Mizzou Founder Features: Robert Griggs

Kiley Grimes2024-03-11

Welcome to Mizzou Founder Features, where we spotlight exceptional founders who embarked on their entrepreneurial journey at Mizzou or thereafter. With over 20 billion-dollar companies created by alumni, Mizzou has an impressive but under-the-radar legacy. This series serves as a catalyst to empower student entrepreneurs and link the vibrant Mizzou Startup Community with some of the best entrepreneurs and investors out there, igniting opportunities and fostering connections for aspiring innovators. The Mizzou Startup Community connects Mizzou alumni and student entrepreneurs, facilitating access to valuable network effects, insights, and a carefully curated collection of guides and resources!

In this week’s edition of Mizzou Founder Features, we shine a light on Robert Griggs, a visionary entrepreneur and the founder and chairman of Trinity Products, one of the largest steel manufacturers in the world. Trinity planted its roots in January 1979, with Robert Griggs among its founding partners. Today, Trinity generates over $275 million in sales and is fully owned by its 245 employees spread across six locations. What sets Trinity apart, aside from its vibrant culture, is its diverse product line, meeting the needs of various market sectors requiring steel and steel fabrication.

Rural Roots

In the small town of Charleston in the heart of southeast Missouri, Robert L. Griggs spent his childhood navigating the rural landscapes that instilled in him the timeless values of hard work and grit. Raised in a military family, Griggs learned early on the importance of discipline and dedication. Working on a local farm from the age of 15 through his college years, he saw firsthand the rewards of relentless effort. "Hard work can never be replaced," he often reflects, a mantra birthed from his early days that continues to resonate throughout his life – “It’s the advantage I have over everyone; no one will ever outwork me!” He credits his experiences working on the farm and learning from a large farmer in Missouri for shaping his philosophies in both business and life.

Griggs found himself drawn to the world of entrepreneurship. Despite not having a clear vision of what he wanted to pursue, he held a natural desire to build something of his own, to carve out his own path in the world.

“I knew I was going to own or start a business, I just didn’t know what, and what doesn’t always matter if you just strive to do it better than anyone else! Get better every day and have some fun doing it!”

Griggs attended the University of Missouri, where he pursued a degree in Agricultural Economics from 1974 to 1977. Fondly reminiscing about his time at Mizzou, Griggs describes it as a period of camaraderie and growth. "It was a great time to be at Mizzou," he recalls. "The '60s and Vietnam were over, things were calm, and Columbia was just so much fun! Love that town to this day." Griggs was also an active member of the fraternity Kappa Alpha, making lifelong friendships that still live on fifty years later.

Building Trinity Products

Armed with his degree, Griggs ventured into the world of sales, only to encounter a setback that would ultimately propel him toward his role as an entrepreneur. "I took a job selling steel pipe and got cheated out of my commission," he recounts, "so I quit and started Trinity.” In 1979 Trinity Products was born alongside two partners. In hindsight, Griggs calls that setback a blessing, saying it showed him the opposite of how he wanted to treat his employees.

In the early days of Trinity, the team was small, consisting of Griggs, his partner Sal, and secretary Phyllis McConnell. Despite the modest beginnings, Griggs had big ambitions for Trinity, envisioning a company that would revolutionize the industry through innovation and excellence. They started in St. Charles, Missouri as a steel pipe supplier with a focus on the heavy civil construction industry (piling, road boring, and utility contractors).

"We started small," he recalls, "just three of us buying and selling truckloads of steel pipe." Yet, it was during this period that Griggs laid the foundation for the principles that would come to define Trinity's culture – transparency, employee empowerment, and a relentless pursuit of excellence. Griggs moved quickly to secure additional property in order to build Trinity’s first fabrication facility. Adding fabrication capabilities allowed Trinity Products to branch out into the advertising industry by adding sign pole and billboard structure fabrication to the product line.

Over the years, Trinity underwent huge transformations, evolving from a small operation into a powerhouse in the steel industry. One of the pivotal moments in Trinity's journey came in 2000. Sales were around $6.7 million but Griggs still felt like he was pulling the wagon by himself. That all changed when he adopted the principles of Open Book Management, inspired by Jack Stack's "Great Game of Business." This approach to management transformed Trinity's culture into one of transparency, accountability, and a sense of ownership among employees. “It changed everything,” notes Griggs.

In just one decade, Trinity Products jumped from $6.7 million to $67 million in sales. Griggs felt like his employees were finally “hitched to the wagon,” and he credits profit sharing as a huge incentive structure that motivated the Trinity team to work harder. In 2010, Griggs implemented continuous improvement methodologies, which brought Trinity to the next level.

“This was the rocket fuel to move us to the next place and in 2022 we’ve grown to $275 million in sales and record profit for the last 3 years! Our model is 1) We have a boss and it’s the customer 2) serve your employees by sharing the profits 3) continuousimprovement - get better every day 4) If you lie you’re fired - we can fix a mistake but we can’t fix a lie.”

Reflecting on Trinity's journey, Griggs highlights several pivotal milestones that have shaped the company's trajectory. From strategic acquisitions, like Spiralweld Pipe Mill in 2006, to groundbreaking innovations like the Triloc press-fit connection system, each milestone pushes the boundaries of industry norms and leads the way for the steel industry.

In recent years, Trinity has celebrated huge wins. Notably, the introduction of the Horizontal Boring Mill (HBM) in 2022 revolutionized manufacturing processes, doubling Triloc manufacturing capacity and reducing lead times by 50%. Amidst the pandemic in 2020, Trinity established its plate division, now generating $125 million in annual sales, followed by the successful launch of its coil division in 2021, contributing $50 million per year. Looking forward, Trinity is constructing a cutting-edge coating plant, aiming to become the premier destination for pipe fabrication and coating in the heavy civil construction industry, with projected sales growth of $20-30 million. Through these initiatives, Trinity continues to redefine industry standards and set new benchmarks for excellence and innovation.

Trinity Products is 100% employee-owned | Trinityproducts.com

Beyond the Boardroom

Outside of his career at Trinity, Griggs is also a standout family man and community leader. Alongside his wife Shelly, he lives in St. Charles, MO, where they've raised two sons who both graduated from Mizzou. A.J, one of his sons, holds a Sales Management role at Trinity, while his other son, Bo, serves as part owner and President of National Flatbed Solutions, a freight-logistics company. Griggs also is also blessed with two daughters-in-law and four grandchildren. Married for nearly four decades, Griggs treasures family time, instilling in his loved ones the values of generosity and compassion. "It’s been our goal to instill in our family that the more you give, the more you receive," Griggs emphasizes. "We’ve been so blessed that we need to make sure we are giving back each and every day!" In his free time, you might find him riding his bike or playing golf.

Griggs is deeply passionate about giving back and nurturing future leaders. He's a big supporter of his alma mater, Mizzou, recognizing the transformative impact education had on his own life. "Mizzou changed my life," Griggs reflects. "I want to give back so some of the young leaders can feel the same things I’ve felt!" In 2021, Robert and Shelly Griggs donated $450,000 to establish the Griggs Innovators Nexus in Mizzou’s Student Center, providing resources and guidance for student entrepreneurs to succeed. The Nexus offers expertise, programming, coaching, funding, and rent-free space for select students to operate their businesses.

Shelly and Robert Griggs | https://showme.missouri.edu/2021/mu-receives-gift-to-support-student-success-and-entrepreneurship/

Griggs's commitment to mentorship extends to his role as President and Treasurer of the National Association of Steel Pipe Distributors (NASPD), an international organization of more than 300 steel distributors, and he is involved with the CPTI (Committee on Pipe & Tube Import) which lobbies Congress on Pipe and Steel related issues.

In 2023, Griggs published his book, "Foundational Leadership," which was inspired by his encounter with Jack Stack, author of "The Great Game of Business." Foundational Leadership chronicles his journey as a leader navigating how to build a team from the ground up. Looking ahead, Griggs remains dedicated to personal and professional growth, with plans to expand Trinity's global footprint and continue mentoring young leaders.

From his humble beginnings in a small farm town to his role as founder of a steel empire, philanthropist, author, and Mizzou legend, Robert Griggs continues to embody the American dream like no other.


Share one of your favorite quotes.

"The more you give the more you receive!"

What were some really tough challenges in the early days?

Just making payroll! People don’t understand the pressure you feel to take care of all your employees each and every day! Our job is to make their lives better and in turn our lives get better. But even today there are tough moments that make you pause when you think about having these people’s livelihoods in your hands. It gets easier to handle but we still have to not make any mistakes that could affect everyone’s lives.

How did you find your own mentor or advisor when you were starting out, and how did they impact your career journey?

Mine was Ed Marshall, who I worked for on his farm of 10,000 acres in 1970 and saw how he was never satisfied with where he was!

What are the most transformative leadership lessons you’ve learned over your career?

  1. We have a boss - it's the customer, serve them!
  2. Serve your employees & share the profits!
  3. Commit to Continuous Improvement; get better every day, week, month & year! Then do it all over again. Never stop!
  4. Never lie! You can fix a mistake but you can’t fix a lie! Learn this early and don’t stay somewhere that thinks lying is ok. Run! This took me too long to make this one of our core values!
  5. Don’t accept drama; it does no good and you should never allow it in your life! Work and life is hard enough!
  6. Never allow anyone to out-work you! You control this every day at everything you do! Be a killer!
  7. Always be learning, you can never ever stop! I read all the time and like to share what I learn.
  8. Again never stop getting better; make it a game & your mission!

If you could sit down with freshman-year Robert, what would you tell him?

Don’t change a thing!

What excites you most about mentoring young aspiring entrepreneurs?

Love their passion, I see that wonderful push that can’t be stopped! It’s just great to watch! And I see some of the things they come up with and am amazed!

Where do you hope to be in 5 years?

I’ve purchased 60 acres of land that I’m going to develop into an industrial park and major rail site in St Charles that should keep me busy! And I’m still in charge of the Triloc product line, so I have to have that established in the EU & UK.

I’d love to be a Curator at Mizzou to help guide the place I love so much!

What are some of your favorite books you would recommend entrepreneurs read?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill

The Great Game of Business by Jack Stack

Warren Buffett’s Management Secrets by Mary Buffett & David Clark

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Factory Man by Beth Macy

Follow me at RobertLGriggs on LinkedIn, I post lots of articles and stories about business [Note: Robert has a great book list on his website].

Thank you! New Mizzou Founder Features every Monday!

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