By Bill Keifer
Last weekend we spent a considerable amount of time cleaning out the garage. I had about ten or more “banker’s boxes” of what appeared to be personal papers acquired over the years. Some were just the ordinary mix of personal records, i.e. tax returns and supporting documents which should be kept for seven years after filing, got rid of thirteen years of those. Others were more important, like health records. Some were intensely personal like childhood photographs or albums containing photos of my parents as newlyweds, or my father as a navy fighter pilot on the USS Chenango during WWII. I opened a box and found nothing but legal pads. As I started to look at them I realized that they were handwritten notes of Board of Directors Meetings of Weirton Steel Corporation. My notes. Let me explain.
Weirton Steel Corporation was created by a spinoff from National Steel Corporation on January 11, 1984. That process started in early March 1982 when National, owner of the “Weirton Steel Division” called Weirton Steel upper management and the leaders of the Independent Steelworkers Union to Pittsburgh for a meeting. At that meeting it was announced that they had tried to sell the Weirton Mill and found no buyers. There were two alternatives presented: first, management and labor could band together and form something called an Employee Stock Ownership Plan which could borrow money to buy the facility, or, second, National could downsize the facility into a small finishing unit employing maybe 1,000 people. Management and the Union, and pretty much the entire community got together to save the jobs. A new corporation was created it had a Board of Directors which had board meetings starting sometime in 1983, and ending with the sale to International Steel Group in 2004.
I started with Weirton Steel on February 1, 1985. One of my first tasks was to attend the board meetings and take notes for the purpose of creating Minutes of those meetings. For those unversed in law, the Minutes are the official record of what was done at a Board Meeting, that’s all. My notes are likely the only complete written source of what was said, and by whom, step by step, as decisions were made. That’s because I was in every Weirton Steel Board Meeting from February 1985, until the very last one in the late spring of 2004. I was the fly on the wall, listening, BUT taking notes. They are not word for word, but are fairly complete. I have not looked at any of them for over sixteen years. I am not sure that the notes of every meeting are there, but they probably are.
While mine is a history column, Weirton Steel, or what is left of it, is being sold again. I intended to write about E.T. Weir and his creation, as it had a large impact on our community. I still intend to do so. But, considering this week’s news I think some perspective on the steel industry might be helpful. Arcelor-Mittal has announced the sale of its U.S. operations to Cleveland Cliffs Corporation. “Cliffs”, as the buyer is known, consolidated much of the North American iron ore production, in the period 1985-2000. Each ton of iron produced by the blast furnace method takes about one and one-half tons of iron ore, much of it in pellet form. Iron ore is the largest ingredient in making steel by that process. One way for a company to expand is by “vertical integration” meaning to buy up some of its suppliers or customers, securing an outlet for its raw materials supply needs or its products. In 2019 Cliffs purchased A-K Steel, obviously that started the process, of acquiring a market for its products.
Around here at times we take a somewhat narrow view of our jobs and the industries that provide them. In the year 2000 there were around 50 steel companies in the U.S. Those companies produced approximately 100 Million tons of steel a year. Of that, 85 million tons were flat-rolled carbon steel. Of that large market, Weirton Steel and Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel together could produce about 7 Million tons. That was enough for each of them to be in the top ten of the US producers based on tons and revenues. Then the downturn of the early 2000’s occurred. There were quite a few factors at play and I don’t intend to get caught up in that discussion. But suffice it to say that by mid-2004 almost all of the original fifty or so had filed for Bankruptcy protection and there were only about six domestic sellers of flat-rolled carbon steel remaining: USS, Nucor, ISG, A-K Steel, Inland Steel and Steel Dynamics. Weirton Steel, along with LTV, Bethlehem, Acme and Georgetown Steel formed the center piece of ISG’s attempt to dominate the domestic marketplace. That attempt, with about forty per cent of US flat-rolled production capacity, was sold within a year, to the Mittal group which already owned Inland Steel in the Chicago area, and which also had extensive production facilities in India. That acquisition took Mittal’s U.S. flat-rolled production share up to probably fifty per cent. Wanting to be the premier global player, Mittal acquired the European producer Arcelor in 2005, re-branded itself as “Arcelor-Mittal, “and through last year remained the World’s largest capacity player. By points of reference, Nucor and USS were the 12th and 27th largest producers in the world marketplace in 2019.