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Business Observer Monday, Sep. 3, 2018 3 weeks ago

Business owner behind $10 million steel company dies at 63

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Ralph George, recall friends, was a gifted storyteller with an infectious smile.

Seven years before business success guru Simon Sinek wrote the book Leaders Eat Last, there was Ralph George: a gregarious former college football player-turned-construction entrepreneur. He always ate last, too.

George ate last at company-sponsored lunches, he told the Business Observer in a 2007 interview, from a lesson leaned during his 15-year U.S. Army. Career. A captain, his service included Ranger and Airborne school, and two stints commanding a Sarasota-based Florida National Guard unit. No matter the battlefield, recalled George, the leader always chowed down last — in case the unit ran out of food.

George, who friends called a gifted storyteller with an infectious smile and a passion for sports and the military, particularly his alma mater, the Virginia Military Institute, died, suddenly, Aug. 20. He was 63.

An Ohio native who went to high school in Lakeland, George relocated to Sarasota after his military career.

In 1998, George and his then-wife, Debi George, bought Palmetto-based All-Steel Consultants. The company, a steel fabrication business, had five employees and less than $500,000 in annual sales when the couple bought it. Partly due to the early 2000s market boom, and partly due to Ralph George’s hustle and innovations, especially in training employees, the company hit nearly $10 million in annual sales by 2007. Ralph George left All Steel in 2017 and started a second business, Veteran Metals Inc. (It wasn’t a coincidence, say his friends, that his new business’ letters matched his alma mater.)

“He had an amazing attention to detail,” says Bret Raymaker a vice president with Willis A. Smith in Lakewood Ranch, who did business with George as a vendor and consultant. “He was always fair and his handshake was his word.”

All Steel’s revenues fell during the downturn, then rebounded. A key to the comeback, and inherent in George’s operating philosophy, is to emphasize employee training, which he believed would lead to better quality and service, and in turn, more repeat business. George, in the 2007 interview, was asked if he worried he that he'll spend money and time on training employees who will then take that training and move on to other companies. He never sweated that. "What you should worry about," says George, "is that you don't train them and then they don't leave.”

'What you should worry about is that you don't train them and then they don't leave.' Ralph George, on training employees

George had many interests outside work. He loved golf, where, according to his official obituary, he combined a “wicked but woefully unreliable drive” with his gift of gab and positive attitude to win many games. He was also a serious athlete: At VMI, George played Division I football with “reckless abandon,” his obituary adds. A wide receiver, he and his teammates led the VMI Keydets to back-to-back Southern Conference Championships. George tried out for the NFL, and later in life, according to the obituary, became a “tormented but faithful Tampa Bay Buccaneer fan.”

George also had a life-of-the-party streak. He was an avid music lover and dancer, and would occasionally show up at Willis Smith partner and vendor cigar nights with a surprise — including, one time, belly dancers. Says Raymaker: “He was always up to something.”

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