Elaine Russell Reolfi - Compassion, Teamwork and Hi-Spec Steel

Part 1

Elaine Russell Reolfi, VP of Communications, TimkenSteel.
Elaine Russell Reolfi, VP of Communications, TimkenSteel. ElaineRussell Reolfi

In June of 2014, the Timken Company, a 100-year-old steel and bearing manufacturer, spun off its steel division, forming a new and independent public enterprise. How to package that transformation for the new company, create a brand and define the culture for customers, partners and investors, was left in the capable hands of Elaine Russell Reolfi, VP of Communications at the newly independent, TimkenSteel.

That's where the story began, but it was Elaine's job to develop it and tell it. Elaine is an experienced business professional with a degree in journalism and a real-world education in corporate communications, branding, industrial ventures and compassionate management.

She works in what she calls her dream job, telling the company story, working with every aspect of the business, mentoring younger associates and leading a global effort to establish TimkenSteel as the leading-edge, technologically advanced manufacturer of hi-spec steel products for industry, energy and automotive.

What was the first challenge from the brand standpoint? "The challenge was; it doesn't have a name, logo, website, nothing to distinguish it as an independent company, except a rich history, great culture and great products."

That's a heckuva base to start with under a 'clean slate'. Elaine talked about having a good foundation from which to begin this story: the Timken brand, culture, channels, resources and community relations, but this was to be a new company with its own unique challenges and culture, so I asked her how the decision-making process begins, in order to shape the narrative.

"Having worked at Timken for a number of years and 'steel' for a dozen years or so, I knew there was something special there, something a little bit different on the other side of this. We formed a team mostly of Timken people and set off with the mindset of, 'let's dig in and find out what's really going on here; let's tell the real story'."

Elaine directed her team to conduct a cultural survey of employees, to get input on how they view the workplace and their contribution to it. "We analyzed the surveys at different levels of the company and found really amazing alignment top to bottom. People at 'steel' began to realize just how special they really were," something they had perhaps never considered.

"Once we set definitions: who we are; what makes us different; what will it take to grow; then what was left was to tell the story in a clear and compelling way. That's not to be underestimated because what we do here is complex, customized, tailored to customer needs." In fact 30% of TimkenSteel's products are new within the last five years.

Elaine emphasized that much of the company's success is driven by face-to-face interaction, "don't e-mail, let's talk," she says. A critical component of their evolution as a corporate culture is the understanding that they are in a constant cycle of innovation. "Our model is, we have sales engineers embedded in target countries. The customer sometimes doesn't even know they can use our help until we start diving into their applications. We customize products for them and develop long-term relationships.

Our selling model is really built around problem-solving."

This is why I think Elaine's story is so interesting. Her attitude is, "whadya mean, it can't be done? Let's see if we can figure it out. There are no barriers we can't go through, over or around."

What's captivating about Elaine is her enthusiasm for this 'no barriers' attitude. She doesn't express it in a confrontational way; it's more of a feeling that you can trust her to find a way to get it done. Her family background is an important component of her work ethic. She is the child of immigrant parents, who came to the US with nothing, sacrificed, found a way and thrived. "My parents gave us what they couldn't get for themselves, an education and a chance to succeed."

Life Lessons

Elaine's father worked a variety of jobs and eventually started his own business, enjoying some success.

"Growing up in my parent's store gave me invaluable lessons. It influenced the way I do my job each day."

Elaine has two gifts that are both enviable and highly prized in her industry: the ability to clearly relate a complex story, and 'insight ability'—a term coined by Robert Sternberg in his Second Principle of Intelligence, the capacity to see connections where others might and gain insight from perceived failures, to not be constrained by rules of thought. Elaine scored high on the Gallup Strength Finders tests in the area of linking concepts. "Translating an intricate story, whether it's engineering, automotive, healthcare—whatever the expertise, being able to tell it in a way people can relate is something I just love. It's fun."

So has your typical day changed with this new position? "My day has changed so much in the last year because much of what we were doing was foundational I had to stay close to home so I haven't traveled much this past year. A decade ago I was around the world, building teams in different countries."

Anticipating the unexpected

That's the kind of contradictory concept Elaine seems to enjoy. "I just never know what my day is going to bring. Since I touch every aspect of the company there is always something new happening and that's the fun of it. But working with the management here is invigorating. What I really like about the leadership team at 'steel' is they view me as a business leader versus a communications professional, so I find myself consulting and working through things with a wide variety of people in a variety of topics, things you might not necessarily think I'd need to be involved with." She reiterates how much 'steel' is a very supportive and collaborative environment.

Elaine recommends working at a company in which you fit in. It seems she's found her niche. I asked her if she's encountered any of the much-discussed gender bias, given that she works in a male-dominated field. "I realize it's not like this in many companies, but the engineers (mostly men) at TimkenSteel immediately scooped me into what they were doing and made me part of things and that's how it is here, top to bottom. It demonstrates that when biases are not part of the culture, people can flourish."

"I mentor a few young women here from three domains, (engineer, supply-chain expert, finance) and they never come to me with gender-related issues. When we have mentoring meetings it's always, 'How can I add value? How can I see the big picture?'. The attitude is, let's not focus on what gender I am, let's get the job done."

And Elaine gets the job done in her charitable work as well. She is on several boards including the McKinley Presidential Museum and Library as well as the Canton, Ohio-area Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Her primary focus upon joining the McKinley board was to re-brand and to broaden their exposure to a wider audience, and her efforts have accomplished just that.

NAMI seems to have captured her heart. "NAMI provides education and support—they are really the infrastructure in most communities for people affected by mental illness and their families. They encourage people to find help and help define what seeking help means. Most mental illness is treatable and NAMI gives people a place to start."

I asked about the stigma related to violence that pervades the news cycle after a horrific event like the Newtown massacre. "The saddest thing is the linkage to violence. Most people who suffer from mental illness are not violent but these events draw attention to the topic and reinforce the belief that mentally ill people are violent. It's a shame. NAMI works to help people overcome the stigma and is there as an entry point."

Looking Forward

Though I've never been disappointed in meeting anyone for this series, I'm always struck by how selfless people like Elaine are. Here she is offered a platform to talk about herself and her accomplishments yet she steered the conversation to the company, the team, her family and the good works of people in her community. Every year on Martin Luther King Day, Elaine and her family work the National Day of Service in a soup kitchen, preparing meals, serving the needy and cleaning up afterward.

Engagement. Interaction. Compassion. These are the words that continually wove through our conversation about women in business. "You've got to let your work do the speaking for you. You've got to stay focused and deliver results. My job is not about issues with me but what I can do to smooth the way for other women."

Ever had an epiphany? "You get these wow moments of clarity. There were times when, walking into a situation where I felt I had to convince a group and they were more receptive than I anticipated, I've felt, 'they really value what I do'. You get these sudden moments of self-awareness."

What does the future look like at work? "We set long-term objectives and try to stay the course through changes in environmental conditions, market fluctuations and other variables. There's always change; it's the nature of corporate communications, but that's the most interesting part of my job."

Follow Elaine's company, TimkenSteel, on Twitter @TimkenSteel and Elaine @ElaineRR