Hall of Fame Inaugural Class

Willy Korf

One of the stranger phenomena to arise out of the destruction of World War II was what Israeli journalist Shimon Tzabar dubbed “the White Flag Principle.” In his 1972 best-seller, Tzabar explained that sometimes, especially where economics are concerned, it is better to lose a war than to win it. Tzabar’s thesis stated that the victor is often responsible for rebuilding the economy of the vanquished, which was exactly the experience of the United States in the postwar Era. Western Germany and much of Europe west of the Iron Curtain was rebuilt with money from the Marshall Plan. The U.S. poured money into a newly-democratic Japan to prop the country up as a bulwark against Communist China.

The industrial economies of Germany, Japan and Italy had all been essentially destroyed during the war, either by troops on the battlefield or by allied aerial bombing. Steel mills were leveled, open hearth furnaces in smoking ruins and coke ovens left as piles of rubble. The former Axis powers literally had to rebuild their industrial economies from scratch. Among the casualties of the fighting was Vendel, Korf & Co., a German trading company that supplied iron and steel plants in the Siegerland, the iron ore region of Germany.

Within a generation of the end of the war, however, the steel, automotive and heavy equipment industries of Japan and West Germany, in particular, had become among the most competitive in the world. The destruction left in the wake of war had fostered technological innovation, entrepreneurialism and social experimentation.

In the third-of-a-century between 1946 and 1979, German, Italian and Japanese steelmakers made breakthroughs in technology that left America’s integrated steel industry in the dust. It might have been better for American steel, said one industry observer in the early 1980s, if Japan had bombed Pittsburgh in 1941 instead of Pearl Harbor.

No one illustrated the phenomenon better than Willy Korf. Just 16 when the Nazis surrendered, Korf attended commercial college in postwar Cologne and went to work in 1948 with his family’s company, which had been heavily damaged by Allied bombing. Initially, the young Korf moved the company into transportation, forming a shipping company and a commuter airline. In 1953, began manufacturing reinforcing bar and mesh; he purchased a welded wire mesh plant in 1961 and immediately began planning construction of a rolling mill. Badische Stahlwerke (Bsw), in Kiel, West Germany, was Willie Korf’s first plant. Built in 1968, BSW was located alongside the Rhine River, across from Strasburg, France.

When Korf ran into bottlenecks thrown into his path by the state steel companies, he decided to build his own electric furnace melt shop in 1968. Korf installed a Demag continuous caster with an in-line reduction capability so that the mill could produce different-size billets from one basic mold. This allowed small differences in billet size but was soon abandoned.

Korf, whose steel mills in Western Europe, including one in Montereau, France, near Paris, and one in Hamburg, would be producing three million tons of steel a year prior to his death in 1990, was the first of the European steelmakers to bring what would be considered mini-mill technology to the United States. In 1969, Korf arrived in coastal South Carolina to build a 500,000-ton-per-year mini-mill at Georgetown in the state’s low country. Georgetown Steel represented a $40 million investment and was the first U.S. mini-mill configured in a European manner with three 60-ton electric furnaces, two continuous casters and a continuous wire rod mill.
Korf was always willing to experiment, and in the early 1970s he partnered with the Midland Ross Corporation of Cleveland to install the first Midrex Corp. pellet plant at Georgetown, South Carolina. Financed by North Carolina National Bank, the Midrex plant involved the first use of alternative iron units in an electric arc furnace in the United States. Later, Korf established a Georgetown Steel mill in Beaumont, Texas. He purchased the Midrex Corp. in 1974.

Korf was legendary in the steel business, both in Europe and North America, said Clyde Selig, the recently retired CEO of the CMC Steel Group. “He made friends easily and was an adept judge of talent,” Selig said, adding that Korf’s longtime collaboration with Gerhard Fuchs, a creative German mill equipment designer and builder, gave his company, Badische Stalwerke , an advantage in the growing competitive world of electric furnace steelmaking. Korf later incorporated BSE as the equipment design and consulting arm of BSW. BSE provided technical services to the industry worldwide, including development of an in-house apprentice-training program that was expanded to provide training services for other steelmakers around the globe.

Korf was returning to Germany from Trieste in the Adriatic when his private plane crashed in the mountains near Innsbruck, Austria in 1990. He was 61. The following year, the Steel Strategies Conference in New York, sponsored by American Metal Market and World Steel Dynamics, unveiled the Willy Korf Steel Vision Award, which has been awarded annually for the past 20 years. 

Andrew Carnegie
Elbert Gary
Henry Bessemer
Charles Schwab
Ken Iverson
Park Tae-Joon
Yoshihiro Inayama