Somewhere in the region of 1,000 leaders from all aspects of the steel industry will convene in New York this month for what has become an annual summit of the sector's movers and shakers.
The Steel Success Strategies Conference cosponsored by AMM and World Steel Dynamics celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
Those attending the first event—then labeled Steel Survival Strategies—back in 1986 would have been forgiven if they'd questioned whether there would even be a steel industry in the United States a quarter of a century later. The event's tag line, "Can the major U.S. steel mills survive?" was not simply a marketing tag.
As it happens, one might argue that today, and recession aside, the domestic producers are in pretty good health, though of course many of the nation's mills are now owned or operated by overseas concerns.
It's probably a little conceited to think that the conference had a hand in ensuring the industry's survival, but to peruse reports of that first gathering—back when China was a nothing in terms of steel production and Barry Bonds was still a slender rookie—is to get a pre-taste of what was about to unfold.
Peter Marcus and Karlis M. Kirsis, in the first performance of their double act, told attendees that "a bankruptcy at a major (integrated) U.S. mill within the next few years seems a 50-50 likelihood." The analysts named LTV Steel as being in the weakest position, followed by Bethlehem Steel and Armco. All three companies eventually filed Chapter 11 and none of them exists in the same form today.
In fact, of those steel mills represented on the program in 1986, only three soldier on under the same banner. U.S. Steel was there, of course, represented by then-chairman David Roderick, who said that consolidation was inevitable, along with California Steel and Nucor. Ken Iverson, then-president of Charlotte, N.C.-based Nucor, was on the program, and although he is no longer with us, his legacy remains strong. His contribution to the industry will be celebrated at a dinner to recognize winners of AMM's Awards for Steel Excellence, where Iverson will be recognized as the most influential figure in the steel industry in the past 25 years.
Iverson, along with former Connecticut Steel Corp. chairman Willy Korf, were among the optimistic minority at the inaugural event. Iverson, it seems, would have approved of the event's name change, charging that a steel survival forum presented negative implications while his company had reported record earnings in 1985.
Iverson and Korf were joined on a panel by a representative of Sumitomo Metals America, one of a small number of Japanese participants at the event. With those few exceptions, the line-up for the inaugural conference was striking in its lack of international participation, and was in marked contrast to the significant international flavor that is the hallmark of this year's conference. In fact, many participants in 1986 appeared to see overseas players as the principal enemy of the U.S. industry and there was significant discussion regarding what to do about the growing threat from international competitors.
At the time, mills were protected by President Ronald Reagan's import restraint program. Marcus and Kirsis, while urging mills to "think international," also told steel producers they should press dumping suits when Reagan's protection ended in 1989.
United Steelworkers union president Lynn Williams was more combative, strongly opposing the then-recent U.S. Steel-Posco joint venture and calling it "the beginning of the end of steelmaking in the U.S." At the other end of the spectrum, industry analyst Father William T. Hogan of Fordham University suggested that U.S. mills seek international partners who could provide cash and a technology edge.
It says something of the progress made within the U.S. industry that when representatives of ArcelorMittal, OAO Severstal and Gerdau Ameristeel take the podium in New York this year, little thought will be given to their national origins.
Much has changed in the past 25 years, although looking back it is clear that, for the most part, the industry leaders of the day had a good handle on the issues facing them and at least an idea of how to meet those challenges.
It is to their credit that we can today talk about success and not survival, and if the leaders who speak on this silver anniversary are blessed with similar foresight, this industry and this conference should still be going strong in another 25 years.
SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT AND PUBLISHER