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Q&A: Steve Sukup, president and CEO

Steve Sukup was in elementary school when his father, Eugene, founded Sukup Manufacturing Co. in Sheffield, Iowa. He grew up in the company, tinkering in the welding shop and traveling to state fairs where the business hoped to connect with farmer customers.

By the time he was in sixth grade, Sukup could weld and run a torch. He eagerly put his skills to use completing class assignments and 4-H projects. “I enjoyed being out in the plant, seeing something start as a piece of steel and forming it into something. Even if you’re just punching holes in brackets, you could see some progress being made,” he says.

In February 2020, Sukup transitioned from vice president and CFO to president and CEO of the family-owned company. His brother and former president, Charles, moved to chair of the board.

Q: When did you join the business as a full-time Sukup employee?

A: I officially went full time in May of 1978 after I graduated in industrial engineering. I guess we can disclose now, in 1968, I was running a punch press in the weld shop. They weren’t letting me weld and run the torch for products, but I could run the punch doing brackets for us.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?

A: I like to say that moving targets are harder to hit. So as long as you’re making progress, moving forward, make sure you have good information, make a decision, and then work hard to make it a success.

Q: Tell me about someone who has been influential in your career.

A: My dad started the company. I saw his persistence. He used to have quite the boneyard out back of different things he’d tried. I quickly learned persistence is important.

He had three first employees, too, who grew up in the business together – Dennis, Ed, and Dave. They saw us through the years. I actually have a couple of classmates in the business with us as product manager and a plant manager. We’ve had a lot of people who all worked together as a team to keep growing and expanding.

Q: As you were learning early on in the shop, did you picture yourself as president and CEO someday?

I was always one of those who liked being able to make decisions, so yes. I’ve been fortunate through the years. A lot of people have come to me to ask, ‘yay or nay’ because I’m usually a pretty quick-answer individual. That’s my nature. That was always a goal, and I’m proud to be the third president of Sukup manufacturing.

Q: Tell me about the other family members who are involved in the business.

A: Charles has moved to chairman of the board and out of the day-to-day operations.

I have four of my children involved. My daughter Emily is our general counsel. Her husband, Andy Schmitt, is in charge of our supply chain. My other daughter, Crystal, is married to Matt Koch. Matt is our senior electrical engineer and does the programming on all of our dryers. My son Nick works with our steel center.

Charles has a son who works in our welding department.

Photo credit: Sukup Manufacturing Co.

Q: What is next for the Sukup family and the business as you’re beginning this next chapter as president?

A: With our product lines, we’ve got a great base throughout our ag communities and our customers. For our customers, every kernel or grain goes through our drying and bin systems. So for us, it’s about how do we collect more data to give them more information. We have a lot of opportunities to help them grow their understanding of the products that they’re raising with good information.

Q: In a statement that announced you as the new president and CEO, you said Sukup “will continually outperform your big corporate competitors by staying close to your customers.” Practically, what does that look like?

We have a very flat organization here. Yesterday and today we’ve had customers from the East Coast here. They’re large customers that handle 1 million to 10 million bushels of grain a year. They’re looking for large grain bins and dryers. We sit down with them, visit with them, and we know what they want. They were just in my office before they went on a plant tour. They’re always impressed that when we go on a plant tour, we know most of our employees by name.

We had a dealer trip here with 90 of our dealers here. Family members visited with every one of them. They all know us by first name, and we know them by first name.

Q: Your family is on a first-name basis with many people in the state and across the industry. You’ve been generous in Sheffield, at Iowa State University, and around the world. What does that mean to you?

We enjoy our community. Iowa has been good to us. It’s a great place. I think I’m up to 42 states, and I’ve visited 31 countries, but I live in Iowa by choice and I enjoy it. It’s a great place with friendly people, and everybody’s interactive with each other.

Q: What keeps you up at night?

A: Three years ago, it was the steel tariffs. That one I didn’t envision. All of our steel is domestic steel. We go and visit most of our steel mills. The guys out there running the big molten slabs know Sukup. When they said they were going to put a 25% tariff on foreign steel, I said, well, maybe our price will go up a little bit, but, the tariff is just on foreign steel. The domestic mills raised their prices 30% – because they could. That one caught us. We felt unintended consequences. We were the ones in the bull’s-eye there.

The other one is the commodity war that we had for a while. Fortunately, that has sort of come to an end, but I wish it was two years ago that it ended instead of just this year.

Q: What is the steel market like now?

Prices have generally come back to where it’s a predictable level now, so we’re actually looking forward. The last three years have been tighter markets in the ag communities with low process and tougher markets. But this year has been off to a great start. There’s a lot of enthusiasm around the ag industry of doing some projects, so we’re really looking forward to this year and hoping to keep the surprises to a minimum.

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