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AMERICAN STEEL by Richard Preston


Hot Metal Men and the Resurrection of the Rust Belt

by Richard Preston

Pub Date: April 25th, 1991
ISBN: 0-13-029604-X
Publisher: Prentice Hall

 American steelmakers used to say they'd rather own a market than a mill. On the evidence of this gripping take of industrial derring-do, however, the scrappy mavericks who run Nucor Corp. are about to stand this adage on its head-to the discomfiture of global competitors and the advantage of midwestern economic prospects. Be that as it may, Preston (First Light, 1987) makes an absorbing narrative of how Nucor wagered over $270 million on building a so-called compact strip production facility featuring unproven German technology; the project was undertake by nonunion labor in an erstwhile cornfield outside Crawfordsville, Ind. Management's high-stakes gamble seems to have paid off handsomely; at any rate, the plant (for which ground was broken late in 1987) is now on-line, recycling waste material (shredded automobiles, tin cans, and allied refuse) into carbon steel in a continuous process. The total cost of manufacturing rolled sheet in this revolutionary, computer-controlled fashion comes to about 12.5รต per pound (less than chicken parts, Preston points out), giving Nucor a per-ton edge of $50 or more over its bigger domestic rivals and offshore suppliers. Here, Preston comes to grips with the iconoclastic reasons why the lean, mean corporate culture created by CEO Ken Iverson works so well in the company's 20-odd mills as well as the marketplace. He also makes clear that the rewards of boldness are not without mortal and financial risks. Construction of the plant, for example, was marred by several deaths and budget overruns. In the wake of an abortive cast during a test run early in 1009, moreover, a ladle nearly full of hot metal plunged to the ground, spewing its fiery contents throughout the melt shop. As is its aggressive wont, Nucor bulled past the potentially disastrous accident and remains on the lookout for new worlds to conquer. A well-told tale that suggests heartland enterprise is neither down nor out.