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Spotlight - Steve Paxton, Astro Sheet Metal

image Steve Paxton, president of Astro Sheet Metal

DALLAS/FT WORTH - With a proud past and an exciting future, Astro Sheet Metal has been a fixture in Irving for 51 years now. Steve Paxton, grandson of founder John Paxton, is currently in his second stint as company president and loves being with his family just as much as he enjoys producing his metal fabrications.



Are you originally from the DFW area?
     Yes - born and raised in Irving.  My parents both come from large families, so Irving has always felt like a small town to me. Everyone seems to know at least one of my relatives!
What was your early schooling like?
    I attended Cistercian Preparatory School in Irving from 5th-12th grade.  It is a small, all-boys Catholic school founded by Hungarian monks, and my graduating class had 33 members.  With a class that small, I gained a lot of lifelong friends there.  Those guys are like brothers to me.

What are some memorable events from your youth?

    I had a great childhood!  There were lots of kids my age in our neighborhood, so we were always outside chasing a ball.  I played soccer for my entire childhood, and I went deer hunting with my dad and our friends.  My parents had 30 acres south of Dallas and were restoring an old home, so we spent a lot of time down there working on things and enjoying the country as well.  With our large extended family, we also spent a lot of time with cousins and at family get-togethers.
 How did you get your start in business?

    While in high school, my dad and a couple of my uncles decided to start a side business – AST Waterjet, which did waterjet cutting.  It opened when I was 16, so that was my first job.  I ran the machines for a couple of years in the summers and in the evenings after school, and when I was 18 I moved into drafting.  After graduation, I moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas as an engineering major.  However, I discovered two things:  (1) I missed my big family more than I thought I would; and (2) I didn’t enjoy engineering as much as I thought I would. 
    Coincidentally, an inside sales person at AST Waterjet quit at the same time I was moving back to town, so I decided to take a short break from school and go back to work at AST Waterjet.  After a while, I enrolled in evening classes at UT Arlington as a business major.  I had just started back when our general manager at AST Waterjet left the company, so I was asked to manage the business.  At 23, I decided that I needed to dedicate my time to learning how to be a manager, so I dropped my classes and focused on my work.   I wound up managing AST Waterjet for 6 years (during which time I also married my wife Gloria and we had our son Matthew), and I remained as GM until my dad and uncles sold the company in 2006.  At that time I moved to Astro Sheet Metal.  Besides being around the company for most of my life, I had been a customer of Astro while at AST Waterjet, so I was somewhat familiar with the business.  I started in shipping and receiving to get better acquainted with the business, and I moved into sales after 8 months or so.  In 2009, my dad Allan and I switched places:  I was named president, and he took a step back to focus on sales.  While president, I went back to UT Arlington in the evenings and finished my degree in Business Management. 

How did your college education help in being in and running a business?
    I probably learned more on the job than I did in the classroom, to be honest. Certainly the business courses give you a great background, but I think it’s different than real world applications.

Would you ever consider venturing out to start your own business?
    I would never say “Never,” but I’m pretty content - and sufficiently challenged - where I’m at.  I’m definitely not bored! 

You have a very close family. But how do you rate working so closely with them?

     I always tell people that working with family is really great most of the time.   Nobody has your back like your family, and nobody can push your buttons like your family!  In 2013 it became obvious that our family needed a bit of a break, so we decided to bring in a nonfamily president.  One of my uncles knew a good candidate, so we asked Warren Hankammer to come in and be our president, and he did a great job for us for four years.  It was just the break we needed.  I became our VP of Sales and oversaw our sales efforts while also serving on our Board of Directors.
    By 2017 our family had sufficiently caught its breath, and Warren was at retirement age.  My sister Carrie Edomm, who had managed our office and accounting for 12 years, showed interest in running the company, so we elected her president.  She did a fantastic job for us, while also serving as Executive Director of a trade association.  However, in November 2018 she decided to step away from the family business to spend more time with her family, and I was once again elected president.  So far, things are going great!

How did you react when Carrie left to spend more time with her family and you were once again the president?
    I definitely miss working with my sister every day, but as far as management goes, I guess it’s a little like riding a bike. To come back has been really good, and my sister still helps me with things.

Talk about how technology and today’s way of doing business has changed from perhaps earlier days?
    I think the biggest thing in most skilled trades right now is to try to use technology to overcome the skills gap in the workforce. All trades are trying to make construction less artistic and more scientific by utilizing evolving technology.  The dwindling labor pool is probably the biggest challenge that all skilled trades face. In the past, I feel like there was more of a desire to learn a trade and be as well-rounded as possible. Today there seems to be a greater desire to specialize and get really good at one or two skills. We still try to produce well-rounded people at Astro and train them accordingly, but it seems that the well-rounded tradesman is a dying breed. There are Help Wanted signs everywhere looking for skilled tradesmen, but they are tougher to find.

What do you enjoy most about your work and the jobs you do?

    I really enjoy the challenge of a tough project.  Sometimes things are more easily drawn by the architect than actually executed in the metal work. I enjoy using our 51 years of collective experience to see how we can devise a solution to a unique situation.  I really like that we don’t build widgets all day long. Every day is different and presents its own challenges. That’s fun for me. We see a lot of times where people are saying, “We want this look and these are the features we want. We want no exposed fasteners, etc.” Sometimes it really takes some thinking to figure out how to pull off those requests.  

Have the current trade and tariff issues going on affected your industry?

    We definitely did see metal prices go up when the tariffs began to take effect - probably the first substantial increase in several years. I think the rising metal costs do lead people to sometimes consider other alternatives.  But for us, it has not been detrimental to our day-to-day transactions.

Do you think it’s better for us in the long run?

    100 percent. I would love to see metal production become more domestic.  I don’t think it’s healthy for our country to have no means of producing metal.

What’s the next step for you and Astro Sheet Metal?

    We intend to keep our company going. We recently purchased a building over in Grand Prairie and we will be moving in the fall of next year. We’ve been in one spot for 51 years, but we have outgrown our facility.  The new property will give us triple the space and land. We’ve been looking for a while and are excited to find the right fit.
    We’re in our third generation here.  There are four younger members of our third generation that are active in the business, and they are motivated, intelligent and passionate about our family business.  Between them and the new facility, I see good things for Astro long term.
    Astro Sheet Metal produces architectural metalwork and custom facbrications from their hub in Irving. -dsz

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Dan Zulli dan@constructionnews.net