According to Sharon Owen, there’s a saying at U.S. Steel: steel gets in your blood. Employees might say it as they stand in the plant, watching the raw material be heated until it turns into the liquid that eventually becomes car hoods and the top of washing machines. That moment still fills Owen with awe.
For Owen, the general manager of Gary Works for just over a year, the saying is especially true. When her grandfather came over to the United States from Poland, he worked for U.S. Steel, as did her late parents.
Owen believes they’d have a hard time grasping that their daughter now runs the show. Owen, 55, was born in Gary but grew up in Merrillville. Growing up, she knew that steel was a dominant focus in the region, but it wasn’t until she graduated from Andrean High School and was well into her chemical engineering major at Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus that she began to consider that steel might become her focus too. She was a member of a co-op program where students worked at a company every other semester, and she applied for and was hired at U.S. Steel as a college student. She never left.
It’s been 34 years since Owen started at U.S. Steel, and she’s moved around the company, doing a little bit of everything. Owen is no stranger to changing positions, but every couple of new assignments, she was returned back to Gary Works.
Owen started in the Gary Works quality assurance department before moving to work as a customer technical sales representative. She worked as a senior area manager-steel producing, a manager of automotive marketing and eventually general manager of automotive in 2004. Sometime during that period she found time to earn her master’s degree in business administration from the University of Pittsburgh.
She was back at Gary Works in 2006 to serve as plant manager-primary operations before heading to Granite City Works in 2008 to become general manager. She returned to Gary Works for her current role.
A news release announcing her promotion to the general manager of Gary Works in February 2009 points to Owen’s “broad background and strong managerial skills” as her strengths coming into the position.
Now back in northwest Indiana, she loves the Michigan lakeshore and taking advantage of the nearby parks. “After you leave and come back, you’re so much more appreciative of what the area has to offer,” she says.
She now lives in Highland with her husband, Robert. Owen talks about steel, and the people who make it, with pride. “You get a sense that there’s something you’re proud to be a part of,” she says.
She’s quick to point out there was a time when U.S. Steel employed 30,000 people at Gary Works, but with increases in technology, can actually make more steel with 6,000 employees. Because of her different roles with the company, she’s well versed about who the company’s clients are and can enter an appliance store, run her hand over a washing machine and know that she helped make it. The company takes its plant employees to the plants of their clients, so they can watch as the steel they make is stamped into a car, appliance or appliance part. “A lot of us make a point to buy products made with our steel,” she says.
While Owen says what keeps her at the company is the constant presentation of new challenges and the familiar people, one of her highest priorities is safety. A good day for her is having zero incidents, where everybody makes it home safe.
The past year hasn’t been an easy one for Owen. As she points out, the economy hasn’t been easy on a lot of the company’s clients, and therefore, hasn’t been easy on U.S. Steel, whose business is a result of its customers. But Owen saw the recession as another challenge to work through and has seen things slowly begin to improve; earnings have been up in all segments of the company.
“That’s good news for everybody.”