Using Innovative Thinking to Embrace New Challenges
For centuries, humans have been forging and manipulating the versatile metal we know as steel. Steel is seen in practically every aspect of modern society, particularly in construction. Today, Bridger Steel is bringing forth innovative ideas, both in customer relations and in manufacturing, and enjoying revenue growth and company expansion into new locations as a result.
Bridger’s wide range of home construction materials boasts both durability and low environmental impact. The company’s roofing and siding panels, made from one hundred percent recyclable metals, are also pre-painted to reflect solar energy, reducing the urban heat island effect while helping homeowners save an estimated forty percent on their annual energy costs. Roofing panels also make excellent platforms for solar panels or rainwater catchments.
Bridger Steel materials were used in the Vision House Aspen project, a 2017 program in Aspen, Colorado, a project to design sustainable, aesthetically beautiful houses in nearby Roaring Fork Valley. The company also provided all steel used in Fine Homebuilding magazine’s California 2018 home, another project designed to meet the challenge posed by California’s Zero Net Energy program. Under this measure, the state hopes to have all new buildings have net-zero energy emissions by 2020, thereby decreasing its environmental impact and saving energy costs simultaneously.
Since last we spoke in July 2017, the company has built new locations in Colorado and Kalama, Washington, in addition to its several existing locations in Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana. In its Kalama location, it greatly lowered its logistical and supply needs by building its manufacturing plant next door to Steelscape, one of its major suppliers. National Sales & Marketing Director Steve Collins says his office is immediately adjacent to Steelscape.
“We’re really close to two of our primary suppliers,” he jokes with wry understatement. For Bridger Steel, the possibility of such proximity drove the decision to build in Kalama. “It ended up creating a unique supply chain opportunity for us,” Collins says. “It was a different approach to choosing a location, and it’s paying dividends for us.”
This practical thinking is prevalent here, which also prides itself on its heavy online presence. Its website attracts sixty thousand visits monthly, reaching customers far beyond its local service area and show them what Bridger Steel product would best suit their needs.
He says this approach represents a shift in customer thinking, as fewer baby boomers and more millennials comprise consumer demographics. According to Collins, these new customers seek solutions to problems more than simple transactions.
“It’s a lot more of an educated buyer than we’ve previously seen,” he relates. “They’re looking for value in every step of the conversation with us.” While previous customers sought to build more personal relationships with providers, he says these newer customers instead seek reliability and solid service. “The structure of the relationship has changed. Rather than the customer looking to create a lifelong bond of friendship with a vendor, they’re looking for a trusted resource.”
Collins says this generational shift is also taking place among contractors, construction companies, and architectural firms, all with younger leadership. “They’re eager; they’ve grown up with the internet at their fingertips, and they’re used to having a question and immediately being able to get an answer.”
Bridger Steel has accommodated these changes with its thorough online presence, and Collins says it has paid off. “We have a very, very strong presence with thirty-five to forty-four-year-olds and forty-five to fifty-four-year-olds.” But the company is still working to provide better online resources to the customer, beginning with information.
“We’re investing heavily on the education side so that we can provide that resource for every one of our customer segments,” he says. The company is also working with architects, contractors, and construction firms to accumulate information about every step of the manufacturing and installation process. Then, it will consolidate this information into succinct, informative materials.
Collins envisions an increasingly automated online customer service system for when employees are unavailable. Despite the company having a robust online presence, it is still playing catch-up in machine learning. Using predictive modeling software supplemented by its previous customer experience, Bridger Steel is looking at AI and virtual assistant software to anticipate customer needs and provide relevant answers if possible.
“If you have a question about a metal roofing panel in the snow, what is your question going to look like?” he says. He hopes for a user interface providing readily available information, rather than “burying it inside some PDF on the back side of the resource section of a website.”
With a previous background in Seattle’s technology sector, Collins is no stranger to these communications barriers. “We assume too much about the consumer, rather than looking at how the consumer interacts with our brand,” he says, explaining that the industry has previously focused primarily on the contractor, without paying enough attention to the owners and decision makers in the building process.
Bridger interacts with every member of the building process – steel providers, contractors, architects, and building owners – and each group has its own set of questions and priorities. He sees this new development as an investment in ensuring long-term customer retention. “The brand or the company that provides those answers to them, they’re usually pretty loyal to them afterwards.”
The company’s inventive thinking expands to its steel manufacturing process as well. The company is now experimenting with limited automation, seeing it as an inevitable feature in manufacturing. In 2018, it purchased several machines designed to perform the repetitive, mechanical aspects of the manufacturing process. But the company must ask itself, in Collins’ words, “How automated can this process become? How capable is the piece of machinery we’re investing in?”
While he admits the company has not seen what this automation will do to overhead costs, he says that contrary to fears of automation eliminating jobs, the new machines will help the company utilize its employees in more efficient ways, increasing manufacturing production. For millennial consumers who prize efficiency and rapid delivery, this is an advantage.
Bridger Steel’s modern ideas also extend to its hiring practices. As employees age out of the workforce, the company works to promote largely from within, giving current employees clear knowledge of opportunities. The company has recently begun looking at outside industries for new talent, particularly as it is increasingly embracing younger customers.
It is now seeking creative, driven individuals from outside the steel industry to spearhead these new marketing challenges. One new hire included a former elementary school teacher, who brought a unique approach to simplify complex scenarios into easy-to-digest explanations. Other recent hires have backgrounds in search engine optimization (SEO), web development and three-dimensional (3D) rendering, rapidly creating a new digital workplace when “a few years ago most of our business could be conducted with a piece of paper and a pen,” Collins remarks.
He believes this embrace of new ideas is what makes the company distinctive and competitive. “What we do really well is embrace a challenge. A customer walks through the door? Our first priority needs to be to find a solution for them, whether with us or another company.” He describes how the company works especially well with equally forward-thinking customers and that those customers usually become lifelong partners. This thinking drove the company’s decision to build new facilities so close to steel providers like Steelscape. “We’ve aligned ourselves with like-minded partners,” he says.
Today, the company has expanded from a single shop to seven locations, with its new Colorado plant nearly ready to open. Bridger Steel has been used not only on housing developments but on the New York City Football Club’s training facility, Walt Disney World, the Churchill Downs racetrack in Kentucky, and various retail locations for the Wisconsin-based Duluth Trading Company. Recently, Collins proudly notes its work in hurricane and typhoon relief both in the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, including projects in Haiti, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and Guam.
Its embrace of novel ideas has led to Bridger enjoying twenty percent annual revenue growth despite the growing pains of its recent expansions, and the company is poised to reach more customers than ever before. It is clearly attentive to the changing times of the twenty-first century with the experience and mindset to address the challenges and opportunities of the future.