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Number-crunching alone won’t add up to success


One of the highlights at AMM's State of Steel Conference in January was the on-stage interview with Keith Busse. Steel Dynamics Inc.'s president and chief executive officer put on an assured display, leading one industry veteran to comment that he was "pretty good for an accountant."

Busse does indeed hold a Bachelor of Science degree in accounting, but that just puts him in line with much of today's steel industry leadership. AK Steel Corp. chairman, president and chief executive Jim Wainscott, another speaker at the conference, started his career with the company as treasurer, while John Surma, chairman and chief executive officer of U.S. Steel Corp., is another who has an accounting degree.

Indeed, of the big four names confirmed for AMM's Steel Success Strategies XXV Conference in New York in June, most started corporate life counting numbers rather than making steel. Lakshmi Mittal, chairman and chief executive officer of ArcelorMittal, has a degree in commerce, while Alexei Mordashov, chief executive officer of Severstal, started his career as an economist. Of the four, only Dan DiMicco, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Nucor Corp., boasts credentials as a metallurgist (although Mario Longhi, president and chief executive officer of Gerdau Ameristeel and another regular speaker at AMM events, also is trained in metallurgical engineering.)

There are a number of reasons why an accountant or economist is more likely to rise to the top of a modern steel company than is a metallurgist or engineer. With most major steel producers now public companies, a large part of a top executive's job is communicating effectively with the financial community. Clearly there are more finance majors that metallurgists on Wall Street, so the steel industry's accountants are more likely to speak their language than are engineers.

Accountants working their way through the ranks at a major steel producer also are more likely to be based in the corporate offices, where they get more exposure to senior management. And in a world where M&As are such an important part of the industry, a star finance executive has the opportunity to be associated with high-profile successful acquisitions that bolster the bottom line and make everyone associated with the deal look like a genius.

But are these accountants really steelmen? Is the rise of the finance major really good for the industry? One industry observer put it like this: "It would be fine if they were all as sharp as Busse—but they're not."

And that, surely, is the bottom line. Managing a major corporation—whatever the industry—requires such a wide range of skills that it hardly matters in what part of the business the future executive started out. If a leadership candidate hasn't picked up a full bag of tools along the way, he or she likely won't be able to deliver on the bottom line, which ultimately is how every top executive is judged. And it doesn't take an accountant to figure that.

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