Tough Steel

Linda O’Brien never planned to be the president and owner of Emerald Steel Processing. That was her husband’s job. Chuck’s world.

He was the president of Ring Screw Works, which owned several plants and companies throughout the state of Michigan. Emerald Steel was just one of several companies he owned, a small business in Madison Heights industrial corridor that drew wire, coated and forged steel for automotive suppliers.

Really, her heart belonged in the medical field, having worked for Quest Diagnostics for 15 years before co-founding a company, Dynamic Rehabilitation Centers. She was the force behind the women’s heart clinic at the Detroit Medical Center and on the board at the Children’s Hospital, while Chuck served as the chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Detroit Medical Center, guiding the hospital system through some of its most troubled times.

It was a good life.

Until March 29, 2007. That was the day Chuck O’Brien passed away, 41 days after being struck by an aneurysm. And that was when Linda decided that she wouldn’t sell Emerald Steel, and she wouldn’t close. She would learn. She was 54.

Training Day

“I came in here two weeks after Chuck passed away,” Linda remembers. “I started going through supply agreements and contracts. I actually put on blue jeans and walked in the back plant.”

She was in over her head, managing employees with 20 years more experience than she had. Rumors were swirling about the future of the company.

“Then I saw this ad for ‘Understanding Your Business,’” Linda says. “I went out to Oakland County and met Lola Are’.” She decided to enroll herself and Joe Ankley, Emerald Steel’s general manager, in a 12-week class.

“He looked at me and said, ‘the business is going okay, right now. We don’t need to do this.” And I told him, “No, we’re going to reinvent this business.”

They took the class, offered through Oakland County’s Small Business & Technology Development Center. Linda bonded with Are’, who she says guided her, step-by-step, through the three-month course, offering support and encouragement at every turn. Wrote a business plan. Got ideas. Met with students at Walsh College, who offered their business acumen to the pair.

“We began to really diversify our company,” Linda says.

It was just in the nick of time.

The Hottest Fires …

“2008 was the worst possible year in automotive history,” Linda remembers. She had to bring in personal money to keep Emerald Steel’s doors open. “I started wondering, ‘What am I going to do?'”

She prayed.

“I was so determined to do it,” she says. “And honestly, when you put everything in the dear Lord’s hands — I don’t want to sound like a religious fanatic — but every other night, I would stop at the Grotto in Orchard Lake, and I’d say, ‘Give me the knowledge, give me the strength to understand what I have here.’

She knew it was what Chuck would have wanted.

Linda began to accompany her general manager on sales calls. “We’d go to different accounts, and I’d tell them, ‘Imagine there’s a pie. All I want is just a piece of the pie. Just a piece.’ And I tell you what,” she adds, “there was only one company who didn’t give us business.”

Roaring Success

Chuck O’Brien passed away four years ago this March.

One wonders what he’d say if he could see Emerald Steel now, guided by the employees he trusted, and his wife, who leapt into the driver’s seat. During his lifetime, Emerald Steel was just a small company, a subsidiary of his much larger businesses.

Things have changed.

“We’ve gone from probably five accounts to about 60 accounts now,” Linda says. “Business has doubled, and we’re at full capacity right now for our little business.”

The future of Emerald Steel? Expansion, both here in Metro Detroit and outside Michigan. Linda’s currently renovating a building she purchased next door to their current headquarters, and they’re picking up another company out-of-state.

“We have our own semis, and we’re going to Chicago, Indiana, Ohio,” she says. “We never did that before.”

This grandma’s advice to other women who are contemplating a career change later in life?

“Do it. Don’t look back,” she says. “Follow your dream. Just do it. Nothing’s gonna stop you. You just gotta try … It doesn’t matter how old you are … it’s what’s inside.”

Find out more about Emerald Steel Processing here.

Photos courtesy of Emerald Steel.

Ashley C. Woods is Prosper editor. Get in contact with her here.