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Steel, sustainability and a Carolina connection

By Peter M. Williams, Jr.

The more I read about Nucor Steel and spoke with its representatives, the more intrigued I became. Soon my desk — already a class five disaster zone — was literally covered in notes about the company. Nucor’s state-of-the-art Berkeley facility’s media liaison, Katherine Miller, helped get me going, but this is a topic that sets a high bar due to its complexity, enormity and importance to our state and region. With infrastructure growth so important, we wanted to take the pulse of this vibrant operation.

The largest producer of steel in the country, Nucor is based in Charlotte, North Carolina, but the company’s beginnings go back to Lansing, Michigan, during the last years of the 19th century, when Ransome E. Olds founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company, later known as Oldsmobile. Mr. Olds left the company in 1905 to establish a new auto manufacturer, REO Motor Car Company — the company that brought us the REO Flying Cloud and the REO Speed Wagon. However, although these models were popular (I think it’s safe to assume that we all know the 80s rock band), the cars weren’t profitable, and the company filed for bankruptcy and folded in 1938. Due to a dispute between the company and a group of dissident shareholders during the liquidation proceedings, the company was not allowed to completely liquidate at was ordered to take over a tiny company called Nuclear Consultants, Inc. — something called a “reverse takeover.” I’ll have to ask my dad or Paul Meeks what that term means, but I digress.

The newly acquired company relocated to the Empire State Building and was renamed “Nuclear Corporation of America, Inc.” in 1955. The company was unsuccessful in its attempts to establish a foothold in the nuclear industry and shifted its headquarters to Phoenix, Arizona and recast itself as a conglomerate, making several acquisitions in the late 50s and early 60s, including a Florence, South Carolina, steel joist manufacturer called Vulcraft in 1962 and hired F. Kenneth Iverson to serve as the plant’s general manager, a move that would prove prophetic and become the basis of the corporation we know as Nucor.

The Nuclear Corporation of America continued to struggle, filing for bankruptcy a second time in 1965. After firing the company’s president, the board of directors was unable to find a replacement until Sam Seigel, an accountant at Nuclear Corporation, who had been trying to leave the company, offered to stay with the company under two conditions: F. Kenneth Iverson, his friend and general manager of Vulcraft (the only profitable entity owned by the corporation), would become CEO, and he would be promoted to chief financial officer. The board accepted, and Seigel and Iverson quickly set about reorganizing the company around Vulcraft — unrelated businesses were sold or liquidated. In 1966, the Nuclear Corporation of America move its headquarters to Charlotte, N.C. to be closer to Vulcraft.

Before we go further, let’s pause and ask ourselves why Seigel, an accountant, would insist on making F. Kenneth Iverson — a general manager of a small steel manufacturer — the highest-ranking officer in the company. The answer to this question contains the secret to Nucor’s success, and to reach it, we need to learn a bit more about Iverson and his management style. Iverson championed a lean management staff with a de-centralized decision-making structure and an egalitarian culture in the workplace. He famously broke down internal corporate barriers and reduced the levels of management in the company to four, meaning a janitor was literally four promotions away from taking the CEO’s job. Iverson also recognized the importance of employee autonomy and purposefully located the corporate headquarters physically far away from production facilities, giving plant managers and mills a wide berth in their production and marketing decisions. He also did away with most of the usual corporate perks — no reserved parking spaces or personal assistants. He was known for personally answering the phone whenever he was at the corporate office and ran his entire multi-billion corporation with a staff of 22 people. We’ll speak more about Iverson’s credentials later, but his maverick style of management is credited with bringing the company from the brink of liquidation to its status as the largest, most successful steel manufacturer in the U.S.

During the next decade, the company struggled to find steel at favorable prices and in 1968, Iverson, a trained metallurgist, made the decision to extend the company into steelmaking vertically by building its first steel bar mill in Darlington, S.C. and opted to invest in an electric arc furnace (EAF), which was far less expensive to use than the traditional blast furnace, securing a $6 million dollar loan against all the company’s assets — he was truly all in. After a sputtering start due to staffing issues and production delays, earnings soared and in 1972, the Nuclear Corporation of America officially changed their name to Nucor Corporation.

Fast forward to the present day and the Nucor name is known internationally for leading in the steel industry not only as manufacturers but also as recyclers — in addition to being the largest steel producer in America, Nucor is the largest recycler of any material in the country. Nucor operates more than 300 total facilities, which produce finished steel products and 27 scrap-based steel mills, with two more on the way. Buckle up for key statistics; these are important and akin to the many pieces of steel that frame a structure under construction.

From Berkeley County to skyscrapers and bridges around the world. IMAGE COURTESY OF NUCOR STEEL

These facilities employ more than 31,000 teammates, with 2,500 of them right here in the Palmetto State, from the steel bar plant in Berkeley, to the Nucor Skyline Steel’s corporate headquarters in Rock Hill. The company still uses the EAF method of melting scrap, which have much lower green house gas (GHG) emissions than blast furnaces. More than 25 percent of the steel used in America is produced by Nucor, using an average of 77.3 percent recycled content, making it one of the most sustainable companies in the world by any metrics. Nucor has recognized that using sustainable methods does not have to be more expensive — the opposite is true: In 2022, Nucor shipped 25.4 million tons of steel products and recycled 22.4 million tons of scrap — that’s a waste of only 12 percent and change.

Beyond its industrial operations, Nucor Steel actively engages with the S.C. community. The company supports numerous charitable organizations, education programs and community initiatives. Nucor’s commitment to corporate social responsibility has a tangible impact on the wellbeing of South Carolinians.

In times of crisis, Nucor has proven its dedication to the community by providing disaster relief and aiding in the recovery process. The company’s willingness to help during challenging times have earned it a special place in the hearts of local residents. Nucor Steel’s presence in S.C. is more than just an industrial footprint; it’s a testament to the company’s dedication to economic growth, sustainability, innovation and community engagement. Since its humble beginnings in the early 1960s, Nucor has grown into an integral part of our state’s identity, fostering economic growth and placing communities like Berkeley in the national spotlight as an integral part of Nucor’s operations in the Southeast.

Its commitment to maintaining America’s status a leader in the global steel market through is unmatched: “We are the cleanest steelmakers on the planet, and again poised and ready to go,” said Nucor CEO Leon Topalian in support of President Biden’s infrastructure bill in 2021. “If you think about the investment China is making, last year alone they spent $8 trillion on infrastructure. We’ve got to stay competitive as a nation.”

We in the Lowcountry can be proud of being a part of this competitiveness. The Berkeley plant was completed in 1996 and ships more than two million tons of sheet metal and structural beams per year with an average of 350 employees since their start. Nucor’s teammates are paid based on performance, ensuring that each employee is dedicated to delivering a product of the highest possible quality. As noted earlier, the local plant has been generous to more local causes than we have space to mention, but the company’s confidence in the Berkley plant as a key production facility is evidenced by their announcement in 2022 of a plan to invest more than $425 million dollars to add a galvanizing line to the plant, adding 50 new jobs, increasing their capacity to produce corrosion-resistant products up to 72 inches wide by about a half a million tons.

The plant’s location gives it easy access to major highways, rail lines and sea ports, meaning the steel produced in Berkeley is probably found in the skyscrapers of Chicago and the bridges that cross the Mississippi — a bit of Southern steel in most everything. As a result, the Lowcountry remains part of the pulse of global commerce and Nucor helps sustain this as a key part of our manufacturing base; it is a Palmetto State partnership forged for a prosperous future.


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