Northern States Metals' manufacturing facility in Youngstown, Ohio


Northern States Metals, a Youngstown, Ohio producer of aluminum extrusion products, re-invented its business, became an industry leader and achieved five-fold growth using Forged in Steel leadership principles after reaching a plateau in its annual volume of business.

Through the experience, “we learned how to design, test and make our product in a cycle of days, not weeks,” says former COO Joe Nobile. “I like to say that we came up with Nobel Prize-winning ideas in 15 minutes.”


Former COO Joe Nobile

The Northern States team embarked on the process of change at a time when sales were flat and new customers were nowhere to be seen. The company was ready for a breakthrough but did not know how or where it would happen.

The upshot was that the company changed its self-perception and learned how to work together better and became much more nimble in a rapidly changing niche industry.

The Back Story – At a low point, when growth prospects seemed bleak, Nobile attended a Forged in Steel conference at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, led by Tunch Ilkin of the Steelers and Damian Williams of Leadership League. And then he read their book Forged in Steel: The Seven Time-Tested Leadership Principles Practiced By the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Forged in Steel content got Nobile thinking about his young team who had high levels of technical talent but were deficient in leadership experience. He realized that the football-related values might resonate well as a catalyst for his team to begin thinking strategically about the future.

“We were stuck in an image of ourselves as just a manufacturing job shop,” Nobile says. “We didn’t think of ourselves as renewable energy players.”

Nobile and several other VIPs took part in one of Leadership League’s proprietary “Strat-Op” processes intended to refine one’s message, positioning, target market and opportunities for growth to develop a concrete strategic and operational plan as a blueprint. They came away impressed, with a plan for transforming their company.



“Chuck Noll coached his passion for doing ordinary things extraordinarily well,” Nobile says. “This leads to what? – continual improvement opportunities.”

In the aftermath of the Strat-Op, a customer placed a rush order for clips that attach to solar panels. The company began to automate the production process and delivered finished material three weeks ahead of time. The customer was so pleased that it placed two more orders.

That lifted some eyebrows, and the ream realized that the solar industry was eager for new design/assist services to make products better, cheaper and faster to market. If Northern States could create a better version of its “Flex Rack” product, they believed business could tick upward.

Nobile encouraged his 40 employees to seek ways to continually tinker. He involved everyone, from the shop floor to engineering to himself. In the assembly line, 13 people switched positions once a week so each could perform any job function on the line. Nobile purchased copies of Forged in Steel for key leaders, and they read it together. The new focus began to change the culture.


Says Nobile: “Everyone saw the involvement of everybody else and was excited to come to work. We improved our value stream mapping, personnel placement, 5S methods, automation concepts and ‘theory of constraints’ studies, all of which have been very valuable within the organization.”

What Northern States created became the solar industry’s only factory-assembled racking system which reduced a half-hour installation process to just 90 seconds. The assembly line manpower need was reduced from 13 people to six. Sales jumped over the span of four years by 545 percent.

To meet customer demands, Northern States personnel grew to 212 workers, including the addition of more experienced sales staff.

“We ran out of parking,” Nobile jokes. “But we got better at leading ourselves.”

The market responded, and Northern States received the Inc 5000 America’s Fastest Growing Companies, Solar Power World People’s Choice Industry Excellence Award for Leadership in Solar and Solar Power World’s Top 100 Products in Solar.

Nobile says that Forged in Steel helped impact the company’s success in three primary ways:


1. Promoted best practices to do an ordinary job extraordinarily well;
2. Developed a fully cross-functional team that can be interchanged into any part of the assembly function and always perform at high levels; and
3. Built a team that cared about each other like family. The team and the outcome became most important, not any one individual.


A New Challenge – In April 2015, believing there was more for him to accomplish, Nobile left Northern States to create his own consulting company, Tamarack Consulting Group, LLC, based in Akron, Ohio. The firm provides outsourced COO services for companies seeking a new phase of growth and development. It also performs solar site audits to help clients confirm compliance and mitigate risk.

“It allows me to give back what I’ve learned in manufacturing management and to teach and train a new generation of people,” Nobile says. “As leaders, we need to realize we cannot do it alone. We have to be deliberate in our actions and held accountable by others. It all comes down to trust.”

Nobile is expansive when sharing with others how Forged in Steel principles have shaped his view of leadership and management. He writes:



As leaders, we need to realize we cannot do it alone. I’m not just talking about support from the talent that you’ve built within your organization, but rather having people you can open up to. People you respect and that you count on for open criticism of things you are doing – or not doing. You have to be tough minded enough to listen and learn and grow from these relationships and the feedback you get from them.

If – I should say when – you have to fall back and regroup – is when your toughness and tenacity will shine. Are you going to learn from mistakes and grow stronger or are you going to give up and be beaten – worse yet – become apathetic?

Hemingway once wrote that "The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, some are strong at the broken places." My advice to leaders is to get strong and stay strong in those broken places. Your leadership at work and at home – and your spirituality – will experience breakthrough. These breakthroughs will help you envision new successes. What you see is what you will be.


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