Obituary – Ron Steel of Steel Fire

Sadly, on January 24th 2014, Ron Steel passed away at Sunnybrook Hospital during a procedure to replace a heart valve. There were some complications and his heart was not strong enough at the end despite the doctors’ best efforts.

A Celebration of Life memorial was held on Saturday February 1st from 1:30-3pm at the Elgin Mills Cemetery Visitation Centre.

Here are some memories of Ron written by his son:

I thought I would share some information on the professional life of my father for those who may be interested. Feel free to read the below but don’t hold me to a high standard for grammar or a few date inaccuracies.

My father was the loving husband to my mother Marie, brother to Carol, father-in-law to Sarah, and grandfather to Clarke, Marshall and Warner. The list of things that I learned from my father is too long and perhaps too personal to get into right now. What I thought I would do is let you know about my father the entrepreneur and what a big impact he has had on our little industry.

My father, like most born in the 1930s, grew up poor in the Junction area of Toronto. However, it is amazing to think of how many like-minded, successful people came out of there. My dad tells the story of growing up with George Chuvalo, arguably our greatest heavy weight. At that time, the kids were all in little street gangs. George initially started to work out so that he would not get beat up.

Ron received his education at Carlton P.S., Western Tech., on the street, and from many part time and full time jobs. Like most in his generation he had to quit school at a very early age to help out with family obligations. He always placed a huge importance on education as I believe he always regretted not being able to get a formal education himself.

Ron’s entrepreneurship was evident at an early age. At about twelve years of age he suggested to Cavel’s Fish and Chip store owner, where he was working, that they should start home delivery. The owner followed his suggestion and increased his sales. Remember, this was in 1946. I always loved this story as it epitomizes the way my dad thought about growing a business by offering better service. And yes, he would get a piece of the extra tips.

From about eleven to thirteen years of age Ron had a number of part time jobs. He worked as a delivery boy for Squirrel’s Grocery Store at the corner of Osler and Linder, Devon Drugstore at Miller and Davenport, and Cavel’s Fish and Chips on St. Claire. While in grade eight, he worked in shipping and receiving for La France Fire Engine on Weston Rd. He later worked for Brooks Fireplace on Rogers Rd. for $48.00 a week. Other jobs consisted of working one summer on Manitoulin Island building cottages, making deliveries for Eaton’s and picking orders for McCormick Biscuits. From all of these jobs he acquired knowledge of what he did not want to do with his life.

In 1952, age 18, he began working for V V Dyer (became Dyer and Miller, but no longer exists) on Weston Rd. learning how to service fire extinguishers. After about two years he left and began servicing fire extinguishers for Thorington Fire on Manning Ave. This job lasted for about three years. From the experience gained while working at variety of jobs Ron realized that working for others was not what he wanted to for the rest of his life. He wanted to be the decision maker in control of his own future, and was more comfortable giving orders than receiving them (something I was personally made aware of).

In Oct., 1958, Ron left Thorington Fire and started R. Steel Fire Equipment with a few hundred dollars. My father made friends easily. He knew and had good rapport with all of the required suppliers and was able to get a line of credit which he needed. There are more than a few stories today where he was able to repay this to some of our customers, who like him, just needed a little help to start. He filled the extinguishers out of the trunk of a 53 green Ford that he had purchased from his mother. His first big customer was Ed Mirvish and he supplied extinguishers for “Honest Ed’s”. I remember meeting Ed on one of the many service calls he would take me on, where I would largely read a book, and he would get frustrated (read mad) at me for not being able to identify where we were in the city. In retrospect, perhaps one of the reasons we sold the service company was that he knew I would be terrible at getting anywhere in the city.

The first place Ron rented was a 10 by 16 foot room on Martin Grove Rd. He later moved around the corner to a warmer, cleaner, not much larger, room. However, commensurate with his success, it had its own bathroom. Business continued to grow.

In 1970 Ron moved into the 3000 square foot building he had built at 135 City View Dr., Etobicoke. This was his first of many forays into real estate, a passion that he and I shared. I am sad I do not remember the story completely, but my father was quite proud of that little building. I remember that it was a small piece of property that no one thought anyone could build upon.  However, the location was right and it had great visibility on Highway 27. Somehow he got permits to build and the building is still there to this day.

In late 1977 he saw and seized the opportunity to expand and diversify his business when Fire Fighter of Trenton, New Jersey, went bankrupt. He purchased most of their product from their plant in Brampton for about ten cents on the dollar. In 1981 or 82 he flew to New Jersey and bought the tooling to make the replacement parts. R. Steel Fire Equipment was on the road to more success.

Ron had that innate ability to identify and quantify opportunities without any need for lengthy analysis. He could simplify a scenario to its core which always impressed and inspired me. A common comment from people who knew him is that you could take my father’s word “to the bank”. He was a hand shake person and to cross that was to your detriment. How we began the manufacturing of valves is an example of this. He had an agreement with a U.S. firm to import flip valves. If he bought 100 at a time he was to receive a discount. When the order arrived, he was charged the full price. He phoned the firm and they said ‘that was the price’.  While the valves were still at his plant, a salesman from an Ontario foundry came in to sell Ron hose couplings and saw the valves. Ron told him the story about the pricing. The salesman said, “We can make the forgings” and so the valve business began.

At this time, Steel Fire offered both service and replacement parts. The replacement parts business had grown over time to be the same size as our service business. My father did not like the conflict of interest in competing against his customer’s on the parts side with the service business. In 1978 he sold the service business to Brian Cronin of Cronin Fire who at the time was the largest service company in Canada. I still remember listening to Brian trying to get my dad to buy a motorcycle and matching white suits for the bikes.

With business success, Steel Fire had out-grown the building on City View, and he designed and built a 30,000 square foot building, at 340 Traders Blvd., Mississauga. He increased the types of valves that he manufactured by partially or totally redesigning other manufacturers’ old valves. His” hands on” experience in the service business proved to be very beneficial in this endeavor. Never afraid to ruffle a few feathers, we got into the vehicle bracket business because he felt the OEM price was too high. When confronted by one manufacturer to get his price up he suggested that they get theirs down. A lot of our manufacturing decisions, whether it be covers, valves, signs, valve stems, pumps, chemical were driven by can we do it better, cheaper or provide better customer service by making it ourselves.

How we got into the dry chemical recharge business is also classic Ron Steel. It was a combination of friendship, vision, luck, and timing. My dad has made great lifelong friends both in the industry and out.  One such friendship was with Ned Payne who, along with his wife Goldie, founded a little company you might know as Amerex. Ned made an incredibly generous offer of his formulas and head engineer for the cost of the used mill equipment he was upgrading from. It was still an incredible financial commitment which had my dad up at nights. However, around the same time Pyrene Chubb was exiting Canada and the Government Purple K contract was coming up for tender. They knew they had to quote but could not fulfill. Through his friends at Pyrene Chubb, he learned of their bid price, came in lower, won the contract and was able to pay off the mill in a few short years…and get some sleep in the process. If there was corporate hero to my dad it was Ned. I am proud to say that the positive relationship between our companies continues to this day.  From the knowledge gained from his first mill he built a second, more computerized one, a few years later which continue to be modernized to this day.

My dad always loved a deal. With an eye to the future and the continued growth of Steel Fire, Ron took advantage of depressed land values in 1994 and bought a lot, just under three acres, on Superior Blvd. in Mississauga. In 1998 he moved into his new plant of 60,000 square ft. Together my dad and I have built and own 3 other properties that we lease to commercial tenants. The other thing my dad loved was working on the catalog which Ron Foxcroft lovingly referred to as like getting the Consumer’s Distributing catalog at Christmas. I can hear my dad now telling me to stop screwing around and just finish it already (I have missed a few self-imposed deadlines).

I am proud of the relationships that I have today as a result of my father. There are a lot of customers and suppliers that I would consider personal friends. He touched a lot of people and was one of the leaders in this industry, admired and respected by his peers. The outpouring of support and condolences from around the world in the last day has been truly overwhelming. I only hope that we continue to honor him by our actions personally and professionally.

I had the unique experience of working with and talking to my dad every day even though he has not been here that much over the last year. He was more than a father, he was a friend who will be missed by many.

We are in the Business of Growing Your Business

Steel Fire Equipment
150 Superior Blvd
Mississauga, ON Canada
L5T 2l2

(P) 905-564-1500; Toll Free 800-387-9555
(F) 905-564-0008; Toll Free 800-387-9990
www.steelfire.com

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