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Gene McNichols: Leader of a multigenerational family company in its “hole story”

2017 Metal Construction Hall of Fame

Mc Nichols Hi Res Ehm

The McNICHOLS CO. story began 65 years ago in Cleveland, Ohio, with a vision from Robert L. “Bob” McNichols, a World War II POW. After being the sole survivor of a 10-crew B-17 crash and ending up in a German prison camp, he made a promise to God that, if he could return home, he would dedicate his life to God, and make the best he could of his life, explains Gene McNichols, chairman and CEO of McNICHOLS. The promise also led to dedicating McNICHOLS to God when “he found himself in the right place to start the company with $1,100 he borrowed from his GI insurance policy.”

McNICHOLS, which is now headquartered in Tampa, Fla., is looking ahead to its fourth generation. As a supplier and fabricator of perforated metal, expanded metal, wire mesh, architectural metals and a variety of gratings products, the company has 19 metals service centers across the United States.

“From very small beginnings, Bob McNichols put together a few products—primarily perforated metal—but then all of the other products that we’ve added, most of them with a hole in them, led us to call ourselves, ‘The Hole Story’,” explains Gene. “It’s a pretty good marketing handle. My dad branded McNICHOLS in 1975 as ‘The Hole Story’. A lot of people know that name in the industry and may not know McNICHOLS as much, but they can identify with various references where we use with the word ‘hole’.”

Keys of Growth

Following a short stint in the U.S. Air Force Security Service, Gene has been with the company for 50 years, growing it from $400,000 to $185 million. When starting out, Gene remembers that his father told him to build the company like McDonald’s, which is considered a success story of systematic process. This included buying the company’s first computer.

“For a long time I didn’t really know what [dad] was talking about,” Gene shares, “but as we began to grow from one location in Cleveland to others, we realized how important it was to develop standards, and good processes. So we started doing that. We started to be consistent and have our operations be very similar by putting together better training materials. Today, we excel at that, and have continuously improving ISO standards as a result.”

One of the keys to the company’s growth was the use of direct mail. Bob put together his first catalog back before direct mail was a popular way to reach customers. He would send the catalog out to specific markets, such as Texas, and it would light up the company’s switchboard. “A catalog being mailed to a customer was actually considered an unusual marketing method,” Gene says. “A lot of players those days would laugh at a metals company using direct mail, but it worked for Bob McNichols.”

We started to be consistent and have our operations be very similar by putting together better training materials. Today, we excel at that, and have continuously improving ISO standards as a result.

Gene McNichols, chairman and CEO of McNICHOLS CO.

To continue the company’s growth, Bob opened up locations in markets where the direct mail approach thrived.

Buck McInnis, CEO of Tampa Bay Steel Corp., Tampa, has known Gene for more than 30 years, and describes him as a very good businessman. “We’ve modeled our company pretty much after his, and a lot of the things that he does for his employees and customers, and we’ve been very successful ourselves,” he says.

Also instrumental in the company’s growth was Gene’s work with the Metal Service Center Institute, Rolling Meadows, Ill., of which he is past chairman and now chairman emeritus. As a member, he was a part of the MSCI advertising and public relations committee, where he learned a lot about marketing and branding. “This was very important for me to be involved in,” Gene says. “When I started to volunteer for the Institute, we barely made the minimum requirements to join, we were so small. I was working alongside members who were small, like myself, and mid-size to very large companies in both service centers and steel mills.”

A Lasting Legacy

Now in its third generation and approaching its fourth, Gene continues the legacy for his family. One son, Scott, is the current president of McNICHOLS, and his two other children, Steven and Jennifer, are part of the ownership group and family council. Gene’s eight grandchildren, the fourth generation, are all stockholders in the company, and they are already looking toward being a successful business that will transition to them.

John Farley, vice president and COO at McNICHOLS, says Gene is a great owner and a great visionary in the industry. “He’s very good, and he’s helped influence a lot of associates’ lives, but additionally, has helped promote metal products in our industry and beyond.”

Barry Banther, CMC, CSP, president and CEO of Banther Consulting and Banther Family Advisors, Tarpon Springs, Fla., has worked with Gene for more than 20 years in his business, along with his family and his civic community leadership. “In each of these areas, Gene has consistently demonstrated strong, forward leadership,” he says. “Here’s the part that I think makes Gene unique. ‘Grow not for the sake of growth, but grow for the sake of the constituencies they serve.’ I believe that’s something that’s consistent in his civic, personal and business life.”