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NEWS > MAY 2019

Goodbye "Mr. Wire Rope"

A Tribute to Donald Sayenga
June 4, 1934 – February 26, 2019

Over his 29-year career at Bethlehem Steel Corp., and in many leadership roles during and after, Don Sayenga was the quintessential expert on wire rope and just about everything related to it.

by Barbara Spencer

Don Sayenga

When asked back in 1988 how he felt about being dubbed “Mr. Wire Rope” by Jurgen Prohaska of Kulkoni, Inc., Don replied, “It took me years and years to learn about wire rope, and I can name ten guys who know lots more than I do and are better deserving of the title. But Jurgen has been a competitor of mine, so that is an honor.”

Don was a self-made expert on the evolution of technology, especially wire rope technology. He has written books and articles — many for Wire Rope News & Sling Technology. And he was particularly fascinated by wire rope history.

“When feeling extremely egotistical,” he said, “I sometimes pride myself on being one of the very few people in the world who knows something of all there is to know about wire rope: rod making, wire making, rope and strand manufacturing, technology, engineering, financing, marketing, selling and inventorying are all the primary aspects of the business, and I’ve been involved in all. I know a lot about how the business evolved.”

Then Don added, “In reality, however, I am constantly startled by what I don’t know about wire rope and about business in general. I’m not a quick thinker. I’m master of the ‘slow comeback.’ Sometimes I have to mull something for months before I begin to understand the gist of it.”

Born Into The Wire Rope Industry

Don grew up in Pittsburgh. His dad worked for a bank, and his mother was a teacher. But one could argue that Don was genetically pre-disposed to work in the industry. “Both my grandfathers had worked in the hot and grimy end of the iron and steel business,” he explained, “one as a puddling furnaceman for Jones & Laughlin, and the other as a galvanizing foreman for Oliver Wire.”

To help finance his way through Lafayette, he worked during hot Pennsylvania summers at a blast furnace and coke works. “I was a member of the United Steelworkers myself,” he said.

While attending Lafayette College, Don participated in football, track and field, choir and wrestling. Don continued wrestling until he was 45. In 1976, he was inducted into the Lafayette Hall of Fame as a two-time heavy weight champion. In 1993 he received the Order of Merit from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame for his writing and research of amateur wrestling.

With a B.S. in metallurgical engineering, Don was hired in 1956 as a sales trainee for Bethlehem Steel Corp. After two years in training and six as a salesman, Don spent four years in staff sales for the rod & wire department. There he began to see chinks in the huge steel corporation’s heavy armor of management.

In addition to functioning as a specialist in rod and wire,” he explained, “I was put in charge of sales policies for nails, fence, barbed wire and other things known as “wire products.” These articles were among the first steel items to be imported from Japan after World War II.

“That was really good experience for me because I was outside the mainstream of the Bethlehem Steel organization, in direct confrontation with articles made abroad, some of which were excellent quality, all of which sold cheaper than (our accountants said) we could make them.

“Of course, the accountants were only doing their job, which was to pad the cost of everything, because the big, integrated steel companies all worked on a bonus system. They had to do a little profit-taking at every level of manufacture so as to provide for bonuses at every level. Not a very smart way to count costs in a highly competitive business. It made a lot of people fat…and lazy.”

Working For A Company That “Could Only Think Big”

Don Sayenga

In 1969 Don was promoted to “a low-level management job in the office handling wire rope products.” He was also nominated for a part-time lobbying job in Washington.

“That (lobbying job) was really educational,” he said. “In connection with the lobbying, I sat down and read the text of our trade laws. I came to understand our USA world posture, and saw how difficult it is to get anything done in Washington because there are so many conflicting special interests at work. When I first got to see Bethlehem Steel cost/profit data back in 1964, the nail business was a small, rapidly declining enterprise, very much out of the mainstream at Bethlehem Steel. I found it to be a good case history from which to forecast the future, but despite my perception (Bethlehem later abandoned the nail business) I failed in trying to lead others in the company to the same conclusions I had reached. I was mentally tuned to this philosophy: think small, think lean, think international. Charge a fair price for a good product and good services. And if you can’t achieve a profit by making the item, stop making it and buy from someone else.

“But, alas, I was working for a company that could only ‘think big.’ In fact, my postures and predictions made me (to a degree) a sort of business leper, an outsider, among the people involved with flat-roller steel, the main steel product for Bethlehem and for other integrated companies like U.S. Steel, Armco, LTV [Corporation], etc. In those days, US Steel and the car companies (GM, Ford) were the role model, and everything that US Steel did was aped by the others. Flat-rolled steel somehow couldn’t become ‘small and lean.’ “Maybe that’s a fundamental rule of human nature: big companies can only be ‘big.’” Don said that through the late 70s and early 80s he watched as his premonition of a dark future for Bethlehem’s wire rope division slowly became a reality. “It was headed the same way as the nail business, so I thought about getting into some other line of work. But I procrastinated and stayed with Bethlehem. “Then they dropped into the red and stayed there for five years. Things got grim. People were let go left and right. Friends began to stick it to friends. Many people who had scoffed at me in the prior era started to see what was happening.”

Don moved into Bethlehem Steel’s Finance Department and “helped sell off the assets and restructure some of the operations which had a chance for survival, particularly the big mill up at Lackawanna, New York, near Buffalo. That was formerly one of the largest flat-rolled plants. They once employed 20,000 people there.” In 1983 Don was promoted to general manager of Bethlehem’s wire rope division.

Friend and competitor, the late Fred Paulsen of Paulsen Wire Rope, remembered the day it happened. The American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) Wire Rope Producers Committee of Domestic Wire Rope & Specialty Manufacturers were slated for a joint meeting at the World Trade Center. The day was to include a tour under the Brooklyn Bridge, which Don and personally organized.

The planned activities had barely begun when Don received a phone call. “He was called back (to Bethlehem),” Fred said, “and made top man at the Bethlehem wire rope division. He lost a nice lunch, two or three cocktails, and dinner at the New York Yacht Club.

“By the way,” Fred added jokingly, “he never told us he was called back. We kept wondering all day what had happened to him.”

6'3," Long Arms Waving

Don willingly tackled his new job. But he was fighting tough odds. “He came in there and didn’t have it that easy,” said Tom Kline, editor of the Local 2499 steelworkers newspaper in Williamsport. “He didn’t have full cooperation (from management).” Traditionally, he explained, the position was filled from within, and Don had jumped from sales. “There were some hard feelings.”

At the same time, problems were brewing within the union ranks.

“I took over the wire rope division on August 1, 1983,” Don remembered. A new union contract had been approved by management during the previous week. “I was told the rank and file would vote ‘yes.’ Two weeks later they voted ‘no.’ A couple of months passed. In about November I got them to go back to the table and hammer out a new one.”

Rumors spread that Don then almost single-handedly averted a strike. During each shift, he attracted the attention of workers by standing on the desk, his 6'3" frame towering above them, his long arms waving, as he tried to convince them to accept the contract.

Although the gist of the story is true, Don sloughed off the idea that he was a hero. “In essence, I said I was too new on the scene to understand why they hadn’t voted for the old contract,” he said, “But we couldn’t go on as we were.”

The new contract got a sweeping approval. “I think it helped that I used to be a member of the steelworker’s union, and grew up in a steel town,” Don said. The editor of the Local newsletter gave him more credit. “One of the things that impressed me about Don was apparent in my first meeting with him,” said Tom Kline. “I was writing a story, and he was candid and outspoken. He went on a limb when he talked to me. It got him in some hot water at the corporate level.”

But Wait, There’s More

In 1985, Don retired from Bethlehem with a full pension, and became a consultant. “I’ve been my own boss ever since,” he said. “I have consulted for several companies, including Paulsen Wire Rope, and a number of trade bodies and associations. During the 1980s I got to visit factories in other countries: Korea, Japan, China, Britain, Germany, Netherlands and Spain.

As friends in the wire rope industry could tell you, Don Sayenga could go on for hours about many subjects.

And he liked to travel. “I feel very comfortable in other lands,” he said. “I am interested in languages, anthropology, and history, and I like to try foods and notice foreign customers and manners. I guess it goes without saying that I’m fascinated by the evolution of technology…all technology, not just wire rope.”

Hello and Goodbye, Don

“You have to get Don’s name right,” joked the late John Gibbons of Metro Wire Rope Corp back in 1988. “It’s ‘Don…PAUSE…SayENGa.’ “Don is a great public speaker, as well as a writer,” Gibbons, a former AWRF president, continued. “He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s an AWRF insider, and yet is objective. And he has an abiding love for the wire rope industry. Which brings us back to why Don was awarded that new position with the AWRF. “We’re just ecstatic that Don was willing to accept the position,” said Duane Kaminski, who was on the Search and Screen Committee back then. “His background and contacts make him ideal for the position. He’s the best conduit we ever could have dreamed of to increase the communication and create an atmosphere at the meetings that is more meaningful and more related to the wire rope industry.

“And, of course, he’s ‘Mr. Wire Rope.’ That’s his biggest contribution.”

Don is survived by his wife of 52 years, Carlene (Ebeling); son Mattheu and his wife Michelle (Resetar) of Bethlehem, one grandson, Aaron Enright and son-in-law, Don Enright of Tucson, Arizona. He was predeceased in death by his daughter, Bryn Alison Enright.

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