How'd They Get Cleveland's Steel Plant Making Money Again?

Steel slab coming out of furnace at ArcelorMittal's hot strip mill. [photo: Matt Richmond / ideastream]

There’s been steel coming out of the plant in the Flats near Downtown Cleveland for more than 100 years. Historian Ed Pershey of the Western Reserve Historical Society says whenever he drives by on the freeway, he checks to see which part of the rusting industrial complex is running.

“And it’s great to see, great to see us making steel in the heart of an American City,” said Pershey.

Since 2005, Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal has been doing the steelmaking here. The last stage, the hot strip mill, comes after the iron is melted and steel is formed, right before it’s shipped out in a rolled up slab of flat metal.

On one end of a long, narrow warehouse, nine-inch thick slabs come out of a furnace heated to twenty-five-hundred degrees or so. Each slab then travels along a series of rollers, where the steel is flattened, smoothed, stretched and, finally, once it’s down to about one and a half inches thick, rolled into a coil.

Engineer Roger Yee started working here about five years ago, after graduating from Ohio State University with a background in computers. He says the scale of the hot strip mill and the machines making it run amazed him when he first arrived.

“If you think about it, we're taking a big pizza weighing 20-30-40 tons, putting it through a furnace, nine inches thick, and then it goes through the process and somehow, we can regulate the thickness of the steel coming out within point eight percent of what the desired thickness is,” said Yee.

Perfecting this process was, under the previous owner, LTV Steel Company, a huge challenge. In 1998, the Dallas-based conglomerate hired technicians from a Japanese steel company to study the hot mill and come up with a plan to upgrade it.

Later that year, the company’s board of directors approved an $80 million overhaul. The rationale, according to records at Western Reserve Historical Society, was the looming loss of 81% of the plant’s automotive business. Basically, other steelmakers were producing steel that was flatter, thinner and more consistent than the plant in Cleveland.

The changes were completed in 2000, but years of losses and a slow economy meant it was too late. LTV Corporation ceased operations in December, 2001 and the Cleveland plant was shuttered, until a new owner stepped in and restarted operations.

Sharon Daniels has lived Cleveland steel history. She started working at the Cleveland plant in 1976, when it was Republic Steel, then for LTV, and then ISG Group for a few years when they reopened the plant in 2002. And now for ArcelorMittal.

Daniels looks out on the floor from the pulpit, an air conditioned office with a wall of windows overlooking the steel as it passes by.

“The mill hasn't changed. Physically that mill out there is the same way it's been since the day I walked in here,” said Daniels.

There have been changes to the technology that control it. There’s the monitors and more precise controls for temperature, thickness and width. Employees work twelve hour shifts instead of eight. And there are fewer workers. Each worker takes on more tasks. And that new, lean but productive company is what was brought back from the abyss in 2001 and has survived to today.

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