When Joan Brennan headed to East Alton, Illinois for her first day of work on June 1, 1981, the world was a very different place than it is today.
No cell phones. No CDs. No Internet. Even computers were a rarity, as few and far between as – well, as female metallurgical engineers were in the American workplace.
But as you may have guessed, Joan Brennan was one of those female metallurgical engineers – and by no means the first to be hired by Olin Brass Fabricated Products. While she can appreciate their progressive hiring practices today, at the time she remembers being much more excited at the prospect of simply joining the Olin Brass team.
One thing that has not changed in the past three decades is the stature of Olin Brass as a world leader in every aspect of copper production. Then, as now, Fabricated Products was an industry leader in its own right, one that played a key role in the organization’s success.
With that said, the metal stamping business was very different when Joan started than it is today. “In those days, it was a much more localized business,” she recalled. “A large majority of our customers were located within a few hundred miles of the plant. And everything we did was copper-based.”
Contrast that with the current global market, where the customer base is truly international and growth depends more and more on looking beyond copper. Joan estimates that 15-20% of their current output is stamped from non-copper alloys – stainless steel, cold-rolled steel, aluminum and other metals. “Our goal is, and always has been, to be a full-service stamping source,” she says.
And in that, Joan says, few companies have been as successful as Fabricated Products. The fact that they operate presses employing three distinct stamping technologies – progressive, transfer, and multislide – is unique. So are their exceptional capacities in both weight (up to 800 tons) and linear cutting inches, which give them the capability to stamp larger and more difficult parts than most competitors.
Perhaps the biggest difference of all is their affiliation with the rest of the Olin Brass organization, beginning with the brass mill. “Over 80% of the material we stamp comes from right next door,” Joan said. “There are tremendous advantages to that, both for Fabricated Products and for Olin Brass as a whole.”
The benefits go beyond the obvious time and cost savings inherent in sharing a site with your prime materials source; because they share customers, too.
“There’s a sizeable subset of customers who buy strip from the mill and parts from us,” Joan said. “They may be fabricators who use us to supplement their own stamping capacity, or pass along jobs they’re not equipped to handle.”
In the best scenarios, Fabricated Products works synergistically with both the mill and other Olin Brass operating units, allowing customers to achieve unparalleled levels of efficiency and quality control.
“It’s not uncommon for us to share projects,” Joan said. “Fineweld Tube and CuVerro come to mind. Think about a hospital room, and all the components that can be made with antimicrobial copper. Fineweld makes IV poles and bed rails. We do light switches, electrical outlets, and all kinds of fixtures – even the keys for computer keyboards and keypads.”
Such multi-disciplinary efforts illustrate the enormous advantages to customers who come to Olin Brass seeking real solutions as opposed to just a supplier. From Joan’s standpoint, that is what it is really all about.
“As Manager of New Product Development, it’s my job to oversee and steer the process of any new item,” she said. “That goes from determining whether the part is suitable for stamping, to considering the desired specs and quantities and gathering all the information necessary to make a good estimate, to identifying potential problems and process improvements before work actually begins.
“It’s very striking how team-oriented it is,” she continued. “I act as a ‘communications conduit,’ between our sales and tech people, and probably more importantly, between our engineering staff and the customers.” Once work begins, she functions as “the customer’s voice on the plant floor” throughout the process.
If that sounds like a recipe for close-knit, long-term customer relationships, it is. Joan points out that some of her customers have been doing business with Fabricated Products longer than she has been working there – 40, even 50 years. From her point of view, it is easy to see why they stay.
“A set of tooling is expensive. Most of our customers consider it a long-term investment, one that they’ll maintain for many years. So developing a relationship with your fabricator just makes sense.”
And once the relationship is established, she said, it is bound to grow and blossom, to the point where the line between customer and vendor is blurred. “Quite often, a long-time customer will get us involved with a project in the concept phase, before design work has even started,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘we want to make a part like this, or that does this – what’s the most cost-efficient way to do it?’ And they trust that we’ll come back with the right answer.”
If that begins to explain why Fabricated Products has been so successful at retaining its customers, it also illustrates why Joan has stayed with the company for nearly all of her working life
“I came in as a marketing engineer in 1981 – really a customer liaison, handling engineering changes, complaint resolutions, and so on – and I did that for 14 years. Then I moved over to the brass mill and worked in new product development, primarily with automotive customers.”
But after five years, she found herself missing the closeness and trust she feels are unique to Fabricated Products’ customer relationships. And so in 2001 she returned to become Manager of New Product Development, a position she has held ever since.
“As far as I’m concerned, I have the best job on the planet,” she said. “On the one hand, the technical side is fascinating – what we’re able to do with metals is incredible. But on the other hand, it’s all about working with people, day to day, shoulder to shoulder, and seeing what we can do, as a team. I love it, I really do.”