Growing up in Granite City, Ill., Nucor’s Mary Emily Slate was destined for a career in steel manufacturing. It was that community’s primary trade and after working in the industry for decades for other companies, the opportunity to lead a Nucor Steel operation presented itself. She hopped on board and has made the most of it.
Slate, 54, is vice president and general manager of Charlotte, N.C.-based Nucor Steel’s Hickman plant in Mississippi County. Married for 32 years and with three adult children — one of which is following in her footsteps — Slate is holding on tight as the steel industry booms. She thinks more growth is on the horizon.
Talk Business & Politics CEO Roby Brock and Slate discussed Nucor, industry conditions and the prospects for Northeast Arkansas.
Roby Brock: What are conditions like today in terms of the volume and what’s in the pipeline? I mean, I hear that business is booming.
Mary Emily Slate: Absolutely. We’re experiencing a great steel market right now. The entire year has been very very good. We do see a little bit of seasonal slowness right now, but that’s pretty common this time of year with changeovers. The market has been so good and continues to be good.
Brock: Why is that?
Slate: So much is driven by the economy, and we’ve got 24 [plants] in markets that we serve corporate-wide, not just Nucor Hickman. Twenty-three of those are stable or on the uptick and many of the ones that are on the uptick are at the very beginning of an up cycle so that really gives us a lot of confidence going into 2019.
Brock: Are companies building more cars? Are they building more buildings with steel in them? What’s driving this demand for steel?
Slate: You’re right. Cars and buildings and furniture and steel goes into so much. The U.S. economy is really driving the steel demand. The tax cuts had a huge impact and efforts to reform our regulatory system have also been beneficial to the overall economy and it’s led to strong GDP growth. With strong GDP growth, we’re doing all of those things you just said. Building businesses, opening businesses, all of that, bridges, things that steel goes into. I know that tariffs have been in the news and there’s been a lot of misinformation regarding tariffs and how they’re impacting the economy.
Brock: Set the record straight for me.
Slate: Let me start with steel tariffs. They’re having the intended impact because what they’re doing is, they’re removing artificially low cost, foreign steel imports from our market. If you look at just 2018 versus 2017, about 3.5 million less tons of imports have entered the U.S. during the first nine months of just this year. Almost all of that decrease – actually 3.1 million of that 3.5 million – has decreased since June 1 when those tariffs were fully implemented. At the same time, the American steel industry has increased our production by 3.5 million tons, year to date. So, you can see that just balanced it. Steel prices are now returning to fair market based levels, and we see that when you have a strong economy, we see higher domestic prices.
Brock: Do you see anything on the horizon that worries you?
Slate: I think there’s a lot of opportunity to see even more growth, but we’ve got to keep watching for overcapacity. That continues to be our number one challenge for the steel industry the world over. China agreed to reduce production capacity, but produced a record amount of tons last year. You’ve got to look at what they’re producing and what they have the capacity to produce. I think that’s one thing we have to keep our eye on.
Brock: Tell me about the workforce? Do you need more workers or are you maxed out? What’s your radius for your worker search?
Slate: We always are in need of finding people, the right people. We really work hard to find the right people for Nucor. That’s always been a constant challenge and with a tight labor force, yes, it is even more challenging but it’s a challenge we’re meeting. Studies show that nearly 2 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S. won’t be filled in the next 10 years. I think that’s a concern for all of us, right? I think that’s due to retirements and I think there’s a negative perception with younger people about manufacturing. You know, we’ve built up all these tech jobs for so many years. We also have a lack of students with strong STEM skills, which I’m glad that Arkansas has focused on. Nucor’s been preparing for this. We do a lot of work with the local colleges and schools in all of our areas and Arkansas is no different.
Brock: Give me a little bit more detail of who you’re partnering with.
Slate: Arkansas State, Northeastern College, and even the high schools. We try to work with the local schools to make sure we’re supporting them. We’ve been very involved with (U.S.) Rep. Rick Crawford, (R-Jonesboro), who brings teachers and counselors through the mill and through other businesses every year and we work with them to educate them on what we need for the workforce.
Brock: You moved away from Northeast Arkansas and traveled around the country for stints in Alabama and New York. Now you’re back. What do you think is so attractive about the Northeast Arkansas region as a whole?
Slate: Bottom line, and it probably sounds corny, but it’s the people here. The people here have such an incredibly big work ethic, values, they fit so well with what Nucor’s looking for. Throughout the Nucor facilities you’ll hear us say our people and our teammates are the greatest asset that we have and Northeast Arkansas is just amazing for that. That is a big deal for why people should stay here, why people should come here. I will tell you something else that I think is really important.
I’ve moved around and I’ll tell you Governor Asa Hutchinson is so business-friendly. He is ready to help this area grow and to make the investments and be open to opportunities for multiple businesses and I think that is so refreshing and so neat to work with him.
Brock: You haven’t seen that in other places?
Slate: I’ll just say it’s really refreshing and neat.