Skolnik Bucks the Trend


From the Hazardous Cargo Bulletin, March 2007

While other drum manufacturers seek to corner the market through mass production and acquisitions, Skolnik Industries has found a winning formula that enshrines product integrity, individual design, a personal approach to business and the ability to think outside the box.

While lighter, thinner-gauged drums are very much en vogue at present, Chicago-based Skolnik Industries, a fully NQA-1-accredited producer of steel drums for the chemical, nuclear, pharmaceutical, food and winemaking sectors among others, is not the sort of company to blindly follow fashion. “Whereas everybody else is fighting to make [the steel drum] lighter, I’m fighting to keep it heavier because I think it works better,” says president and CEO Howard Z Skolnik.

There is nothing wrong with a shipper or manufacturer wanting to minimise their outlays but Skolnik believes that to do so by switching to lighter units is to seriously risk both safety and product, asserting that there “is a very delicate line between reducing the cost of the drum and reducing its integrity”. From a wider perspective, Skolnik also sees the use of thinner gauged drums as a potential threat to the industry as a whole, reasoning that should a shipper encounter problems as a result of using thinner-gauge drums they are unlikely to return to heavier steel designs. Rather, they will simply switch to plastics units or intermediate bulk containers. “It’s a very short-range sales approach that ends up taking a long term customer and pushing them into another market. That’s what I don’t like to do [but] that’s what seems to be driving much of the industry around the world.”

Getting bigger

The other major trend he identifies within the market is growing consolidation, explaining that when Skolnik Industries first entered the arena in 1985 there were around 60 steel drum manufacturing locations across the country. “Today in the US there’s just seven or eight. It’s really unbelievable.” However, while some believe that being part of an ever larger entity guarantees a route to financial success, Skolnik has no desire to embark on such a course of action. “Being an independent company in this market is a great position to be in,” he asserts, likening the company to a speedboat and larger players to a cruise ship. “With the Queen Mary it can take miles and miles to turn direction, but with [our] speedboat we can respond to market changes and customer demands very quickly,” he says.

Moreover, while consolidation in the wider world has arguably brought with it a growing degree of facelessness, Skolnik Industries strives to maintain the personal touch. But this is not simply limited to Skolnik changing his voicemail every day to ensure customers know when they can expect a return phone call. “I’m very phonetic with everyone in the company that if you’re dealing with a customer and it’s the end of the day and you’re still not done, call them back and let them know that you’re still not done and you’ll be talking to them tomorrow,” he stresses.

Another thing that certainly makes Skolnik Industries stand out from the crowd is its approach to drum production. “When it comes to making a standard drum, that is usually something that we turn away. There’s got to be something unusual about it, whether it’s a service demand or a timing demand or a design demand – that is what really gets us going… The real crux of what we’re about is offering things that are not standard, doing what nobody else wants to do,” he states.

Design is king

A former architect, urban planner and urban designer, Skolnik maintains that in the field of drum manufacturing “everything is about design”, a maxim that has guided the company since the outset. “Because of my technological background, I said [when the company was first established] I really don’t want to go after the market in the traditional way. Instead of getting one order for 200 drums I want to get 200 orders for one drum,” he reveals, explaining that the company has always sought to undertake “all the types of projects that the larger, traditional 55-gallon (208-litre) drum companies were not interested in”.

Often described as a ‘boutique’ manufacturer, a term Skolnik deems “pretty accurate”, the company neither seeks to attain the sort of throughput demanded by more conventional producers. “We probably make fewer drums per day than anybody else in the US, but we make more different types of drums per day than anyone else in the world,” he says. Equating a traditional drum factory with a car assembly plant, he continues, “[If] all day they make Explorers, Skolnik would be a company where we made 30 Explorers, followed by 40 Mercedes, followed by 30 Volkswagens, followed by 50 Cadillacs, followed by one or two Rolls-Royces, all in the same day, all in the same facility.”

With the company considered a “premiere manufacturer” by the US Department of Energy and known around the world in particular for it is high quality steel salvage drums, this approach, while no doubt anathema to adherents of Fordist and Taylorist principles, is clearly paying dividends, with the company continuing to win and retain trade. So is there a typical Skolnik Industries customer? Skolnik thinks not. “What’s not typical is somebody who wants to buy a million drums a year,” he replies, explaining that a likely customer will be someone “who needs a product that is not conventional or needs some type of special detailing or special alterations or sizes or special shipping requirements [or] someone who has a very high level of quality programme orientation [and thus] needs a certain level of documented quality systems in manufacturing.”

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