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Does one find their path in life, or does the path find you? For Steve Letko, owner of SPL Enterprises, his career unfolds like a great progression in building the PVF industry. It reads like a natural path — one logical step to another, the St. Louis native’s many accomplishments achieved by hard work and tenacity.
Along the way, Letko guided and mentored individuals, helping them develop their vision and achieve their goals. He always has a hand extended to help – from helping individuals find and make their mark, to his volunteer work within associations and organizations — forever changing the path of PVF to be one of opportunity and accomplishment.
For these reasons and so many more, Steve Letko is the newest inductee into The Wholesaler Magazine's inductee PVF Hall of Fame.
Building a Career
Steve Letko is a fascinating individual; you know it the minute you meet him. Charismatic, a good storyteller and golfer (typically the two go hand in hand), a restaurant owner, a former bank owner, and an incredible mind that holds vast knowledge within the PVF field — Letko has helped many individuals on their path, which has helped to build the channel.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Letko had an interest in medicine and mathematics at a young age. Medicine taught him how the body mechanic functioned, while the analysis of numbers lured him to mathematics. In high school, he took drafting courses and many mathematical courses. "You could consider them college algebra today," he recalls.
It didn't matter — numbers fascinated him, and with drive, he graduated high school a year early and went to work as a draftsman for a local engineering company. Then one day, six months in, he read about a managerial program at Midwest Piping & Supply. He applied and was accepted. “It was a fantastic program — you worked through every stage of the business, from materials handling in the warehouse to working within the office,” Letko explains. “It was a wonderful experience.”
Midwest reimbursed employees’ educational expenses based on their grades. “The company paid 100 percent for As and 85 percent for Bs. I got all As. I had to do well because I couldn’t afford not to!” he says. Midwest Piping was sold to Crane and became the Midwest Fittings Division of Crane Co. However, the company continued providing employees with higher education opportunities.
Letko worked during the day and in the evenings attended Washington University in St. Louis for two years in the mechanical engineering school before transferring to St. Louis University School of Commerce & Finance. He graduated with a degree in marketing and accounting. He went on graduate school and received a degree in commerce and finance. His thirst for knowledge didn’t end there; he later attended the executive management course at Stanford University.
While at Crane Letko worked his way through all departments and attended graduate school. He was taken under the wing of Crane President Dante Fabiani.
When Letko graduated from St. Louis University, Fabiani attended and gave him a surprise gift; he was named the West Coast regional manager. "He gave me a one-way ticket to San Francisco and told me there was a car waiting at a dealership out there," Letko recalls. "I could pick either San Francisco or Los Angeles to in and I picked Los Angeles, the industrial epicenter. I started in sales for welding fittings and flanges – and they gave me 11 western states, including Alaska, Hawaii, and Mexico."
He went, made his mark and excelled at his craft. After several years, Letko returned to St. Louis and headed up the Midwest Fittings Division as its sales manager, where they placed him on the international circuit. Letko traveled the world, working on projects and expanding his horizons.
It is interesting to note that while in graduate school, Letko wrote his thesis on taking a fitting plant with an enormous press and refining it to form forged valve bodies instead of cast bodies for nuclear applications. He scored high marks on the paper. Letko presented it to Fabiani, who was so impressed he showed it to Thomas Mullen Evans, who was then chairman of the company. Evans invited Letko to meet with him in New York City. As Letko tells the story, it was a friendly meeting, but quick.
Evans told him that it was a “very good report, and he enjoyed reading it”, but he stated, “he needed another valve plant like I need a hole in the head." At which point Evans instructed Letko and Fabiani to enjoy NYC and have a nice trip home
"That put a hole in me," Letko says. However, it demonstrated how Letko was always thinking of ways not only to improve product lines and production, but also how to move companies forward.
Along the way he met Ralph Dodson through a mutual friend, who was vice president of Mills Iron Works. "At the time, Ralph decided he was going into the distribution business,” Letko notes. “We had a long conversation, and I talked to him about going into the master distribution business, instead of being a regular distributor."
It was a move that would have the company stand apart from others and fill a greatly underserved niche.
Letko built the business plan for Dodson while he was at Crane; soon after, Dodson Steel Products (DSP) was formed. "Steve studies all businesses, opportunities and people,” notes Sheryl Michalak, CEO of Welding Outlets Inc. “He helped to form the second master distributor in the industry."
After several years, Dodson visited Letko back in St. Louis with a proposition: He would give Letko founders stock of DSP if he left Crane and bought out Dodson over a certain time period. Dodson had no one in the family interested in taking over the company, and he wanted to perpetuate the company.
"I had a decision to make - I could either go to NYC for Crane or move to Atlanta — I had a young family and knew Atlanta would be a good place for them.” So, he began at DSP (today known as Dodson Global), left DSP for Mills Iron Works as its executive vice president, then returned to Dodson in 1995 as its president and CEO.
Building on the success of a game plan of hard work and incredible knowledge and talent, Letko was at Dodson's helm for several years. He left the company in the early 2000s, striking out on his own
The Weldbend Years
Throughout the years, Letko became acquainted with many company leaders who believed in the way he was conducting business — with credibility in the center of it all. While at Dodson, he became acquainted with Weldbend Corp., a family-owned and -operated maker of domestically manufactured carbon steel fittings and flanges based out of Argo, Ill. Working with James Coulas Sr., founder and CEO of Weldbend, they formed a lasting relationship.
When Letko left Dodson, Jim Coulas Jr., Weldbend’ s president, started a conversation with him. It turned into an agreement, and since 2000, Letko holds the title of Weldbend’s Counselor to the President.
It's a unique relationship built on a solid bedrock of credibility and partnerships — both internally and externally. Letko represents and promotes the company to establish and maintain relationships within the channel — with mechanical contractors, engineering firms and wholesale distributors.
His knowledge of the material, applications and project needs pair perfectly with Weldbend's pledge and mission to deliver a level of service and quality unrivaled in the PVF industry. The partnership was a natural fit as the company, its ownership and Letko forge partnerships with customers —of trust and credibility.
"Steve Letko has been a friend to many of us and an influence in the PVF industry for many years,” notes Rob Braig, vice president of Wolseley Industrial Group at Wolseley plc. “His passion for the business and commitment to contribute to the success of our industry is evident to all who know him. Many of us have benefited from his industry knowledge, his ability to understand trends and markets, and his desire to share and help others succeed. Steve is a generous man, straightforward and selfless. I have counted him as a friend and an advocate. He is deserving of every success and accolade that comes his way."
While traveling along his career path, Letko is the consummate teacher, providing guidance on business plans to develop new products. He is a never-ending book of possibilities.
One example is David Hatfield, CEO of Kingwood, Texas-based OK Pipe and Fittings, which customizes mitered fittings and pipe.
Like Letko, Hatfield spent his career path in PVF and followed the bumps and successes along the way. At one point, he decided to branch out on his own and asked Letko for advice. He didn't like what Letko had to say but followed his advice anyway. Today, the company Hatfield started remains family-owned and -operated with the next generation at the helm.
Guiding and giving back come naturally to Letko. For many years, he was an active volunteer in American Supply Association's Industrial Piping Division and a volunteer on its Vendor Member Division, guiding the group's manufacturers and supporting wholesale distributors. He is a champion supporter of domestic manufacturing. Being a part of ASA's IPD group allowed him to expand the knowledge and importance of domestic manufacturing in the United States and promote that for all supply chain members.
Letko also sits on the Mechanical Contractors Association (MCA) advisory board and is a member of the International Trade Advisory Committee at the Federal Trade Commission. This committee is involved with steel products and world trade, reviews trade documents and agreements, and gives opinions that affect the industry.
Many of you have read his PVF Outlook columns in this magazine, highlighting what is occurring in the channel and what to expect down the line. He is laser-focused on domestic manufacturing, and his column outlines how policies in place might hurt American manufacturers. As a side note, while interviewing Letko for this feature, I noticed his suit jacket's lining – true-blue like him, the fabric patterned with the American Flag.
A group that Letko holds close is that of the PVF Roundtable, a Houston-based organization founded to prepare for the industry's future by providing peer networking, educational opportunities and scholarships for training institutes to encourage growth within the PVF field.
"Sidney Westbrook formed the PVF Roundtable and designed it for all facets and disciplines within the PVF industry — wholesale distributors, manufacturers, manufacturers reps', engineering firms, fabrication companies, and so many more,” Letko explains. “The group is robust in membership, and members share information on current issues and trends, where the future may be headed, and current and future projects. They also discuss many issues in the industry, including safety and compliance.”
As a board member, Letko plays a vital role in raising awareness and fundraising for the PVF Roundtable's scholarship fund. To date, the group has raised more than $1 million, which is donated to several universities and trade schools focused on the PVF industry. The monies raised have an immediate impact on the health of the trades and, in turn, the health and vitality of the PVF channel.
"Steve Letko is an integral part of the PVF Roundtable and currently serves on the board of directors,” notes Sara Alford, president of the PVF Roundtable and president of Newmans Valve. “Steve's wealth of knowledge in the PVF industry has been invaluable to the board. His continued help in obtaining funds for the scholarship program that PVF Roundtable donates each year has been instrumental. Whether he is supporting our golf tournament or providing industry knowledge to our members, Steve is a legend in the industry and an essential part of where we are today as an organization."
It's safe to say that Letko has many close friendships formed by being involved in the industry. "Before each PVF Roundtable meeting and event, Steve is my lunch date,” Michalak says. “We catch-up. He is very involved in all things taking place in the industry. To me, Steve's friendship is unconditional and forever." A sentiment heard from many.
Having been involved in many companies with an international footprint, I ask Letko which projects stand out in his mind as some of his most significant accomplishments. He smiles, and I know behind the twinkling eyes are stories of projects where he used his high-level security clearance — from working on nuclear reactors to nuclear submarines, and more we will never know about.
"There are so many projects that give me great pride — from getting Weldbend material installed in the Freedom Tower in NYC to getting Crane - Midwest fittings into the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.
The pipeline is a project shared between Bechtel Corp. and the Fluor Corp., an engineering construction company.
“I had to give a speech at Fluor as to why Crane Midwest would be the perfect source for the material needed — and it boiled down to one word —credibility,” Letko recalls. “They accepted it, and we were the prime provider for all of the material and a lot of technical information that went along with it. So, we were able to discuss that with their engineers. That was a fabulous project.
For Letko, it was and remains true to his character and nature of credibility, which is the backbone of his charter.
Perhaps the most significant accomplishment is that of family, and Letko recalls the day he met Pat, his wife of more than 50 years.
"I was in graduate school and had a late class, and around 10 p.m., I headed to a bowling alley to meet up with my cousin — we always met up once a week,” he says. “I happened to see one of my friends, and Pat was there with her two sisters. My friend introduced us, and that was it. I put my phone number down on a $20 bill and said, ‘Here, please give me a call; I'm interested in taking you out.’"
It was the beginning of a 50-plus-year friendship and marriage, with her traveling the PVF road with him. Pat Letko is as well-known in the industry as Steve Letko is, and with their two children and grandchildren (Richard, Denise, Olivia, Connor, Stanton, Gabrielle and Rachel) life is pretty good.
I ask him what his motto is, and what is still on his list to accomplish. He smiles and says: "They are one in the same — I want to stay in this business and help as many people as I can."
He adds: "People think the high-tech industry is glamorous, and they look at ours as mundane. But suppose you see it through my eyes. In that case, you see that I've been part of some significant projects: nuclear submarines, surface vessels, the Alaska pipeline, the fast breeder reactor program, nuclear programs, power plants, and many more. You see them develop and be built. You now have ownership.
“You're part of our country's infrastructure and our economy; everything involved with energy and PVF is a vital part of that. Just think of anything you have owned; somewhere along the line, a pipeline was involved and brought the fluids or the energy for that product to be manufactured. To be part of that is, to me, a tremendous feeling. And I'll argue with anybody that it's not a glamorous business — it is.”
Thank-you, Steve Letko, for your drive, your ambition and, most of all, your guidance — for those who have been in the business for a lifetime, and those just entering the PVF channel. You have made an enormous impact. Here's to your spirit and drive — and welcome to the PVF Hall of Fame.