to use power tools and really read blueprints. Being able to read the prints is what helped me start the career that I’m in today.
LW: Very cool! Blueprints are a whole language. There’s definitely a generational gap in that kind of career path. I was all but forced to go to college, but I wish I had been given a choice to learn something as cool as welding.
So, how did you end up in the metals industry? What brought you to Kloeckner?
RA: While I was working at Airdyne, we went on strike. I had to look for another job, and I knew I wanted to continue developing my welding and blueprint skills. I landed at Angeles Welding, which was eventually bought by Kloeckner Metals, and here I am.
LW: Lucky us! Alright, here’s a topical one. What do you think about the emerging sustainability efforts happening in the steel industry?
RA: We’re definitely seeing the beginning of it all in California. When we tested that EV semi here in Santa Fe Springs, it was new territory for me. I was impressed and saw the value that kind of thing would bring.
LW: Yeah, Cali is the more progressive area of the US. That truck looked awesome!
Moving along – do you have a hidden talent? If not, what’s your greatest passion/hobby when you’re off the clock?
Rockstar Hobbyist, Racquetball & Mentor Mentality
RA: Yes, I play two instruments! I started playing drums in the early 70s. We played stuff like Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk, and Deep Purple – the good stuff. I picked up the keyboard, and I also sing. To this day, in my spare time, I like to play a little music. I like racquetball for exercise; it helps me let off steam.
LW: Nice! We need outlets for our excess energy. I love music and have always wished I could have picked up the guitar. I’m not coordinated enough for things like guitar and racquetball, but it seems like a good way to expend that energy.
Okay, do you mentor anyone at work? What’s the most important message you try to drill into the next generation of steel?
RA: When I started, I never thought I’d end up running a division, but the last 20 years have involved a lot of upper management roles for me. I was taught some very high-level skills when I was young, so I want to pass that along to the younger generations before I retire.
The Traveling Trainer
LW: That’s a noble final pursuit, and I’m sure you’ll do your part before that day comes. I just hope everyone else is doing their part.
What’s the biggest, most important change you’ve been part of in your time at Kloeckner and why?
RA: Teaching! The world has changed. It’s hard to hire a full-blown journeyman, press brake operator or roll operator or welder, or fabricator right off the street. The younger generations don’t go after trades, they want to be in an air-conditioned office on a computer.
I’ve been in this building for 38 years through different ownerships and management. Kloeckner has invested in me to travel, train, and teach the ones who show promise. When we get the younger ones who want to be on the shop floor and understand that welding is a prestigious trade career, I get to go train new operators in those other divisions with the hope they can have the same capabilities as we do at Santa Fe Springs.
I’ve had the privilege of working on projects like the Jaws ride at Universal Studios and the Magic Mountain Superman ride. I just want to instill in the younger kids that they can do cool stuff like that without a degree. It’s something to be proud of in a career. Learn it all and appreciate the opportunities you get out of learning.
LW: That’s definitely a purpose; it takes passion to teach. If there weren’t people like you teaching, there’d be no one to leave the industry to in a few years. You’re certainly leaving your legacy.
Here’s a good one – 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?
Everyday Heroes & Safety Always
RA: During my 45-year career in this business, I really can’t think of just one individual. I’m blessed and had a lot of great people contribute to how far I was able to take my career.
LW: That’s a fine answer. Sounds like you’ve gathered inspiration from all over, learning every facet of the industry.
So during a 45-year-long career, you’ve done just about everything, and I know most of it can be a dangerous job. What’s the gnarliest injury or craziest safety issue you’ve seen?
RA: Well, there’s a lot of things that have been put in place over the years to ensure safety comes first, especially at Kloeckner. When I started out at US Filter, we weren’t properly trained to use a crane. Someone asked me to load a tank onto a truck, and I didn’t know where the emergency shut-off was located. As I was loading, the whole bridge of the crane started to travel, and if it hadn’t been for an older gentleman running over to push the button, the tank would have fallen. People would have been hurt, which would probably have ended my career.
I learned, though, and now that’s the first thing I talk about to new crane operators. That, and to never stand where a chain might break. I’ve seen it all, and I’ve seen chains break. You have to stay focused and aware. Safety is the most important part of the job.
LW: Goodness. I can see how that’d be an unforgettable, adrenaline-pumping moment that shaped your career.
Let’s switch gears – how about your family? What are your responsibilities like at home? Is there a fun activity/tradition you enjoy together?
Family Pride & Loving Life
RA: I’ve been married 46 years – you gotta have fun. I’ve worked hard, but you gotta make time for family and fun. I have two sons, and they’ve turned out to be successful. My wife and I are very proud of our boys. The youngest is 45, and he’s a 3-D visual artist working on movies and video games. My oldest is 48 and teaches at a very prestigious high school in San Jose. His wife is a professor, and they’ve given us a granddaughter.
We spend as much time as possible with her and try to take her everywhere. My son tries to tell me to quit buying her stuff, but we spoil her anyway.
These days, it’s just my wife and our dog. We go to the movies a lot and take our dog to the dog park. Going out to dinner is always a good time for us.
LW: That’s the only way to have a grandbaby; spoil them every chance you get!
Okay, 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?
RA: I thought about this one pretty hard. My career went very well from the beginning till now, so I wouldn’t really change that. My two boys turned out to be successful. You know, they’re good men. I like living in California. I love the beach and the concerts around here, you know, being 20 minutes away in the mountains.
To be completely honest, there’s nothing that I would change about my life. I’m a happy man.
LW: And that’s why I love this question. It stumps you for a minute and makes you realize that you ended up right where you were meant to be.
A big thank you to Ron for taking time away from his rigorous teaching and training schedule for our interview. We appreciate everything Ron does for Kloeckner, and it means so much that he candidly shared some of his sage experiences with us. Stay tuned for next month’s AMA when we get the inside scoop on selling steel.