American Steel by Richard Preston

“Long blue arcs snaked through the mountain of busted cars and smashed industry machinery... The steelworkers couldn’t hear their own voices screaming in terror over the noise of melting steel. The noise seemed to open sutures in their skulls, and a musky odor filled the building, the reek of a long-arc meltdown.”

American Steel is a sparkling story of never-say-die entrepreneurship told beautifully by Richard Preston. It is essentially the story of a maverick entrepreneur, Ken Iverson, who would not take “no” for an answer. It is also the story of the people who have made America the superpower it is, the workers of America - hard working, religious, family oriented, ordinary men and women.

It is a story of the impossible, about how Iverson transformed an aging, declining industry, the Steel industry in the United States, and built a world class steel company – Nucor – amid the ruins of the old Big Steel. It is a story of how the small guy can not only compete, but also win, by using highly innovative and smart manufacturing methods, and treating the workers as equals and as partners, rather than as nobodies.

Richard Preston is a gifted writer. He writes with panache and passion and raises non-fiction writing to an art form. He explains how the US dominated the world steel industry with companies such as US Steel, but fell behind other more aggressive manufacturers as the US steel companies refused to use more efficient or economical methods of manufacturing, preferring to stick to the philosophy, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

As a result, the other nations caught up with the US steel industry and soon left it behind, leaving manufacturing in the country in a state of despondency. It was then that Ken Iverson, the ambitious CEO of Nucor Corporation, made his presence felt in the country, showing a way forward with his highly innovative electric arc furnaces called “minimills”.

Nucor saved money by using scrap metal rather than iron ore to produce steel. This allowed it to compete on costs with even the most efficient manufacturers from Asia. Because of this, Nucor succeeded in an industry that was failing.

Iverson comes across as a real hero in this book. It wasn’t all easy for him, especially at the start. As Preston says about Iverson, “[A] good businessman is hard to bruise and quick to heal.”  Iverson never hired too many people. He believed that he could manufacture over one million tons of steel with only 500 steelworkers. The Japanese, who were the most efficient steel manufacturers, required 2500 steelworkers for the same amount of work.

He writes in detail about the humanity shown by Iverson towards his staff, such as offering generous bonuses to even his lowest employees at par with his executives at the top. Most importantly, he gave them respect, made them participants in the success of Nucor. Attempts to unionize Nucor staff never succeeded because of how happy they were with their management.

Preston’s writing is thrilling and almost magical. The way he describes the action leaves the reader spellbound and asking for more. Let’s give you just a little taste of his writing here: 

“Five seconds after the ladle cleared the casting tower, there was a whining sound from the crane. Millett, standing near the control deck inside the pulpit, heard the sound and looked up. He saw that the crane cables had broken and unraveled. The ladle was falling to the ground. It was a huge object, fifteen feet high, filled nearly to the brim with liquid steel, and the bottom of it was forty feet off the floor. It seemed to pass the deck slowly as it fell, the crane cables singing in the winch... There was a big, bright, yellow flash, and the lights went out.”

We have come across very few business books that are as exciting as American Steel. The story of Ken Iverson and Nucor is inspirational and educational, and it is one of the best business books you’ll ever read.