John O’Brien launched O’Brien Metal after 20 years in corporate America. Despite the difficult economic conditions, O’Brien Metal has profitably grown and established itself as a key player in this industry over the past six years. John O’Brien is a proven business builder, prior to joining Fair Isaac Corp. he was a founding member of Braun Consulting Inc. out of Chicago (Fair Isaac purchased Braun Consulting in 2004) and as a Sr. Leader helped grow the firm from five employees to over 600 – including an IPO in 1999 and market valuation of over $500 million.
Founded in Chicago, Illinois in 2007 O’Brien Metal is made up of digital & artisanal metal fabrication and renovation experts who understand the relationship between design and function, shape and finish. Together with some of the country’s most notable architects, designers, and landscape architects, they have been crafting beautiful interiors and striking exteriors throughout Chicago and New York. The company employs a diverse group of Architectural Detailers, Fabricators, Artists, Metal Technicians, Restorers, Finishing Experts, and Forging and Casting Professionals. They are experts at working with specialty metals such as bronze, brass, nickel, silver, gold leaf, copper, stainless steel, and aluminum. The company is also a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Chicago, AIA New York, Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), American Institute of Conservators (A IC) and American Preservation Technology (APT).
BusinessInterviews.com: What inspired to your decision to leave your long and successful corporate career to launch O’Brien Metal?
John: I left corporate America after 20-years, including my most recent position as a Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Fair Isaac Corporation paying a multi-six-figure salary, to begin this entrepreneurial journey. Despite the difficult economic conditions, O’Brien Metal has grown profitably and established itself as a key national player in this industry over the past six years.
After the sale of Braun Consulting and a few years of success at Fair Isaac, I found myself in the position of having the flexibility to take on the entrepreneurial challenge I always wanted to pursue. Despite having no experience in metal working, the architecture and custom furniture manufacturing industries have always been highly intriguing to me and I understood the strong interdependencies between those who envisioned the solution and those who provided the materials and capability to bring design inspirations to life.
BusinessInterviews.com: What were some of the challenges that you faced in the early days of O’Brien Metal how did you overcome them?
John: Although the recession added significant challenges to building the business, in a lot of ways it also was an asset. It allowed me to hire top talent that otherwise would not have been available or interested in joining an unknown start-up. In addition, many of our competitors grew wildly during the real estate boom and found themselves in the non-enviable position of having onerous debt, overhead commitments, and too many staff. Many of these companies are no longer in business. Another industry anomaly I quickly discovered is that small iron fabrication shops that focus on the lower end, more commoditized services with highly competitive pricing pressure were aplenty. By investing in technology, top talent, advanced machinery, building a robust vendor network and unique finishes, we were able to move into the more profitable segment of luxury metal goods and alloys where only a handful of competitors exist in the U.S.
BusinessInterviews.com: Despite the difficult economic conditions, O’Brien Metal has profitably grown and established itself as a key player in this industry over the past six years. How have you managed to thrive where other companies are just surviving?
John: In lieu of recessionary casualties, our competitive position in luxury goods and cautionary mindset of staying lean, we find ourselves in a highly desirable position to capitalize on any upticks in the economy. Plus our location is a huge asset. Our location, in the heart of historic Lincoln Park on the near North Side of the City, gives us a competitive advantage vs. other companies in our market who predominately reside at far West Side or South Side locations. Our proximity relative to affluent clients, architects, and designers – who reside in Lincoln Park, the Gold Coast, River North with the Merchandize Mart, and the Loop – allows for a highly collaborative process. Each week we see a steady stream of architects, designers and clients who come here to brainstorm ideas and browse our large inventory of mock-ups, finish samples, stock of alloys, and fabrication processes. They review and approve plans, custom solutions, and unique metal finishes on site and in person, helping to make sure each project is completed to everyone’s exacting standards. We also host tours of the facility, along with A. Finkle & Son’s Foundry, for architectural students of the Illinois Architecture School in the Spring, and groups of junior architects and designers in the fall so that they can learn this side of the business.
BusinessInterviews.com: Can you expand on how O’Brien Metal is very well positioned to prosper in the coming digital manufacturing & fabrication revolution?
John: We are very well positioned to prosper in the coming digital manufacturing and fabrication revolution. We have been highly successful in merging an age-old craft with cutting-edge technology – allowing our clients to turn computerized visions into metallic works of art. We pride ourselves in being a leader of a new breed of metal fabricators on the forefront of a digital revolution of technology and artistry that is evolving at a dizzying pace.
BusinessInterviews.com: What are some trends in your industry that you’re excited about or think that our readers should be paying attention to?
John: Most pieces begin in the virtual world of 3D CAD (computer aided design), where ideas come to life and options are explored without ever casting a single mould. In-house architectural detailers work side by side with metal artisans, mould-making and casting professionals and creative patina specialists who rely on the new tools of track pads and high-def monitors as much as their predecessors did on the hammer and anvil.
We have integrated high tech into traditional metal fabrication – replacing a lot of cumbersome and time-consuming processes. Modern day tools and techniques allow us to work faster, smarter and more efficiently, while still crafting luxury furnishings that are timeless. We use technology to improve efficiency and enable a more fluid design-build approach – all the while remaining true to the architects’ vision. We’re now partnering with architects and designers early in the process to rapidly help evaluate feasibility and engineer solutions that will far exceed customary functionality, usability, and aesthetic goals.
BusinessInterviews.com: What would your dream project look like?
John: Fortunately, we’re working on them everyday. We recently won an Acanthus Award in Allied Arts and Craftsmanship from the Chicago-Midwest Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art with our Architect partner on the project, BHRA Architects, for our work on Northwest University’s Charles Deering Library renovation. The goal was to preserve the intricate elements of the original architecture, most notably the bronze castings and authentic steel forgings inspired by legendary blacksmith Samuel Yellin’s contributions to the library in the 1930s. Yellin had hand-forged gates, lighting fixtures, grilles, railings, doors, and ironworks to replicate the Gothic grandeur of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge.
But time can exact a toll on such metal masterpieces, leading the University to contact HBRA to help restore the library to its original luster. We used modern technology combined with authentic blacksmithing techniques to hammer, contour, to darken and antique hand-forged vitrine stands that hold library treasures, like the scribbled lyrics of Eleanor Rigby by John Lennon. Lamp posts were custom cast and fabricated in bronze, topped off with a statuary bronze patina. Double-bar exterior bronze handrails were meticulously designed to contrast with the darkened lamp posts, then fabricated out of extruded bronze that was darkened and scuffed back to show the luster of the metal. Even the way finding signs were hand-forged and designed to mimic the Library’s dramatic interior.
Being relatively new to our industry made following in Yellin’s footsteps on this project a great honor for all the artisans involved.