Final Thoughts

Final thoughts

Written by Michael Cowden

I want to give a big shoutout to the good folks at the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association (FMA) for inviting me to their annual conference this week in Clearwater, Fla.

I also want to give a special thanks to the FMA for awarding SMU founder John Packard with a lifetime achievement award – one that also gave me a chance to catch up with my old boss in person.

John had jotted down prepared remarks before taking to the podium to accept the award on Tuesday. As chance would have it, Brett Linton – John’s first hire at SMU and one of its most prolific writers – was set to rejoin the company as a senior analyst after a year at Reibus.

I mentioned to John that he had taught Brett, new to steel when he was hired in April 2010, about coil by using a roll of toilet paper as a prop. (I learned at the hotel bar afterward the awards ceremony that John is not the only person who in steel who has deployed this unique training technique.)

John, true to form, set aside his prepared remarks – just minutes before taking the mic – and fetched a roll of toilet paper from the hotel. He then recounted from the podium – holding up the roll of toilet paper – that he had started SMU in August 2008 (not a particular auspicious time for a new venture) with the goal of informing the steel industry in plain terms that everyone could understand.

He noted that he didn’t study business or economics at Hamline University in Minnesota, where he went to college. Instead, he focused on teaching and religion. So teaching has always been core to what he does. In fact, Brett tells me, John used toilet paper to explain coil to SMU’s first Steel 101 class back in April 2011. (That initial Steel 101 was a one-day workshop in Houston with no mill tour.)

John also noted that he sold SMU to CRU in 2018 so that he could scale the company in a way that he wouldn’t have been able to do on his own. That’s allowed us to take advantage of CRU’s analytical firepower for things like our service center inventory reports. It’s also in no small part how our Steel Summit conference has grown from just over 100 people in 2010 to ~1,500 people in 2023.

But there are parts of SMU that remain small by design. Steel 101 is still an intimate affairs with classes of about 50-60 people – and a teacher-student ratio of 10 or fewer. Yes, the course has gotten a little more sophisticated over the years. It now features, in addition to toilet paper, a detailed overview not only of steelmaking and steel markets but also of coating extras and steel futures.

We have a virtual Steel 101 coming up on March 19-20. And we’ve got two in-person events on the horizon. One is on June 11-12 in Fort Wayne, Ind., featuring a tour of SDI Butler. Another in-person Steel 101 is scheduled for Oct. 8-9 at SDI Columbus. (You can learn more about Steel 101 and register here.)

Many of you know the Steel 101 instructors: Mario Briccetti, Chuck McDaniels, Roger Walburn, and Chris Shipp. They’re familiar names in an industry where relationships still matter. I think Brett fits into that category too.

If you haven’t reached out to John in a while, you might want to congratulate him on his award. Or ask him about the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain, which he’ll be walking in May and June.

And if you want to trade notes on the current steel market, drop Brett a line. He’s been around SMU and steel for long enough to have learned a thing or two. You can reach him at

And, as always, thanks to all of you for your continued support SMU.

Michael Cowden

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