When Safana Martin walked across the stage to get her college diploma, few knew.
Years earlier she had fled Baghdad, Iraq to escape religious persecution. It was 1980. Saddam Hussein had just rose to power. In neighboring Iran, the Shiite Muslims had overthrown the Shah of Iran, placing an extremist cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, in power. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days at the Embassy in Tehran. Congress talked of reinstating the draft and seriously considered going to war.
It was a scary time and Baghdad was a scary place to be if you were a family practicing Christianity. But Martin knew from the time she was a little girl that she would end up in the United States. She would follow in the footsteps of her older brother, a successful architect, and her uncle, who would later come to own 3 car dealerships in America.
When Martin came to Royal Oak, Mich.as a 20-year-old, she could only speak Arabic. For those who have known Martin as a customer service representative for the last 31 years at Weldaloy Specialty Forgings, what happened next — exhibiting her character and perseverance — will come as no surprise.
“I was very excited,” Martin said, “but at first I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I doing here by myself?’ I couldn’t speak a word of English, so I had to teach myself to speak English and I went to high school at night to just to learn English. And I worked full time at a fruit market, making $4 an hour back then.”
Martin went to Lawrence Technological University to get a business degree, taking a full load of classes and working a full-time job. Most nights she only got 4 hours sleep. The rest of the day she was working and studying. She would start her day at 5 a.m. and study past midnight.
“I had to take a lecture and translate it. I didn’t know what they were talking about. Well, you know what, if you have determination, you do it. I finished college. I paid every penny of the cost out of my pocket.”
When she walked across that Lawrence Tech stage toward the podium, she felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.
“To me was better than my wedding day because it was a huge achievement,” Martin said. “I made it, you know, and I had my family come to breakfast at Lawrence Tech … I was so excited.”
Armed with a degree, Martin was certain job offers would come streaming in. However, nothing was going to come easy for her. She took jobs selling jewelry, working at an orthodontist practice, and even cleaning houses.
Meanwhile, her uncle had bought a Detroit-area Ford dealership and offered Martin a job in accounts payable. When she walked into that showroom, with the new 1987 model year Fords on display, she saw what she wanted.
It wasn’t a car to replace her old 1977 Chevy Nova, it was her future husband, Larry Martin (he later joined Weldaloy too). She knew from that first day, she was going to marry him. “It was my destiny. God made me work there, I think, you know to marry him.”
They married a year later, in 1988, the same year Safana joined Weldaloy Specialty Forgings.
Now, 31 years later, Martin has made her colleagues at Weldaloy her extended family. You get the sense that Martin is extremely grateful — for the freedoms she enjoys in the United States, for her job and for her customers.
According to Kurt Ruppenthal, Weldaloy’s General Manager and VP, Martin’s commitment to customer service is what really makes her stand out.
“Safana doesn’t let the paint dry,” Ruppenthal said. “So, if there’s anything that needs to get done, she jumps on it really fast, which, for most people, they just want some responsiveness.
“We were in Mobile, Alabama recently and met a customer and he said, ‘I’ve known Safana for like 30 years. We’ve worked together, we’ve never met though. She will remember things about my family and ask me questions about my kids’. He was just blown away. He said, ‘Does she have a cheat sheet?’ I said, ’I don’t think she has a cheat sheet. She just remembers because she cares’.”
Where does that drive to take care of customers’ needs come from?
“My mother,” Martin said, “She was a good woman. She was very gentle. She always treated people with great honor and respect. She always taught us, ‘the way you want to be treated, you have to treat people the same way.’”
Martin was the first one at Weldaloy to take a call from Space X, when they inquired about putting in a bid on fuel nozzles for a rocket. The company has maintained that relationship for more than a decade.
For Safana, it all starts with respect and humility, and that’s how she resonates with Weldaloy’s clients.
She was at a customer supplier day recently when a representative of a competitor approached her. “‘It’s you, you’re the one who makes me lose all the orders,” the competitor said to Martin. “It’s not my prices. It’s you’. Because the customer doesn’t want to change … my customer said ‘You tell me when you are going to retire, because I will retire too. I just can’t deal with anybody else.’”
When pressed as to what motivates her to care so much about her customers, to treat everyone with dignity and respect, while being humble, Martin got emotional.
“I am blessed to be here,” Martin said. “I take ownership of the company. I love this place. I’m not here to collect a paycheck. I’m here to make Weldaloy a better place. They’re good people. And the owner, Rick Warren. I give them my heart.”
To those who know Safana Martin, that answer is consistent with her character. Even customers who only talk to her on the phone know she cares intensely. To Ruppenthal, that’s a competitive advantage for Weldaloy.
“Customer service, for me, is so important because it’s one of the differentiators for the business. There are a lot of forging companies, but servicing our customers and building relationships is something that really separates us. It’s something that allows us to stand alone in a way that is underrated in general, being able to serve customers well with responsiveness, kindness and proactive detail on where things stand.”
To borrow her phrase, Martin “has made it” and put her indelible stamp on a Midwestern forging company.