Steel Mills

SMU Steel Summit: Nucor Eyes Expansion, Scrap Export Curbs

Written by Michael Cowden

Nucor might be wrapping up an approximately $4-billion expansion campaign, but it has no intentions of stopping there, the company’s top executive said.

“We’re going to be a growth company. … And we’ve got the balance sheet to continue to invest,” President and CEO Leon Topalian said.

NucorTopalian declined to specify where the company might makes its next move but did not rule out greenfield projects, brownfield expansions or moving further into downstream products.

Nor did he rule out the possibility of acquiring another steel mill, noting Nucor’s track record of acquiring them – including not only the 2014 acquisition of Gallatin Steel but also, in the early 2000s, of Corus Tuscaloosa Steel and of Auburn Steel.

“We look at the entire spectrum of where we want to grow and how we want to grow,” Topalian said. “There is opportunity today, including in sheet.”

He made the comments during a fireside chat at SMU’s 2021 Steel Summit on Tuesday, Aug. 24, in Atlanta.

One justification for expansion is continued strong demand across most of the markets Nucor serves. “I think there is a whole lot more strength than many of the analysts realize.” Another reason: “There is still inefficient capacity that we can better serve,” Topalian said.

As for expansions currently under way, Nucor sees big opportunities on the horizon for its new plate mill under construction in Brandenburg, Ky., which is expected to be up and running in the fourth quarter of 2022. The mill is located just across the Ohio River from Indiana and other plate-intensive markets in the Midwest. And its location on the water also means it’s in a good position to supply offshore wind farms – which are expected to be a growth market as the U.S. pivots more toward renewable energy sources.

But, Topalian stressed, not all renewable energy sources are created equal. Take solar panels, which are necessary to reduce carbon, but which are sometimes made from imported material that is “the dirtiest steel in the world.” In other words, it’s not only mills that need to be on board with decarbonization but also customers. “Not every customer is there. … It ranges from ‘We don’t care’ to ‘We want net zero today,’” he said.

On the trade front, Topalian – like Cleveland-Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves – said that Section 232 had largely served its purpose for the domestic steel industry and was no longer necessary in its current form. Take allies like the European Union and Japan: “I think we’ll see Section 232 end in those two particular cases,” he said.

Section 232 will, however, probably remain in place for most other countries, Topalian said, applauding Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and USTR Katherine Tai for their knowledge of the steel industry and negotiating acumen on behalf of it.

What’s worth considering longer term is whether the U.S. should place export restraints on raw materials. That’s in part because EAF steelmakers like Nucor are going to need more prime scrap as they continue to move up the value chain into automotive grades. “The pressure is going to be there, and I think the pricing is going to follow,” he said.

Nucor’s DRI plants in the U.S. and in Trinidad will help mitigate that situation as will its ownership of scrap recycler The David J. Joseph Company. “(But) for the first time I’ve started to hear conversations like ‘Do we need to, from a government perspective, protect the scrap leaving the United States?’ And I think it’s a long overdue conversation. And it’s going to become more and more important as companies like us expand,” he said.

Another thing that is increasingly important is safety. And “safety” means not just that operations don’t lead to injuries but that employees – regardless of race, political views or sexual orientation – feel safe in the knowledge that they have an equal shot at promotion and career advancement at Nucor if they are willing to work hard and embrace the company’s core values.

Topalian said his views on what constitutes safety “changed immensely” in the months after he took up the CEO role in January 2020. Before long, the COVID-19 pandemic was upon the U.S. and protests had broken out across the country following the “murder” – a word he used repeatedly and intentionally – of George Floyd.

He said he watched the video of Floyd’s murder, found it “gut wrenching” and decided that Nucor – which had in the past purposefully avoided taking public positions on difficult matters – should instead take a stand. “We have a long way to go, but I’m excited about the journey we’re on,” Topalian said.

By Michael Cowden,

Michael Cowden

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