Company leader attempts to avoid industry's historic resistance to innovation
In this excerpt, Iverson reflects on the steel industry's post-WWII decline and how Nucor reversed that decline with contacts outside the United States. The industry became complacent, he believes, resistant to innovation and captive to unions. Nucor set itself apart with innovation, and by looking to Europe and Asia. He built mini-mills that could more effectively compete with Europe and Russia and contracted for European supplies. Iverson himself traveled to Japan and initiated a joint venture using a seldom-employed technology. He describes his business relationship with the Japanese company in some detail and some other international ventures he did not pursue.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Kenneth Iverson, June 11, 1999. Interview I-0083. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
JM: Let me draw out a little bit more about big steel. It's hard to point to any one part of the puzzle that fits together as big steel. You've mentioned the nature of the plant, the nature of the management, the bureaucracy that prevails, the unionized labor force, the particular history and product stream, and so forth. Could US big steel's history have turned out substantially different than it has if they had taken one particular step at one particular point along the way or were there any key turning points that things might have gone differently in your judgment?
KI: Remember after World War Two we were the largest steel industry in the world. We were not just larger than one or two or three. We were the largest of all of them put together. Our steel industry became very complacent. They had had great success during World War Two. They were not acceptable to new ideas. They really were used to having unions and the unions were a very powerful force in the steel industry. They were reluctant to adopt any new ideas. Eventually the steel companies and the mini-mills were growing up in Italy and mini-mills in Europe and new technologies were rolling and casting. Those things were occurring. There were sixteen continuous casters outside the United States before there was one in the United States. That one was put in by a small mill in Roanoke, Virginia. We were just behind the rest of the world. It began to show up, particularly in the fifties, initially when there was a big strike and we began importing a lot of steel from outside the United States. We did a lot of importing of steel at that time. We didn't have steel mills. We did a lot of importing of steel, even I remember from Russia at that time. There were just all sorts of opportunities for new companies to develop to accept new ideas in the steel industries. We were just fortunate enough that we were able to take advantage of that. We built the first mini-mill in 1966. Seems to me it was 1966, 1967. In 1970 it really got going. We felt we could compete with steel companies inside the United States by using these new technologies. Then we kept on building steel mills and joist plants.
JM: Over the years you were careful to attend to relationships with certain European equipment manufacturers whose technologies would become very, very critical in your operations. How--?
KI: We originally had US equipment, but we also found that we could get more technically advanced equipment by going outside of the United States. We developed the first mill. We developed a relation with Morgenschamar in Sweden and with, at that time, it was ASEA Electric--A-S-E-A, which later became part of Brown Boveri. I remember one time myself, the construction manager, and potential manager spent about two weeks in Europe doing nothing but touring these small steel mills that were starting up over there. That really was a great trip. It gave us a good idea of how outdated the technology was in the United States.
JM: When abouts was this trip? Do you remember?
KI: Let me think. 1967 I think.
JM: Okay. Let me ask a very mundane question. How does the executive management of a small [and] then relatively small American steel producer put an itinerary of these visits together with people in Europe?
KI: We just looked up the names of the people we knew who were strong in the steel industry and had mills that we wanted to visit. We went to Danielli in Italy and Morgenschamar and a number of German companies, a mill in Denmark. It wasn't too hard to find the names of them. You just asked if you could come and visit them, and most of them were very receptive.
JM: Why were they receptive, I wonder? Why did they want to help you out in your thinking and your deliberating and your exploration?
KI: A number of them were equipment suppliers.
JM: Oh well that sure.
KI: Like Danielli and Morgenschamar. Normally it was the suppliers who helped us to get into them.
JM: Here is our equipment installed.
KI: Yeah. See our equipment installed. That was certainly true of--. We visited four or five small mills in what was called the Breschiani part of Italy, northern Italy where most of those and Danielli equipment [were]. And of course Concast was interested in selling continuous castors, and the United States was not very interested. That gave us a lot of entrees, too.
JM: Did the joint venture with the Japanese--?
JM: Tell me about the origins of that.
KI: That's interesting. We were approached by Wachovia Bank, which was our principal bank. They said there is a a Japanese bank which would like to talk to you about a Japanese company who is interested in doing wide flanged beams. At that time there was a lot of political conflict about Japanese shipping steel into the United States. They introduced us to the Industrial Bank of Japan, IBJ. They said, “We have someone who would like to talk to you about a joint venture, too.” It was not proprietary, but they had for four or five years worked on continuous casting I-beams, close to the shape of the I-beam, which eliminated a lot of rolling. Instead of taking a square, you cast what was roughly an I-beam shape, and then you rolled it down in fewer and fewer passes. It originated, I think, in Algoma in the United States, but nobody in the United States had taken advantage of it. The Japanese had. They came over and we sat down and discussed it. It took us a year. You don't make fast contracts with the Japanese. It took us a year to do it. I was in Japan two or three times and they came here and met here two or three times. It finally was decided we would have fifty-one percent. They would have forty-nine percent. We would build it as a joint venture. We picked the location in Arkansas. When they saw it, and they found out we were going to pay $2000 for the land -- per acre -- they nearly fell flat on their face. They couldn’t believe. They kept saying over and over, “Are you sure this is only $2400 an acre?” I said, “Yeah.” So that's the way we started out. Now, they were wonderful assistance to us. They knew the technology very well. We took these big Arkansas farm boys and sent them over to Japan to train on running this castor for about five weeks or something like that. They did a marvelous job. After three weeks, they were running the castor themselves. We had a bunch of Japanese here when we were building the plant. I remember that they used to get very upset -- the Japanese being very meticulous -- that we'd hammer out a foundation or something. They'd say, “Ah, we hammered out foundation.” And John would say, “That's just the foundation for today. We'll probably hammer out another one tomorrow.” Our method was to build it as fast as possible because once your money is tied up in capital construction, you want nothing better than to do it and don't spend a lot of time bureaucracy or planning. Go ahead and build the damned thing. So we did. They wanted to make whole runs with just bars. We said, “No. We're going to start it up and melt and make the cast and run it right through.” That's what we did. That was a wonderful experience. They were really great to work with. We still have a wonderful relationship with them.
JM: Any aspect of this joint venture that could be construed as part of a wider Japanese government sponsored initiative to move certain parts of Japanese manufacturing onto the mainland US, as they've done with auto joint ventures and so forth?
KI: I think there probably was some interest in the Japanese government because there were a lot of joint ventures with steel companies during that time. This was a small Japanese company. They were really much smaller than we were in some respects. But they were interested in doing it so that they would have a US source. They were being pushed out of the West Coast where they had been shipping imports in for a long time. They wanted to protect themselves in that regard. That's the way it developed with us.
JM: You didn't have a sense along the way that there was an expressed measure of pressure -- not pressure, but encouragement -- from the Japanese government to get a deal like this done and to help manage the politics of the balance of trade and so forth?
KI: No. No. We, like most Japanese, made a contract. We sat down and one of the things we wanted was fifty-one percent. We wanted an understanding that the managers would report to Americans as the managers, although you would have department heads who were Japanese. We also wanted to reduce the total leverage in the operations. We made the contracts and we said that it was unsatisfactory to us. We went over to Japan after they admitted we'd make a lot of changes and here they had the exact same contract all over again. That's typical of the Japanese. However, they were right, and we were interested in even going further and doing some multiple rolling, have to go through two stands and then back. There was a mill that was built in Russia, it seems to me, that had used that technology and our people thought it was interesting. They said, “No. That is not a good technology.” We finally -- after really studying it and almost coming apart because of that -- agreed they were right. We did not adopt that technology, which was way out and eventually was not very successful. We learned a lot from them.
JM: Have you considered other joint venture initiatives along the way that you had found cause to reject or decline? Any substantial ones?
KI: We were involved in a possible joint venture in Thailand that -- just because of the people involved in it -- we eventually backed out of. We were interested in building a joint venture with a Brazilian company in northern Brazil, where there is no steel mill. We finally got so that that didn't appear like a good deal, and we backed out of that. We've been involved in lots of opportunities or Nucor has to build steel mills in Iran or Egypt or wherever, but most of those people want to build a steel mill that is everything to everybody. They want to make rebars and angles and channels and flat rolled products and the whole thing at a mill. That's just not the way that Nucor has operated. Eventually those broke down.
JM: The northern Brazil one, you didn't pursue it because your sense of the market there shifted or because the financial particulars were not advantageous?
KI: Why did they break down?
JM: No, the northern Brazil case in particular, you lost your confidence that moving into that part of the Brazilian market would've been--?
KI: We didn't. They suddenly decided that they wanted to do it all -- build a big complex -- and we weren't ready for that. We wanted to build a rolling operation and take slabs from Brazil or from the United States and roll the slabs and cold finish them. They wanted to build the hot mill and everything at once. We felt that that was just not a good idea.