Hall of Fame Inaugural Class

Ken Iverson

A soft-spoken metallurgist who revolutionized the dynamics of steel production in the 20th Century as fully as Sir Henry Bessemer had done in the 19th Century, F. Kenneth Iverson was an unlikely candidate for heavy-industry hero-dom.

Born in September 1925 in Downers Grove, Ill., then a rural community west of Chicago, Iverson attended Northwestern University in nearby Evanston during the 1943-44 school year before enlisting in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Following the war, he earned a degree in aeronautical engineering at Cornell University and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University.

From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, Iverson held a series of engineering positions with metalworking and casting companies. In 1965, he was named president of Nuclear Corp. of America, a struggling holding company that had only one profitable operating unit: its Vulcraft Corp. division in Norfolk, Neb.

Vulcraft fabricated steel decking and was very much at the mercy of its sole supplier of bar steel, which kept raising prices. Investigating how the steel industry worked, Iverson came in touch with Gerald R. Heffernan, the dynamic Canadian who had recently partnered with Cargill to open North Star Steel Co. in Minneapolis. With Heffernan’s guidance, Iverson began to investigate the possibility of building his own mini-mill to supply steel to Vulcraft.

In the late 1960s, Iverson relocated Nuclear Corp. of America to Charlotte, N.C., and renamed the company Nucor Corp. In 1969, Nucor opened its first mini-mill at Darlington, S.C.

At the time, Darlington was a sleepy little crossroads town in upcountry South Carolina that was about as far removed from most Americans’ perception of a steel mill community as the lunar soil that Commander Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap” upon that summer of 1969.

The mill at Darlington was called Eastern Carolina Steel. It employed a “jump mill,” which featured a 3-hi configuration that moved up and down to align the passes with entry/delivery conveyors rather than using lift tables and drop walls. Darlington was a typical mini-mill of the time, with a capacity of about 100,000 tons annually.

Iverson’s strategy at Nucor was simple. He located mini-mills in rural areas close to markets, raw materials and a farm population work force, who distrusted unions and exhibited a work ethic that was more like that of Japan than Pittsburgh. The company kept expenses low and concentrated on producing quality products for the low-end rebar and shapes market.

Nucor’s frugality was characterized by its Spartan offices in suburban Charlotte. Iverson answered his own phone, and the company’s corporate offices boasted orange plastic kitchen chairs instead of expensive furniture. Iverson called Phil’s Deli, a New York-style delicatessen in the Cotswold Shopping Center across Randolph Road, the “executive dining room.”

From its inception, Nucor made a fetish of what Iverson called the “virtues of smallness,” locating Nucor divisions in rural areas such as Jewett, Texas; Plymouth, Utah; Crawfordsville, Ind.; Fort Payne, Ala.; and Hickman, Ark.

Nucor’s rural roots attracted farm residents who instinctively knew how to fix and make things because of their backgrounds. Iverson had always identified with rural areas because he grew up in a farm community outside Chicago. “Nucor is a living testament to the fact that bigger isn’t better,” he said in his autobiography.

Under Iverson, pushing-the-envelope became a company tradition. Nucor could have been content to dominate the long products segment of the industry, but in the 1990s, Iverson pushed the company in a radically new direction.

Critics and naysayers doubted Nucor could penetrate the thin-sheet steel arena, but Nucor Crawfordsville and Nucor Hickman showed the rest of the industry the way to compete in the thin sheet end of the market, one that was closed to the mini-mill sector only a decade before.

Over the next 15 years, mini-mills producing plate, sheet and structural products sprung up from one end of the United States to the other. Nearly 30 million tons of mini-mill capacity was added between 1990 and 2005, and much of that muscle came on line in the form of mills that were capable of producing one million tons or more of steel annually, output figures that were unthinkable only a generation before. A majority of the capacity was installed at a capital cost of $300 a ton, displacing much higher-cost steel that had been made in integrated mills.

By the dawn of the 21st Century, mini-mills had increased their production of thin sheet steel by eightfold, from 2 million tons when Nucor Crawfordsville went online in 1989 to 16 million tons in 2000. Nucor’s Crawfordsville, Hickman and Berkeley County, S.C., facilities accounted for some one-third of that capacity, about 5.5 million tons in 2000.

“Ken Iverson was so successful because he was willing to fail,” according to Thomas Danjczek, executive director of the Steel Manufacturers Association in Washington and a long-time Iverson admirer.

Ken Iverson lived long enough to see Nucor emerge as one of America’s largest and most successful steel companies. He died in Charlotte in April 2002 at the age of 76. 

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