Steel Dynamics CEO says his Steel is more high-tech than Facebook
Steel Dynamics CEO Mark Millett co-founded the company, now one of the largest steel producers and metal recyclers in the United States. But just four decades ago, he described himself as a “ski bum” in Aspen, Colorado.
He still remembers spending his days skiing and his nights doing the dishes in a restaurant in the resort. “I washed more dishes than anyone on the planet in those nine months,” he recalls.
He probably skied more runs too.
Then, he vividly remembers, he had an epiphany. “Fate has guided my life more than anything else,” he said. “I woke up one day thinking I had to be responsible and get a real job.”
Steel Dynamics CEO: Find Your Next Step
It was then that, out of the blue, the British-born young man with a bachelor’s degree in metallurgy, applied for a job at – and was hired by – a small steel mill R&D plant in Carolina. of the South belonging to Nucor (NAKED). He remained at Nucor for the next 12 years. There, says Millett, the steel experience seeped into his bones. Steel has become central to who he is.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my tipping point,” he said. “As a young kid, they gave me the reins to play with all of this (technology) around me and I had an incredible experience as a technical pioneer there.”
Fast forward about four decades, and Millett is still a pioneer. He is president of the Steel Manufacturers Association. And in 2022, he was named Steelmaker of the Year by the Association of Iron and Steel Technology.
steel dynamics (STLD) had just three employees when Millett co-founded the company in 1993. It now has more than 11,000. Between 2012 (when he was named CEO) and 2021, the company’s steel shipments business soared 93%, from 5.8 million tons to 11.2 million. Its net income jumped more than 1,000%, from $164 million to $3.2 billion, during this period. And its average market cap jumped 290%, from $3 billion to nearly $12 billion, during that time.
Measure your success like Millett
But Millett doesn’t count success in dollars and cents. He counts it in the people he has helped – and who have helped him along the way. This is why, for example, he says that the “owners” of the company are not only his 11,000 employees, but also the 26,000 “family members” of these employees whom he also considers to be part of of the company.
That’s why the company offers college scholarships of $5,000 a year for four years to each employee’s child. And that’s why the company distributed $365 million in profit sharing to its employees last year.
“Our employees know we’re a top employer,” Millett said.
Let others make decisions
True success with employees isn’t just about how you pay them, but also how you engage them in decision-making, Millett says. At Steel Dynamics, employees at all levels are encouraged to constantly make autonomous decisions at work, and then to be held accountable for those decisions. “Otherwise they won’t be engaged and feel like it’s really their job,” Millett said.
For example, division managers and general managers at Steel Dynamics essentially act as mini-CEOs not only in their decision-making, but also in accountability for the profits and losses of those divisions, Millett explains. “He or she will take full responsibility not only to make money, but also to inspire people,” he said. “I want people to feel in control and not smother them with bureaucracy that slows them down.”
Be humble as a leader
Perhaps this is where leadership – real leadership – sets Millett apart from so many others in its industry. More than anything else, he says, truly great leaders must genuinely show great humility – and even be humble. Arrogance, he says, is an instant sign of failing leadership for employees. “You have to build intuitive trust and loyalty with individuals and you don’t do that with the slightest hint of arrogance,” he said.
It can be as simple as a regular one-on-one interview with shop workers. When building a facility in Minnesota, for example, Millett made frequent visits to the site and the land surrounding it.
During one visit, recalls David Bednarz, who was previously vice president of ferrous resources at Steel Dynamics, Millett literally pointed out a working haul truck driver. The truck driver got out of the truck not knowing what was going on. Millett told him he just wanted to shake his hand – and thank him – for his efforts to get the plant started. “The impression left on the individual was lasting,” Bednarz said.
Along with this humility, however, there must be the vision and drive to encourage people to do great things that employees wouldn’t otherwise believe they could accomplish. “You inspire a team with high expectations, then you give them the tools and resources to achieve that vision,” he said.
Even in those areas that might seem to have the greatest challenges.
Durability and steel, for example, are not two commonly used words in the same sentence. But under Millett’s leadership, the company has set sustainability milestones for 2025 and 2030 to ensure transparency, measurability and accountability, says Theresa Wagler, chief financial officer of Steel Dynamics. “Mark drives us to be innovators and leaders in greenhouse gas emissions reduction and supporting technologies,” she said.
Bring creativity to work
Millett certainly had to set its sights on creativity more recently during the supply chain shortage.
Pig iron is an important raw material used in the scrap metal manufacturing process. But, as fate would have it, 70% of merchant pig iron comes from Russia and Ukraine.
Supply is virtually unobtainable and prices have skyrocketed for whatever is available. Pig iron prices have gone from $650 a ton to $1,100 a ton, he says. So the company came up with an innovative way to use less pig iron. Previously, to help purify its scrap metal, it mixed 22% pig iron with 78% scrap metal. Now, he says, by changing the way he smelts steel scrap, he’s found a way to still purify scrap, but with only 14% pig iron.
“You just have to get more innovative,” Millett said. “You have to adapt to change.”
Find ways to attract talent
His biggest challenge, which is also perhaps the biggest challenge in the industry, is to attract young talent to the world of steel. After all, says Millett, there’s a legacy that steel is a dirty, boring industry. But he sees it very differently.
“The technology involved in steel is phenomenal,” he said. “To be able to take a large piece of metal and turn it into a perfect raw sheet in a tenth of a thousandth of an inch thick on a 40 ton surface is incredible.”
There’s a lot more hands-on technology involved in steel manufacturing and recycling than you’ll ever find working at Facebook (META) or at Amazon (AMZN), he says. “And you’re actually producing something that the world needs.”
Work and life balance
Even then, at age 63, Millett learned the need for life balance. He says he comes from a generation that has always lived to work – a lifestyle he says he can’t stand anymore. “Looking back on it, that’s not a good way to be,” he said. “Living to work at the end of your life doesn’t get you that ultimate feeling of satisfaction. There has to be a balance in life.”
His legacy, he hopes, is for everyone he has helped along the way.
“Remember that it’s the people who will make you successful,” Millett said. “Never think you’re the smartest person in the room. Always think you’re the dumbest and listen and understand.”
Keys from Steel Dynamics CEO Mark Millett
- Longtime leader in the steel industry, co-founder of Steel Dynamics in 1993 and CEO since January 2012.
- Overcome: Difficulties managing supply chain disruptions for raw materials used to produce steel.
- Lesson: “Remember that it’s the people who will make you successful. Never think you’re the smartest person in the room. Always think you’re the dumbest, listen and understand.”
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