By Warren Miller
Dean Abbondanza, the Director of Engineering at The Fields Companies, has a unique combination of skills. Born and raised near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—the heart of America’s steel industry—he trained in civil engineering. Dean’s talent and passion, though, were in sales engineering, promoting the features and benefits of steel piling and strategic market development for new products.
Even though you grew up around the steel industry, your family weren’t steel workers, were they?
Not exactly. My father was a union carpenter superintendent who did work in the mills building and repairing blast furnaces, but he was not a steelworker. When I first came out of college with my engineering degree, I worked for a surveying company and didn’t find it rewarding. The engineering market in Pittsburgh at the time had a lot of engineers out of work and was tough for someone to enter the job market.
My father-in-law advised me to look at engineering sales. I didn’t even know that existed, but I started to send my resume out to manufacturers, and opportunities opened for me.
I was fortunate to get my first job in the deep foundation industry with Pittsburgh-based L.B. Foster. I had no prior steel foundation experience and Foster was hiring their first piling sales engineer. They were patient and supportive, allowing me to gain industry training while starting my career path in technical sales.
If I was to sit in a cube and crunch numbers all day, I would feel unfulfilled professionally. There are guys who are wired to do that, and I admire that, but I enjoy the creative side of technical product marketing.
Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to do both. I get to work with engineers and provide application and product technical analysis, but I also get to tap into the strategic stuff for market and business development, helping to organically grow our market and products. I am fortunate to have found passion in my work.
What are the techniques for explaining tech concepts to non-engineers? I come from a place that’s closer to the layman because I began in the industry learning the products and applications on the run. That process and that journey helped me to break it down into simpler concepts, to better convey it in layman terms.
What’s an example of a successful marketing project you took on?
Twenty years ago, Skyline recruited me from L.B. Foster specifically for a strategic initiative to promote the use of sheet pile in underground parking structures. This was not commonly done in the U.S. There was a little information from Europe as to how the innovative application worked over there, but I was basically starting at ground zero. One of my first successes was in Portland, Ore. with a large structural engineering firm, getting their lead structural engineer to bite on my elevator pitch, which led to the use of the concept for a 30-story, mixeduse high-rise structure with more projects to follow. That was a cradle-to-grave mission for me. Skyline was taking a flyer on me, but it turned out great. My six years there were a great experience. They’re a very technically strong company, and I was able to further my engineering skills working with a talented engineering department.
What has changed in the composition of steel and its manufacturing processes?
Hot-roll sheet pile, a large part of our applications, and pipe pile have changed. As far as sheet pile goes, the market has seen the evolution of steel making with increased recycled content and higher steel grades.
When I came over to Fields, they had just taken over the Hoesch distributorship. Hoesch was looking for JD Fields to market their steel exclusively in the U.S. I realized when looking at the Material Test Reports (MTRs), the steel grades were high 60,000 KSI yield-plus. We saw an opportunity to market their sheet pile as a minimum grade 60 steel. At the time, the standard in the U.S. was grade 50. By offering the higher grade at no premium from Hoesch, eventually all of the other mills followed suit. We essentially raised the standard for sheet piles in the domestic market. It’s been a benefit to the engineers and customers since.
Fields recently opened a spiralweld mill in Houston as a joint venture with HDM. How did that come about?
HDM is a manufacturer with pipe operations in Mersin, Turkey and Cardiff, Wales. Both spiralweld mills produce pipe solely for the purpose of structural piling. There are other spiralweld mills throughout the world that make piles, but almost all of them produce pipe intended for other applications, like water lines or API trunk lines for oil and gas, and structural pipe piling is a sideline to fill up the mill.
What’s unique about HDM is structural piling is all they do, and they’re the best at it. Everything from manufacturing quality to downstream coating and fabrication is done to meet the specific needs for pipe pile applications. This market focus enables them to be cost-effective and expert producers. We’d been the exclusive distributor partner for HDM for a decade supplying over 250,000 tons of pipe piles to North America, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Not only were the quality and value of their steel pipes great, but we were able to offer very long lengths that could be shipped directly to the ports. Contractors no longer had to splice piles in the field.
Typically for port structures, the piles needed are 100 to 200 feet long. Trucking these piles to the site is often impossible, and even when it can be done, it’s very expensive. We were bringing HDM piles— fabricated, coated full length from the mills—by vessel directly into the ports, where the contractors could offload onto their barges.
There was a lot of downstream value in the partnership, and the quality was outstanding. So the new mill is an outgrowth of what already was a successful partnership.
Is spiralweld pipe what the new mill will produce?
Yes. For the last three or four years, we’d been discussing the potential doing a joint venture for a U.S. operation. There is a lot of projected market demand with the DOT, Buy-American and port expansion. The Houston facility is strategically located right on the Houston Ship Channel, so we have access to ship by truck, rail or water throughout the country.
The number of partnerships by U.S. firms with international partners seems to be growing rapidly.
That’s been the case for JD Fields. The U.S. is one of the world’s largest piling markets, so it’s understandable that foreign entities are looking at this market closely and how they can play in it. The HDM partnership has gone very well, as has our partnership with ArcelorMittal (AM). They partnered for more than 35 years with Skyline Steel. Their 10-year agreement was up for renewal in early 2022 from when Nucor purchased Skyline in 2011. AM took this opportunity to evaluate their market direction and consider alternative options. That resulted in JD Fields taking over their North American exclusive piling partnership in mid-2022.
What about your own options. Where do you see your career heading?
My 14 years at JD Fields are the best in my 20+ years in the piling industry. I had great years with L.B. Foster and Skyline. Each one led me to the next phase of my career. But being part of a family-owned business and being an effective player and valued the way I am here is professionally and personally rewarding for me. With the relationships I have, I don’t see myself being anywhere else.
You live in Florida, the company is headquartered in Houston, you have partners and clients around the world. How much time do you spend at home?
Travel has been hectic recently. Our sales guys keep our engineering group active throughout the US. I have no complaints, though. Our president travels just as much, but you do what’s needed. I’m in Houston at least one to two weeks out of the month, and more since we started the pipe mill.
This is such an important time for the company that I’m willing to make those sacrifices. Fortunately, my wife and family are very understanding. The great thing about JDFs is, I can manage and schedule my own travel. The autonomy we have here allows me that balance.
What keeps you up at night?
Our biggest challenge is coming from the success we’ve had—managing the growth trajectory we’ve been on, which is extremely steep. I’ve learned that when companies grow, it’s a challenge to maintain the culture that created that growth. A valuable lesson on my career path. Company culture is so important to your day-to-day fulfillment.
We don’t micromanage here. We have a very flat structure with very little middle management. But as you grow, the organization wants to expand. That’s to be expected, but you must manage it carefully to maintain the entrepreneurship that got us here.
How do you hold on to what made your company successful as you grow?
That’s the number one challenge. The important thing is we recognize it and we’re consciously weighing our forward-thinking actions with the intent to preserve it.
Republished from Marine Construction Magazine Issue II, 2022