San Diego Source / The Daily Transcript
By: Jen Lebron
April, 2009
 
It has helped hobbyist jewelry makers and the Navy. It has supplied parts for Old Globe sets and fishing boats. Its customer list includes Jay Leno, prop makers for "The Pirates of the Caribbean" and a balding man with a long ponytail who walks around with a cockatoo on his shoulder and has nothing to do with the previously mentioned movie.

Industrial Metal Supply Co., a metal distributor, has been serving Southern California for 60 years with its wide array of metals for all types of people and its family atmosphere.

While some larger companies will only sell metal in large quantities, the niche market of IMS is made up of small to medium sized business and projects. However, it will sell metal as tiny as tracks for a model train -- and it has. It's something the company says sets it apart from tiny scrap metal shops and larger firms, which supply metal for projects like skyscrapers and freeways.

"We combine the best of both worlds," said Megan Humpal, the company's marketing director who is based in San Diego. "We will sell one piece to one person who is a hobbyist -- who maybe works on their off-road car on the weekend, or does metal sculptures, jewelry, trying to build an invention at home -- to a lot of customers who are what we term small to medium sized businesses."

The minimum purchase at IMS is $1, an amount that encourages individuals to turn to what Humpal has heard described as the Nordstrom of metal supply companies.

"All of our branches have this retail showroom, and people can come in and shop like they're at a department store almost," Humpal said. "Other companies don't have showrooms of this size or this clean ... (New) customers usually picture it being outdoors, with rusty materials, dirty and a lot of time (at other metal companies) you have to go through big scrap bins to find what you want."

While most metal companies store their goods in giant warehouses with metal coming in sizes too big to fit in an average sedan, IMS has a retail area upfront where metals of all shapes and sizes are displayed.

Over the years, the company has gone from having standard-sized pieces of metal to having pre-cut shapes and sizes it has learned customers need frequently. Russell Sykes, the general manager of the San Diego branch, said the store contains precut pieces that are frequently used for lamp bases or twisted metals used in cast-iron gates imported from Europe.

"Over the years the company started with just having remnants of things and the customers just picked and plucked," Sykes said. "It's really the history that goes back with the company that gets a feel for what the customers want and we know what they need."

IMS started as a metal scrap company current that owner Neil Sherman's parents, Norman and Sally Sherman, began in Burbank in 1948.

At the company's inception, the pair would haul former set pieces from Hollywood studios and leftover airplane parts in their 1947 Pontiac station wagon to their scrap shop where they would turn around and sell it to whoever wanted it. Norman Sherman would buy surplus metal from companies like Lockheed that would order more metal than it needed at a price slightly higher than what was common for scrap metal, and then sell it to customers for less than what they would pay for the metal new.

"The customer was thrilled because they saved money," recalled Neil Sherman, "and the people from Lockheed my father would buy the metal from (were) thrilled because they'd get double the amount of money they would get if they sold it as scrap and my father was thrilled because he made money on it as well, so it was a win-win-win situation."

However, as the industrial climate of Los Angeles evolved, airplane manufacturers left and metal-selling standards tightened up, the Shermans could no longer obtain the scrap metal they once had -- and business got tough.

Though the company tried to purchase metal from companies larger than itself, Neil Sherman said IMS could not sustain its business that way.

It began purchasing the metal mill-direct, ensuring its customers got high quality metal at affordable prices. IMS grew over the years and by the 1980s, Norman Sherman and his then-adult son Neil Sherman, began to realize the need to have a second location south of Los Angeles -- while Sally, who kept the books, said this plan was going to be a disaster. Norman, encouraged by Neil, opened the company's first remote branch in Orange County in 1989.

"My mom was in the background, saying 'Don't do it. You're going to drive the company into the ground. You don't need to grow. You don't need to expand. Don't try to be a big shot,'" Neil Sherman said. "And my dad said, 'Let's try it, I think it would be fun.'"

The first few weeks were "scary" for the Shermans with only a few customers trickling in every day, but eventually business started to pick up and within a few years, the Orange County center began making deliveries on a very frequent basis to companies in San Diego.

Then in 1995, Neil Sherman opened the doors of the San Diego branch. In the following years, IMS would open two more stores in Riverside County and Phoenix, as well as move its headquarters from Burbank to a state-of-the-art, 140,000-square-foot warehouse and retail space in Sun Valley. The company now has nearly 400,000 square feet of retail space, employs 300 people and upgraded from the one station wagon to 45 trucks.

Despite all of the growth, Neil Sherman said he strove to maintain the family atmosphere of IMS he grew up with. "I don't have a specific reason why it's important," said Neil Sherman about the homey feeling of IMS culture. "I just like the idea."

To encourage feelings of camaraderie and family, the company has implemented a variety of programs to help its employees. These include providing child care services for employees whose children have to stay home from school ill, a $40 gas stipend for most employees and a comment system that allows employees to receive monetary rewards if they make suggestions the company utilizes.

Neil Sherman, a Harvard graduate, said he thinks it's important that his employees continue their education. IMS will subsidize employees for ongoing education even if the classes they're taking do not directly relate to their job. This causes the risk that employees may leave IMS after they learn new skills, but Neil Sherman said that's a risk he is willing to
take.

"I like the idea that (people) can improve themselves," he said. "It may not be the smartest thing, but we do it." The perks don't stop at the employees. Despite gas prices increasing, IMS still offers free delivery.

"I know the reason we're so service oriented and we always put the customer first is because it stems from the owner, Neil Sherman. It's his philosophy," said Humpal. "He will walk in to our branches and start talking to the customer first. And it permeates down through the organization."

Neil Sherman said he isn't "above doing anything," including helping customers pull large pieces of metal from racks, watering plants or scrubbing toilets and he usually avoids saying he's the owner.

Neil Sherman has two children, a son and a daughter, ages 15 and 14, respectively. Though his son has expressed some interest in the company, he said his son's too young to decide what he really wants to do.

"I'd like to encourage him to go into the business, but I don't want to force it on him. I think he's awfully young to figure out what he wants to do," Neil Sherman said. "I don't know what I'm going to do (when I retire). I may eventually sell the business, but I'm not an old man yet. I don't know if I want to do it until I'm 90 years old like my father did, but I enjoy it. I don't know what else I'd do with myself."