Sparrows Point owner considers selling plant

The struggling Sparrows Point steel mill could be sold within the next six months, mill owner RG Steel said Monday.

"We're not going to be specific at this time," said Bette Kovach, an RG Steel spokeswoman, as she confirmed comments by two company executives that potential buyers were eyeing the Baltimore County plant, as well as others owned by the firm.

Speaking last week to the Baltimore chapter of the Association of Women in the Metal Industries, Jerry Nelson, RG Steel's chief commercial officer, said that "people have expressed interest" in acquiring some RG Steel plants and that "I think it's safe to say everything is on the table."

Continued Nelson, whose comments were reported by the Steel Business Briefing newsletter, "That may mean some of the facilities, six months from now, are not part of RG Steel."

Sparrows Point, which employs about 2,200 workers, has changed hands several times over the past decade.

RG Steel's parent, Renco Group, bought the mill and other plants in Wheeling, W. Va., and Warren, Ohio, in March 2011 from the Russian steelmaker Severstal, becoming the fourth-largest flat-rolled steel producer in the United States. The Russian company had idled much of the plant the previous fall, laying off nearly 1,000 workers.

RG Steel restarted the plant after a seven-month shutdown and needed to regain lost customers. It also faced weak demand, a result of the slow-to-improve economy, and high raw material prices.

Facing a cash crunch, RG Steel had to idle the main furnace right before Christmas. It wasn't able to restart until late January, when it received a $125 million infusion from Cerberus Capital, a New York-based private equity firm.

The company has spent the spring reorganizing its operations and trimming costs. In April, it temporarily shut down the tin mill because of low bookings. At the beginning of May, it cut the salaries of managers and executives.

Earlier this month, the mill also shut down its "L" blast furnace for routine maintenance, restarting it after a few days. On Friday, the blast furnace was "hot idled" due to a shortage of raw materials, but it was placed back in operation on Saturday, Kovach said.

RG Steel's chief operating officer, Mark Whalen, who also addressed the local chapter of the business group, said the company had made significant progress in cutting costs since the acquisition.

Whalen added that the company had "some decisions to make in the next few weeks about what we are and how we want to run," Steel Business Briefing reported.

Officials with the United Steelworkers of America, which represents workers at the plant, did not return calls seeking comment Monday.

One analyst said he would be surprised if a single buyer acquired all of RG Steel's plants, saying the company would be more likely to sell off plants separately.

Rick de los Reyes, a portfolio manager with Baltimore-based T. Rowe Price who follows the steel industry, said RG Steel took over the mill at a difficult time.

"The steel industry globally has been weak and even in the U.S. has suffered from overcapacity," he said, adding that German steelmaker ThyssenKrupp Steel has been marketing a recently built steel mill in Alabama. "It's a tough industry to be in. There's a reason why Sparrows Point changed hands so many times; it's because it's a difficult operation to run. It's a difficult operation to run profitably."

A likely suitor for Sparrows Point might be a firm such as CSN, a Brazilian steel company with access to raw materials that could supply a mill, de los Reyes said.

"Sparrows Point is disadvantaged compared to other mills from a raw materials standpoint" because steel mills in the Midwest are located closer to iron ore mines, de los Reyes said. "That's always been the challenge for Sparrows Point, particularly in an environment of high iron ore prices."

But with Sparrows Point, an integrated plant that makes steel and runs various production lines, the company has alternatives to selling the plant outright, experts said. RG Steel could decide to bring in an independent contractor to run specific lines, sell only specific functions at the plant, or sell equipment that could be reassembled elsewhere, experts suggested.

"There are a lot of individual processes within that plant that could be stand-alone processes," said Marc Liebman, president of AIM Market Research, a Pittsburgh firm that provides research for steel companies and their suppliers.

And even if the plant is producing less than its 4 million-ton capacity, it still has to cover fixed costs, including the high maintenance expenses that come with an older facility, analysts said.

"Their role has waned over the years," Liebman said of Sparrows Point. "It's the lack of sustained production, and of course you lose customers. You're shut down, and you have problems and people go elsewhere and you lose business."

Sparrows Point timeline

1889 Pennsylvania Steel pours first pig iron at Sparrows Point

1916 Bethlehem Steel buys the plant and announces $50 million expansion

1959 Steel plant reaches peak employment of 30,920 after major expansion launched in 1957

2001 Bethlehem Steel files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, seeks to reorganize

2003 Financier Wilbur Ross founds International Steel Group and buys Bethlehem in $1.5 billion deal, creating nation's largest steel producer

2005 India-born billionaire Lakshmi N. Mittal merges his growing steel empire with ISG and forms Mittal Steel Co. NV, the largest steelmaker in the world

2006 Mittal announces a hostile bid for rival Arcelor SA in January, a $33 billion acquisition that would create a global giant

2006 The Department of Justice files suit in August to block the sale for antitrust reasons unless Mittal sells Arcelor's Canadian company, Dofasco Inc. But that sale is blocked by a Dutch trust that controls it. Mittal later offers to sell a Weirton, W.Va., facility instead.

2007 The Justice Department tells Mittal to sell Sparrows Point to maintain competition in the tin-plated steel market in the United States

2008 Russian steelmaker OAO Severstal completes $810 million acquisition of Sparrows Point with plans to invest significantly in the plant and rev up production.

2010 Severstal idles main part of Sparrows Point and temporarily lays off nearly 1,000 workers because of weak economy and demand for steel

2011 Severstal announces it is selling Sparrows Point and two other mills to Renco Group

2012 Reports emerge that Renco has put Sparrows Point on the selling block

Source: The Baltimore Sun archives

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