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CEO’s big risk pays off for Marlin Steel

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

In the five years after Drew Greenblatt bought Marlin Steel, his company made wire baskets to hold bagels. But China started making cheaper baskets, thus luring away his customers—big bagel chains.

Greenblatt knew Marlin could not survive Chinese competitors. The Baltimore firm was struggling to stay afloat in 2003 when a fateful call changed everything.

A Boeing engineer sought portable wire baskets that would hold airplane parts. He asked Greenblatt if Marlin could quickly fill an order for 20 specially designed baskets.

Accustomed to selling $12 baskets to bagel stores, Greenblatt decided to double the price for Boeing. The engineer didn’t flinch at the $24-per-basket quote; instead, he replied, “Yeah, yeah, whatever. No problem.”

That was Greenblatt’s wake-up call. Realizing that Boeing was not concerned about price led him to conclude that he should pivot away from bagel stores in favor of high-end factories in need of customized baskets.

After filling Boeing’s order, Greenblatt conducted market research. He learned that a big factory could use thousands of wire baskets. He also discovered that there were 333,000 American factories and only 3,100 bagel stores. These findings led him to overhaul his company.

“It was a wrenching process,” he says. “We needed better equipment. We had to retrain our people. We had to im­­prove our engineering.”

Today, Marlin’s sales are six times greater than in 2003. It has nearly doubled its head count, and its em­­ployees’ average wage is four times higher than in 2003.

— Adapted from “The Road to Resilience: How Unscientific Innovation Saved Marlin Steel,” Charles Fishman, Fast Company.

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