Steel-tube chief launches expensive advertising buys to get peers to reconsider sourcing decisions—and rebuilding American communities.
Barry Zekelman is trying to pierce through all the noise of this season of American political and social unrest with a message that he believes is as timely and important as anything else at the moment: Let’s bring manufacturing back to America. In a series of full-page advertisements in The Wall Street Journal, the CEO of $3-billion, Chicago-based steelmaker Zekelman Industries has been very expensively making the argument that there’s nothing CEOs can do that is more important than maintaining and creating local jobs for local folks.
“Dear C-Suite,” begins the headline of his most recent ad, in the newspaper’s October 6 edition. “Let’s start writing 2025’s annual report today.” That followed a September 20th ad, “Dear Wall Street, let’s make money on Main Street,” and a September 11th message, “Dear America, let’s manufacture a better future.”
The ads are only part of a national campaign by the company to advocate for boosting U.S. manufacturing that it calls “Life Reinforced,” which includes localized billboards, radio ads and online spots, as well as an eight-page “address to America’s C-suite” in the September issue of Forbes. “We’ve got a real problem today, and I believe that problem — and all of this angst and tension and anger and racial divide, and haves and have-nots, and the middle class being eroded — have all contributed to the powder keg that’s out there,” Zekelman told Chief Executive.
“The way to simmer it down and change it, and change the relationship between North Americans as neighbors, is to give our communities and families a purpose and take away financial burdens. “We also need to give examples to our children that they can have a career there and earn a good living and cut lawns and barbecue in the backyard and take care of each other. Our schools are there. That will alleviate crime and drugs and other problems. I fundamentally believe that.” But why pay for expensive advertisements? “You’ve got to lead by example,” says Zekelman.
“You can’t just sit there and talk about it. You have to get the discussion going.” Zekelman also has put his money where his mouth is when it comes to investing in the company’s own American job base. In the last two years, Zekelman has invested more than $300 million in four factories in Arkansas, Alabama, Texas and Arizona, creating more than 400 steel-based manufacturing jobs—and boosting their communities. Employing about 3,000 people totally across the country, Zekelman is the largest independent manufacturer of hollow structural sections and steel pipe and the top producer of many electrical products in North America; it also produces multi-family residences off-site. Zekelman said he’s trying to get other CEOs to consider their own strategic actions with his ads. In the first, which talks about “the reshoring conversation,” Zekelman pleads with his peers:
“Let’s get back to looking for ‘Made Right Here’ on the things we buy. Let’s bring back domestic manufacturing. Let’s build the factories and warehouses, large and small, that build community, that give the recent grad a shot at a new career and the family down the street a decent paycheck with real benefits — the kind that benefit us all.” His message also includes a call for what Zekelman calls “responsible capitalism.” He explained, “I get pissed off when I see a company like Apple that’s sitting on $280 billion of cash and needs to squeeze another penny out by making things oversees somewhere so they can see their valuation to $2 trillion. Really? You can’t make that phone here, or some portion here? You’ve got to squeak out that much more?”
And for Zekelman, boosting U.S. manufacturing isn’t just a matter of jingling supply chains but of restoring dignity to the profession. “We got lost a bit in how we perceived education should be, and where we should be directing our talents,” he said. “We started to view people who got their fingernails dirty as beneath us. We didn’t realize just how much those jobs and people meant to their communities, and how communities that had that solid base and purpose, thrived. And how others who lost it, didn’t.”
Some peers are responding to his high-profile plea, Zekelman said, including some CEOs who’ve asked him for help in making or reshoring goods in America. “I don’t know how to make some of these things,” he said, “but I’m going to try to help them figure out how to do it.”