Gareth Stace, the recently appointed director of UK Steel, is a keen cyclist and so am I, although my definition of ‘keen’ is two rides a week on a heavy mountain bike through the rural country lanes of Northern Kent. Gareth rides to work from the southern reaches of Surrey into Central London – roughly 25 miles each way and early enough to avoid dangerous encounters with crosstown traffic.
There’s nothing negative to say about cycling: it keeps you fit and I believe there’s a spiritual dimension too. When I’m on the saddle, out in the sticks with fields to the left and right of me and a clear road ahead, I find I have time to think about ‘stuff’. When my father died in 2011 I dealt with the grief alone, while riding the bike, allowing any tears to fall by the wayside and be absorbed by the tarmac.
Cycling into and out of London on an almost daily basis, Gareth has time to think – and let’s face it, as the new director of UK Steel he has plenty to think about, as I discovered when we met for an exclusive interview a few weeks ago.
Gareth arrived in the job at what he describes as a very challenging period for the steel industry in the UK, Europe and globally; and I find myself wondering whether, while riding into town or heading south on his homeward journey, Gareth is coming to terms with what he describes as ‘the perfect storm approaching’.
There is plenty to be concerned about: a significant increase in steel imports from China; business rates that are 10 times higher in the UK than in France or Germany; punishing environmental costs; a strong pound; a new Conservative government; and that elusive level playing field that doesn’t appear to be getting any closer, even if you’re riding a bicycle.
Gareth is fully prepared to meet head-on the challenges gathering like storm clouds overhead, but even the most effective waterproofs might struggle to keep him dry if, as predicted, they all hit the ground simultaneously.
There is a huge ‘but’ that should follow on from the headline of the Gareth Stace interview in this issue. “I’d like to be optimistic,” Gareth told me at the start of our interview, but he implied that it wouldn’t be an easy ride.
That said, most cyclists would agree that the best way to approach a steep hill is to select the right gear and keep pedalling – eventually you will reach the summit.
When it comes to optimism, Manik Mehta's report from the 30th Steel Success Strategies conference in New York talks about 'signs of optimism' in the US marketplace even if some of the big names – Lakshmi Mittal being one of them – not gracing the event with their presence. According to Manik, the conference provoked some interesting discussions on the big issues affecting the global industry.
We have three interesting features on rolling and some interesting articles on special and stainless steels, not forgetting our regular features.
If you work in the steel industry you would be well advised to read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. It's a huge brick of a book that you might regret buying the moment you try to fit it in your briefcase, but the steel industry is a central theme, it is extremely well-written and it contains some vividly descriptive, well observed passages on the steel production process.
While it would be wrong to say that Rand's epic novel is all about the steel industry – in essence it expounds (some might say arrogantly) her philosophy of objectivism – there are a few choice quotes about the steel industry and one in particular that is of relevance to an article, penned by yours truly, in this month's edition of Steel Times International.
"In view of the critical plight of the steel industry," said Mouch with a sudden rush, as if not to give himself time to know what made him uneasy about the nature of Rearden's glance, "and since steel is the most vitally, crucially basic commodity, the foundation of our entire industrial structure, drastic measures must be taken to preserve the country's steel-making facilities, equipment and plant."
Nothwithstanding the fact that the entire quote resonates when issues such as EU emissions regulations and Chinese exports are considered, it's the last bit that should be ringing bells in the boardrooms of global steel companies.
Rand's brick-sized tome was published in 1957, but its relevance continues today, especially where the reputation of the steel industry is concerned.
While some people argue that a career in the steel industry offers little more than 'dark grey to black prospects' and describes it as a 'dying elephant' with a 'smoke stack' image, others are more optimistic.
Nicholas Walters, director of communications and public policy at the World Steel Association comments that, "Steel is central to making modern society sustainable. It is everywhere in our lives and is at the heart of delivering solutions to so many of today's problems."
There is, to put it mildly, plenty to shout about, but who's shouting the loudest? Those who see only smoke stacks and black prospects or those, like Walters, with a more positive perspective?
My message to steel associations and steelmakers – who are ultimately responsible for improving the image of the industry – is simple: get out there and spread the word that steel is one of the most 'right on' products on the planet and remember that today's steel industry is modern, technology-driven and operates more sustainably than at any time in its long and distinguised history.
If you read the print edition of the May/June Steel Times International you will see the headline: No short-term solution for the China syndrome. And while there is clearly a reference to the 1979 movie starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas, the leader in question, while nothing to do with a nuclear meltdown, has plenty to say about a potential meltdown of sorts if China continues to dump steel products on world markets.
This month’s China Update is longer than usual as it addresses what the ‘rest of the world’ steel industry is clearly very concerned about; so concerned that its leading national associations – including EUROFER, the American Iron & Steel Institute and Alacero (the Latin American Steel Association) – penned an open letter to the Chinese government with a view to making their feelings known and, hopefully, generating enough awareness of the situation to make a difference.
Steel Times International speaks exclusively to the figureheads of the aforementioned associations about the purpose of the open letter and asks whether such an exercise will help change the course of the global steel industry going forward. One thing is for certain, there is no short-term solution to the problem, according to Mario Longhi, CEO of US Steel.
We also report from Cleveland, Ohio, on the recent AISTech convention and ‘exposition’ (as they call it in the USA), which proved to be a great success all round. For Steel Times International, it was interesting on many fronts. Not only did the magazine have its own stand at the show, we also managed to talk to the heads of some of the USA’s leading steelmakers, including ArcelorMittal USA’s CEO Andrew Harshaw, who said that the only place to solve the problem of China was in Washington DC. Bringing a touch of High Noon to a press conference, Harshaw said: “At the end of the day the only thing they’re going to respect is the law.”
Outgoing AIST (Association for Iron & Steel Technology) president Glenn Pushis from Indiana-based Steel Dynamics, put aside valuable time to answer some questions posed by Steel Times International, including one on China. He made the very valid point that it’s not just China but South Korea, Russia and Brazil that have significantly increased exports to the USA.
The theme of China continues in our report on CRU’s World Steel Conference in Brazil where Chris Houlden warned delegates that there would be no silver linings going forward. While Houlden apologised from the very beginning for being the bearer of bad tidings – plunging global demand, prices falling off a cliff and great economic and geo-political risks – Wiley Rein’s Alan Price had no such qualms. China, he said, has built the world’s largest steel industry even though it lacks any comparative advantage in making steel. According to Price, 19-20 of China’s biggest steelmakers are state-owned and the country is moving towards market socialism, not a market economy.
Steel Times International carries a number of technical papers covering process control, BOF and electric steelmaking. We have two Perspectives Q&A features from HyGear and TMEIC Global and an interesting History page on UK pig iron production during the World War One. There are also country reports from Brazil and the USA and a healthy industry news section.