Most Tri-state residents probably hadn’t heard of Millennium Steel Service, at least not until President Barack Obama announced he would be celebrating National Manufacturing Day there last October.
Then, suddenly, the nation’s all-seeing eyes were on the relatively small, minority-owned Princeton, Indiana, steel supplier.
“They just called,” CEO Henry Jackson says of the September day he received the request from Washington, D.C. “They never told me how they chose me, but I was thrilled. I was proud, and it was a privilege.”
But however coy he might try to play it, Millennium Steel undoubtedly has a strong reputation amongst industry leaders. It has been listed in the top 15 of the best 100 minority-owned companies in the nation by Black Enterprise Magazine the last four years in a row.
Millennium Steel, now in its 14th year of operation, is a steel processor for Toyota Motor Manufacturing Inc. Millennium buys steel coils from raw-material suppliers then stores it, inspects it, cuts it, and delivers it to Toyota using the “just in time” method. As a result, Millennium makes multiple deliveries to Toyota each day, says Jackson, getting steel to the vehicle manufacturer at the exact moment they need it.
Jackson grew up in Chicago and was raised by a grandmother. His mother died when he was young and his father wasn’t around, he says.
Coming from humble beginnings, his grandmother instilled in him the value of hard work, and after graduating from high school, he immediately enrolled in college.
“But like a lot of youth, I didn’t take it seriously at first,” says Jackson of his college experience. “Then I got drafted and went to Vietnam, and I grew up real quick.”
In the U.S. Army is where Jackson got his first taste of the business world. He was in its finance corps, stationed in Saigon, and while there he earned college credit and began taking his future more seriously
When he returned to the states, he went to DePaul University and graduated with high honors. He later would earn a master’s in business administration from the University of Notre Dame as well.
He went to work for Clark Material Handling Company, a manufacturer of forklift trucks based in Lexington, Kentucky. He started as an accountant and worked his way up to CFO and, later, company vice president and president of the European operations.
He then started his own plastics company, Jackson Plastics Inc., a plastic injection molder in Nicholasville, Kentucky, a company that delivered plastics to Toyota. It was that connection that eventually led Jackson to leave plastics behind and take over a small, yet growing, steel processor in Gibson County.
Since then, Jackson has opened a second Millennium Steel Service in Texas, and combined, they generate approximately $500 million in revenue each year.
The Gibson County plant went from having just 10 employees in 1999 to now having more than 60, and today, is one of the largest minority-owned enterprise in Southwestern Indiana, says Jackson.
It’s that reputation that Jackson believes brought the nation’s first African-American president in for a visit.
During his brief speech at Millennium Steel, the backdrop for which were dozens of Millennium’s steel coils, Obama spoke to a relatively small crowd of ticket holders, elected officials, and media representatives for about an hour on the resilience of the country’s manufacturing industry, and he praised companies such as Millennium Steel for working to educate young people on the opportunities that exist within it.
Obama even credited the recent growth in the manufacturing industry for fueling the economy’s rebound and for the 236,000 jobs that were added in September 2014, the month before his visit.
Obama says manufacturing companies like Millennium Steel were the backbone of the industry because of how much Jackson had invested in it over the years, offering opportunities and training to willing workers.
Jackson took Obama on a tour of his facility prior to the speech, and the two chatted happily about everything from steel to Chicago hot spots, he says.
“I’m from Chicago; his wife, Michelle, is from Chicago,” he says. “She grew up 15 minutes from where I did, so we had a lot of things in common. We talked about spots we love in the city, concerns we share for its future, education, prisons, so many things.
“And he is quite impressed with our facility,” says Jackson. “He talked to some of our key employees on the line, enjoyed their knowledge. All-in-all, there was good, two-way communication between him and us.”
And while that very well could have been the pinnacle of his career, Jackson continues to look forward with the driving spirit that led him to build a $500 million company. Toyota, he believes, will continue building a reputation for making good, reliable American-made cars, and he looks forward to Millennium Steel being a part of it.
As he looks back, he credits his willingness to take a risk and his family to his success.
“You have to take the risk,” he says. “That’s what I would tell people looking to get into any kind of business. You have to be able to sit back and analyze your strengths, decide where you are most likely to succeed. Then you have to put together a good plan and move forward. Stick to that plan.
“If you do that, I think you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”
For more information about Millennium Steel Service, call 812-385-1122 or visit millenniumsteelservice.com.