AUBURN — Daryle Doden of Auburn started his business career in the mid-1970s with a handful of quarters and a pay phone.

Over the next 35 years, with no formal business training, he led the growth of Auburn’s Ambassador Steel Corp. into a company that a Nucor Corp. subsidiary bought this summer for $185 million.

His success story could be equally at home in the inspirational Guideposts magazine or the financial biweekly Forbes.

Raised in DeKalb County as the son of a Baptist pastor, Doden originally set out to follow his father’s path in the ministry. He soon discovered the pitfalls that awaited a pastor who tended to be, in his own words, introverted, analytical and task-oriented.

“I was a little bit of a fish out of water,” Doden said. “Even though I really cared about people, I didn’t express that well.”

Doden resigned after a short stint as a clergyman and needed a job. As he describes the next chapter in his life, in 1973, he learned about a shortage of rebar steel, bought some and sold it from a phone booth.

“That paid the bills for a month, and I still didn’t have a job, had no money, and did the same thing again with the help of another person, Ryan Hoover,” Doden said. “Ryan and I both just went out and got it done.”

Their mentor in the steel trade, Glenn Sharp of Osceola, helped the pair find rebar to sell and noticed Doden’s “natural affinity for business.” Doden said he had been honing that aptitude since the age of 7, when he sold vegetables to pay for his first bicycle. He later hawked Wolverine salve and carried The Evening Star newspaper from age 11 to 15.

Now his 20s, with $1,400 cash and $600 loan from himself, Doden teamed with Hoover to launch Ambassador Steel in January 1974.

“I had nothing better to do — no other job. A lot of fear. But in (Sharp’s) faith and belief that we could get the job done, we started out,” Doden said.

Building a network of suppliers and customers, Doden thrived on his persistence in making phone calls and found he enjoyed the detective work of hunting down rebar to sell.

“What became evident was that I was better at buying than I was at selling,” he said. “I was a much better purchaser and negotiator and had a real affinity for the banking side. Many businessmen tend to think of bankers as barriers to their success, and I always saw them as a benefit … that would help us toward success.”

Lifelong learner

Doden soaked up knowledge from everyone he met. When he was 18, a summer youth camp counselor had encouraged him to always ask questions. She told him: “I would prefer to appear dumb for a moment than to be ignorant for a lifetime.”

“That just made an indelible impression on me. I memorized it. I’ve cited it scores of times,” Doden said. “She taught me to be a lifelong learner through asking questions.”

He gained accounting savvy from Jim Seigel of Auburn, whose son, Ken, still counts Doden as a client.

“I found lawyers were my friends, and Derald Kruse became our attorney and educated me on the business side,” Doden said.

Over time, he acquired the street-smarts equivalent of an MBA degree from people who were in the field of business every day.

“They were willing to share their expertise with this eager, young businessman who wanted to learn,” he said.

Doden learned another lesson when he suggested naming his new company D.L. Doden Distributors.

“The rest of the people who were investing in the business thought that was pretty lousy idea,” he said. “They proposed Ambassador Steel. It’s a word that has significance in the Christian community, but also in the secular community, and has a sense of solidity, high esteem, high value.

“It was a wonderful choice, and I learned very early that often my thinking isn’t the best thinking, and somebody else has better thinking, and that group thinking, collectively working together, generally will come up with the best solution,” he said.

“Part of the name is that we wanted to be ambassadors for Christ,” he explained. “We wanted to live out our faith in the marketplace. Not in sense that we’re better than others, but a sense that we had a strong set of beliefs and values, and we wanted to be consistent with those values both at home and church and at the marketplace.”

The Ambassador Way

Over time, the company developed the Ambassador Way as its credo. Major contributions to the philosophy came from the late Mr. Kruse, the company’s attorney, who Doden calls “one of the wisest men I’ve ever met.”

At the core of the company’s philosophy is a belief that “relationships are the essence of life.” Doden said.

“If all we’re doing is trying to accomplish things, life is pretty empty at the end of the day. That only satisfies for a while, and then we’ve got to go on to our next accomplishment,” he said.

“The sign may say, ‘He who has the most toys wins,’ but he doesn’t win much. People who are fulfilled in life are people who have relationships that have depth and meaning, and there’s no amount of money that can replace the absence of relationships.

“It took me a while to get that. I’m very task-oriented,” he said. “It’s not what we’re accomplishing. It’s who we’re accomplishing it with that really makes the difference. … I began to realize, I spend more time with people at work than I spend with my family, and I want to get along with them and care about them in the same way that I do the family.”

Ambassador Steel set out to assemble “a community that cares and a team that excels.”

“We wanted to have people of the same mindset, and we developed what we call the 3 C’s. We wanted people with character … chemistry … and competency,” he said.

Character consists of attitude and integrity, and attitude ranks first, Doden said.

“You take a person with a good attitude, and they may have some character or some integrity issues that need to be dealt with, but they’ll be open to those being dealt with,” he explained.

Chemistry depends on shared values, he said.

“We wanted to honor God. It didn’t have to be God as we understood Him … but there had to be a sense that there was truth outside yourself, and that you weren’t truth yourself, that you would honor truth outside yourself, respect others, work hard, have fun and create value,” he said.

“If a person wanted to be a part of a corporation that shared those values, then other thing is that we wanted to have teamwork,” he said.

Ambassador sought people who are collaborative — assertive and cooperative at the same time.

“Highly assertive is: ‘I’m going to assert my interests and what I think is the right thing to do.’ Highly cooperative is: ‘I’m equally interested in what you think is the right thing to do. Together, we’re going to find a more excellent way,’” Doden said.

The final ingredient is competency, he said. Using the 3 C’s, the hiring process became one of the most important functions at Ambassador Steel.

“When you have that kind of synergy among people, you really develop a deep level of care and concern for each other,” Doden said. Outstanding customer service comes as a natural result, he added.

Even with all that harmony in the workplace, Ambassador Steel needed some external good fortune to succeed.

Filling a void

Ambassador came of age at a time when the steel industry was changing fundamentally. Small steel mills that melted scrap with electric-arc furnaces were taking the rebar business away from larger, traditional mills.

Older mills started selling their rebar fabrication and distribution companies. New mills didn’t step into the gap. They needed all their cash to keep expanding.

“There was a lot of opportunity for entrepreneurs. We got in on the ground floor of that,” Doden said. “We started buying a number of those fabrication facilities, while we also expanded in the distribution market in the Midwest.”

A steel mill in Kokomo that went out of business had owned an excellent distribution network, he said.

“We were able to fill that void,” Doden said. Ambassador developed a unique niche by both fabricating and distributing rebar.

“Those two things would sort of offset each other in the price fluctuation and the marketplace to allow us to maintain a stability,” he said. “It allowed us to become the largest independent fabricator and distributor in the United States.”

Even with that distinction, Ambassador controlled only 5 percent of the market. As electric-arc steel mills matured and finally began expanding into fabrication and distribution, Ambassador found stiff competition that required alliances. It began working closely with Birmingham Steel and its mill at Kankakee, Ill.

North Carolina-based steel maker Nucor acquired Birmingham Steel in late 2001 and began discussions with Ambassador about a long-term relationship. Several conversations seemed as if they should end in a deal, Doden said, but they never worked out until this summer’s sale to Harris Steel, a Nucor subsidiary.

“We prayed that it would be so clear that either this should be a sale or shouldn’t be a sale that everybody would say that it was just clear,” Doden said. “This deal went as smoothly as any deal like this can go. It was so clear. … No barriers. The employees realize it’s the right thing. It’s a good future for them and their future’s secure.

In Ambassador Steel, Harris Steel acquired a company of 650 employees with operations in 13 Midwestern and Southern states. Its corporate office in Auburn and an engineering division in Fort Wayne together have about 75 employees.

Ambassador’s management team will stay in place, Doden said.

“They bought us for the people. They saw the people culture that we had and the value in the people,” he said. “I believe the team is very well equipped and the community is very well equipped to not only survive, but prosper without Daryle Doden being involved. I’m proud of that.”

Busier than ever

Suddenly, Doden no longer leads a company he started when he was 26 years old. But he already had stepped away from day-to-day management of Ambassador Steel in 2006.

Two years ago, Doden focused his efforts on founding Ambassador Family Enterprises, an umbrella corporation that sold Ambassador Steel, but will continue to operate with Doden as president.

AFE invests in real estate and owns a majority interest in Correct Craft of Orlando, Fla., which builds Ski Nautique boats and employs 400 people.

After selling Ambassador Steel, “We’ll be looking now to invest in other opportunities,” with a team of employees that stands at 11 and growing, Doden said.

Another eight or nine employees at AFE’s Fort Wayne headquarters run its Masterworks Foundation, which supports 40 to 50 mission projects in Asia, Europe, Africa, North America and Central America. Its projects include orphanages and training youth workers.

“We take a little different approach. We build relationships first, before we get involved in the funding of organizations,” Doden said. At retreats in Ireland and Italy, Masterworks has fostered connections between people “who are doing unusual works around the world” and can benefit from working together.

“I’m busier now than I’ve been for the last couple years,” Doden said. “Retirement isn’t on the horizon.”

Looking to his future, Doden said, “My goal needs to be to deepen my relationship with God and relationships with others, and let God decide what that means as far as expansion and growth.

“Men make plans,” he said, “but God decides what happens with their plans.”

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