Sparks in the Rust Belt

By , Laurent Belsie is a Monitor staff writer based in Pittsburgh.

TRAVEL America's industrial belt, visit its plants, meet its workers, and you sense an atmospheric change. There's not much solid evidence to put your finger on. It's not as though United States manufacturers are suddenly back. And yet, there's what author Richard Preston would call a tang of excitement in the Rust Belt. That's what his new book, ``American Steel,'' is all about. It reveals how a scrappy and upstart steel company - the Nucor Corporation - leapfrogs Japan, South Korea, and everyone else with a crazy new process for casting steel. If you thought steel mills were dull places, this book will change your mind. It crackles with the daring and recklessness o f the American entrepreneurial spirit.

When we are introduced to Nucor in early 1988, the company has already made a name for itself in mini-mills. Mini-mills are miniature steel plants. Instead of making steel from scratch, these plants melt scrap and turn it into reusable steel. The plants are super-efficient and turn out a fair quality steel. But Nucor chairman Ken Iverson wants to move into the high-quality grades - known as cold-rolled steel - that up to now have been the exclusive preserve of Big Steel.

So Mr. Iverson embarks on a quarter-billion-dollar gamble in something called a Compact Strip Production facility. He buys an experimental German machine that is supposed to make the steel in one continuous process (a world first). He rushes forward to build a new facility in Crawfordsville, Ind., to house the machine. And he plans to hire novice steelworkers from the surrounding Indiana farm country.

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Unorthodox? Yes. But then nothing about Nucor fits the mold. When Preston goes to visit the headquarters of this 22-plant, $1 billion company, he finds 16 employees plus Iverson stuffed into rental offices more reminiscent of a dentist's office than a steel company.

``His office was the cheapest-looking executive lair I had ever seen,'' Preston writes. ``His veneered desk was worth all of $300 and it had a black vinyl top. The walls of the office were coated with tan vinyl meant to resemble leather.... I sat down in a chair. It was covered with textured plastic meant to resemble suede, but it didn't feel like suede, it felt like a scrub pad.''

We meet construction workers and the hot-metal men endlessly fascinated with the molten steel that flows and flames through their machines.

We meet Keith Busse, a gun-store owner and Nucor manager who gets tangled up in all sorts of projects. Busse's plans push Nucor into the bolt-making business and the construction of prefabricated metal buildings. Both plants finally work but not profitably. Despite these failures, Busse's risk-taking earns him a chance to head the new steelmaking venture. That is the ``Nucor way.''

This is old-fashioned American stuff. Small-time entrepreneur comes up with new machine that wins the day (but nearly blows him up in the process). If you remember how Americans used to cheer for innovators like Henry Ford and the Wright brothers, you will like this book.

But there's a dark side to Nucor's bold gamble. Its new plant is dangerous - spectacularly so. Preston doesn't back away from the controversy. He describes Nucor's problems and their dramatic and tragic consequences. He even quotes Joseph Kinney, an outspoken labor-safety advocate and longtime critic of Nucor.

In the end, though, he ends up rooting for the underdog - like the rest of us. There are moments in this book that you can't wait to find out what happens next. Will the machine work or blow up? Will Nucor succeed or end up wiping egg off its face?

``American Steel'' rekindles the excitement, boyish wonder, and recklessness of the American innovator of a bygone era. And maybe it's not bygone. There are lots of Nucor-like sparks glowing in industrial America. This decade should tell whether those sparks catch fire or burn out.

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