VP Grows Sales with Big Picture Approach

Counterintuitive as it may seem, successful metals industry executives address the jarring volatility in market prices by looking past short-term price variations. They look into the future, planning months, even years, ahead.

That's the approach of Jonathan O'Leary (Katz EMBA 37, '10), vice president of sales and marketing for CMC Howell Metal Company. Based in New Market, Va., the copper tubing manufacturer is a subsidiary of Commercial Metals Company, an $8 billion manufacturer of steel and related products. In January 2010, O'Leary was recruited to succeed the president of CMC Howell Metal, who will retire in 2014.

"I spend some of my day overseeing the execution of the current business plan while spending the majority of my time focusing on the medium-to-long-term growth strategy of the company," O'Leary says. "I have the advantage of learning from a great mentor and boss, someone who has been in this business for 40 years." Learning to anticipate ripple effects from huge price swings is crucial, because the corresponding product costs can change customers' attitudes and demands for products. "The market can swing wildly. You want certainty more than anything," O'Leary says.

CMC Howell Metal Company produces copper tubing used in plumbing, municipal water, and HVAC systems. While some newer residential homes have switched to lower-cost PVC piping, hospitals, high-rises, and commercial buildings primarily use copper, because of its durability and effectiveness.

O'Leary oversees the company's entire sales staff. "My goal is to develop the go-to-market plan that best serves our customers." O'Leary says. "What are our strengths and weaknesses?" How can we play to our strengths? What are other products that are complementary to what we produce? How can I leverage the talents of my team?" These are all questions that O'Leary asks—and answers.

Leaping to a National Stage

Founded in 1966, CMC Howell Metal is a mid-sized company that until recently primarily served East Coast customers. However, to increase revenues, it recently expanded to sell products on the national level, a change that brought challenges beyond logistics.

"The culture has to change and adapt to serve all those customers. Operationally, it also means that we must have the distribution footprint in place to service a much larger geographic territory," O'Leary says.

O'Leary credits the Katz Executive MBA Worldwide program for preparing him for the job. He says John C. Camillus, Donald R. Beall Professor of Strategic Management, taught a strategy course in which students completed extensive project work on developing product strategy. Group interaction was a valuable component of the Camillus course. O'Leary says his course with Chris Kemerer, David M. Roderick Professor of Information Systems, challenged him to "see information technology as a tool that can propel business results, rather than being something you spend money on because it's trendy." Furthermore, O'Leary says he applied what he learned in the entrepreneurship course by G. Richard Patton, clinical associate professor of business administration, directly to his job.

What also impressed O'Leary was the breadth of diversity among his classmates. Katz's EMBA is a global program wherein students learn in three locations: Pittsburgh, Prague, Czech Republic, and São Paulo, Brazil. Through three Global Executive Forums, students travel abroad to each other's campuses, gaining new insights into international business.

O'Leary's peers in Pittsburgh included the vice president of information technology at PNC Financial Services Group, two senior managers at Ernst & Young, and managers from ABB Group. He was inspired by their knowledge of their respective industries and collected from them valuable insights that were applicable to his own job.

"I dare say that if it wasn't for my experience in EMBA, I wouldn't ever have been asked to interview for the job," O'Leary says. "My class schedule, despite the travel and difficult courses, was very manageable, thanks to the excellent coordination work done by EMBA Program Manager Linda Anderson."

Prior to joining CMC Howell Metal Company, O'Leary held a similar role for a startup glass company in South Carolina, and worked as a business manager at Owens Corning in Pittsburgh and Toledo, business analyst for Joy Mining Machinery in Pittsburgh, and sales analyst for J&L Specialty Steel in Pittsburgh.