Lee Smith and Flatiron Steel: Manufacturing Metal in the Rockies

Customer Stories
Rick Zand|July 1, 2024

The first thing you notice on a visit over to Flatiron Steel in Greeley, Colorado, is that the owner, Lee Smith, designed the inside and outside of his plant to showcase various styles of metal panels. His walls are a mix of profiles, from standing seam, to corrugated, to board and batten. The building reflects Lee’s passion for metal roofing and siding, and many panels were run using New Tech Machinery’s flagship rollforming machine, the SSQ II MultiPro Roof and Wall Panel Machine.

Over the years, Lee has developed a strong relationship with New Tech Machinery. He collaborated on our board and batten profile, offering ideas, and participating in beta testing. Metal board and batten is popular siding on residential, commercial, and agricultural structures, and Flatiron Steel has filled orders for the siding panels two to three times a week for nearly a year. Lee ran wood-grain metal board and batten panels for the Legacy Building in Greeley, a featured project in the October 2023 issue of Rural Builder Magazine, and also used board and batten on his barndominium home.

At New Tech Machinery (NTM), we realize that our success is measured by the success of our customers. Lee Smith’s story can serve as a lesson in how to build a flourishing business, an inspiration to new or aspiring metal manufacturing entrepreneurs, or tips for those already in the industry on how to expand your operation and deal with increasing competition.

Metal Manufacturing: A Family Business

Lee Smith’s career as a metal panel manufacturer began in the mid-2000s when he founded Flatiron Steel. Today, the regional metal roofing manufacturer runs two shops in Colorado—one in Greeley and another in Colorado Springs. However, Smith has run rollforming machines for decades, as his operation is part of a family business that started 30 years ago in Southeast Idaho. The family now operates plants in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Missoula, Montana, where Lee’s sister and brother-in-law operate another store.

Flatiron headquarters in Greeley, Colorado
Flatiron Steel in Greeley, Colorado

Lee’s father founded Teton Steel in Idaho Falls in 1994. At the time, Lee was in the 7th grade. He’d show up in the shop after school, working the hand brakes and bending pieces of J metal with his friends for 25 cents a stick.

After graduating from Boise State University, Lee’s father asked him if he wanted to work for his operation in Idaho Falls. However, wanting to set out on his own, Lee moved to Colorado. “We’re two chiefs,” Lee told his father. “And two chiefs don’t operate that well together.” Once he got started, Lee called his father ten or fifteen times a day for advice. After his father retired, however, it was hard to pry him from the golf course. “But good for him,” Lee added.

Establishing Flatiron Steel

Lee established Flatiron Steel in LaSalle, Colorado. His plant is now located in Greeley, Colorado, where he fabricates roof and wall panels for metal distributors like Allied, Beacon, and ABC, as well as contractors, installers, builders, and DIYers like homeowners and ranchers. With the range of profiles he offers, Flatiron Steel covers everything from residential to commercial, architectural, interior, agricultural, and beyond.

His profiles include standard 3′ wide panels, 29-, 26-, and 24-gauge steel, box rib, IC-72, 7/8 corrugated, soffit, exposed fastener, all sizes of standing seam, metal siding, and more. All told, Lee has at least 80% of New Tech’s profiles. He keeps four SSQ II MultiPros in Colorado, three in Idaho, and two in Montana.

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Lee started his business with a Schlebach Quadro machine. After four years, he discovered New Tech Machinery in Denver. New Tech’s service department ensure quick repairs and minimal downtime. He found that NTM machines produce high-quality panels, and Lee prefers the post-cut shear mechanism over precut, as it results in better panel quality and reduces the risk of end flares. Lee finds that NTM machines are better suited for road conditions like going up jagged roads built for four-wheelers and handling heavy coils. Plus, the machines offer easy tooling changeovers.

Lee’s theory is that if you don’t dominate your market you’ll miss opportunities, as other operations are eager to grab up the jobs. That’s okay with Lee, as he’d rather be working in the shop and interacting with customers than sitting behind a desk shuffling paperwork. He likes to stay engaged–booking jobs, running panels, liaising with industry leaders, and competing in the marketplace.

Inside Flatiron Steel's office.
Flatiron’s office showcases some of their profiles, including NTM’s board and batten on the wainscoting.

Metal Manufacturing Challenges

Building a Quality Team

One of the biggest challenges Lee faces is the quality of labor. University enrollment, like at the nearby University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, is declining, and more people are opting for trade schools in fields like electrical work, plumbing, HVAC, and welding.

Lee’s labor challenge is visible across the industry. “Everybody in this world right now is dealing with labor shortages and quality of labor,” he said. Lee’s approach is to treat his crew respectfully and pay them a livable wage. Lee runs a professional, customer-focused front office, and his rollforming crews are top-notch. 

Lee Smith quote

Growing Competition

It’s fair to say that despite his ongoing successes, Lee faces challenges from competition moving into his region. Larger national manufacturers and companies have expanded to the Rocky Mountain region from the Midwest. However, Smith sees more opportunities to provide service the carpetbaggers can’t as quality service and his Colorado-based location give Flatiron a competitive edge over the national chains in the region. “Regional rollformers like myself can service within a hundred-mile radius in a day or two,” Lee said. “National companies can’t compete with that.”

Lee smith holding a panel in front of an SSQ II machine.
Lee Smith holding up a sample wood-grain metal board and batten panel.

Lee also keeps his business going through marketing and outreach. For the past ten years, Flatiron Steel has used a marketing agency that’s helped them with online advertising, including on industry sites, and social media (although he doesn’t use it himself). Their outreach includes golf tournaments, farm shows, garden shows, CRA shows, training events, and more.

Rising Material Costs

Another common challenge that is true across the industry is material costs. “The price of everything is up,” Lee explained. “Coil costs increased probably 70% in the last three years.” This hasn’t slowed him down, however. Lee’s running somewhere around 20 million lbs. of metal per year.

What’s Next for Flatiron

Lee’s business continues to expand, most recently into Washington state, where he’s helping a friend set up an operation. His journey with Flatiron Steel is a growing part of his family’s legacy in the metal roofing industry. From starting as a kid bending J bars to setting up shop in Colorado, Lee’s Flatiron Steel operation thrives by providing quality customer service, offering multiple panel profiles, staying engaged with industry trends, and strengthening partnerships.

For information on New Tech Machinery’s metal panel or gutter machines or accessories, contact us.

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