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Stelco Inc. Business Information, Profile, and History

Post Office Box 2030 Stelco Tower

History of Stelco Inc.

Stelco Inc. produces steel in two large plants located at Hamilton harbor on Lake Ontario and another site on nearby Lake Erie, and in mini-mills located in Contrecour, Quebec, and Edmonton, Alberta. In addition there are three fabricating units responsible for pipes and tubes, wire and wire products, and fasteners and forgings.

Stelco prides itself on being a Canadian company. Its plants supply about 30% of the Canadian market. Most Stelco common shares--98%--are held by owners with Canadian addresses. In 1991 the firm's head office returned to Hamilton, where it began during the last third of the nineteenth century.

Like many aspects of the Canadian economy, Stelco's origin reflected both British and U.S. influences. During the 1850s the Montreal merchant house of Moreland and Watson imported British iron to meet investment needs in the burgeoning Canadian economy. During the following decade Moreland and Watson established the Montreal Rolling Mills (MRM) to reroll British wrought iron and scrap into nails and other hardware. The MRM managing director was Charles Watson, who in 1873 appointed William McMaster as secretary; McMaster then succeeded Watson in 1888.

The 1880s were a decade of transition for the MRM. This was an era of increasing protectionism by both Canadian and U.S. governments following the devastating trade depression of the 1870s. Tariff increases helped to preserve a role for British metal in the Canadian market, but the advantage was gradually passing to U.S. suppliers whose raw material and transportation costs were falling rapidly. These trends increasingly handicapped the MRM, whose trade relied on the reworking of metal from Great Britain.

MRM sales in the Ontario market were challenged during the 1880s by the Ontario Rolling Mills (ORM), established at Hamilton in 1879 by a group of Ohio businessmen. These U.S. tradesmen and investors were representative of many who migrated north to create industrial enterprises in early Ontario. The ORM used an abandoned mill to reroll scrap iron rails and rework metal for use by local machine shops and hardware manufacturers.

The ORM and other Hamilton-area secondary metal firms created a growing local demand for primary metal. Favorable tariff and transportation changes made it profitable by the early 1890s to establish a blast furnace on Hamilton harbor using U.S. ore and coal. Local foundry owners and the Hamilton municipal council were instrumental in launching the Hamilton Blast Furnace Company (HBFC) in 1894, after U.S. investors withdrew from what seemed a risky prospect. Alexander Wood, a hardware merchant and later a Liberal senator, was the largest HBFC shareholder. By 1899 HBFC had proven its value to the ORM leadership, who agreed to merge the two firms. The resulting company, the Hamilton Steel and Iron Company (HSIC), quickly erected steel furnaces using its capitalization in excess of C$1 million. The company's vice president and general manager was Robert Hobson, son-in-law to Wood and later president of the Canadian Manufacturers Association.

The HSIC was Canada's first fully integrated iron and steel company. It flourished during the massive wave of investment that swept over the Canadian economy between 1900 and 1910. In the latter year William McMaster offered to bring the Montreal Rolling Mills into a larger organization that would provide a secure supply of primary metal. The successful Maritime financier, Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, promptly brokered yet another merger of the HSIC with the MRM and several smaller secondary metal companies, resulting in the Steel Company of Canada, or Stelco as it was soon unofficially labeled.

Stelco's first president was Charles Secord Wilcox, who had arrived in Hamilton by horseback in 1880 to join other family members in the ORM. Wilcox was president of Stelco from 1910 to 1916 and chairman of the board from 1916 to 1938; he began the policy of plowing back as much profit as possible into the company. The firm's location in southern Ontario, which minimized transportation costs on material assembly and product delivery, was the most attractive possible in the fragmented Canadian market. Government tariffs and cash subsidies also augmented company profits and permitted the financing of new investment from retained earnings.

During the World War I Stelco produced large quantities of shell steel, but the production of munitions did not prevent the company from establishing a sheet mill to widen its potential product base, and ore and coal mines to facilitate raw material supply. Stelco's diversified product base and concentration on light steel products served it well during the Great Depression of the 1930s, as its share of the Canadian steel market rose from 17% in 1918 to 45% in 1932.

Two presidents served Stelco during this era. Robert Hobson, along with Wilcox from the Hamilton side of the company, presided from 1916 to 1926. Ross McMaster, son of the MRM's William McMaster, had stayed to manage the Montreal works after its sale in 1910; he became president from 1926 to 1945.

The outbreak of World War II inaugurated a new era for Stelco as it did for the Canadian economy. Stelco expanded its finishing capacity with the erection of plate and hot strip mills in 1941 and cold and tin mills in 1948. The growth of the finishing mills resulted in the use of more primary metal. In 1951 Stelco expanded its primary production facilities by building a 226-foot blast furnace and new open hearth steel furnaces sufficient to increase Canadian ingot capacity by 20%.

Hugh Hilton, president from 1945 to 1957 and board chairman from 1957 to 1966, presided over the expansion of the postwar period. Hilton's best-known technical innovation had been a 1928 fuel-saving improvement for the system of distributing waste gas from the furnaces to other applications in the plant. Hilton was the last of the steelmaking engineers to head the company. He was followed by Vincent Scully, an accountant who had come to Stelco as comptroller in 1951. Scully was president from 1957 to 1967 and chairman of the board from 1966 to 1971.

The continued use of open hearth furnaces until the 1980s reflected the slow introduction of basic oxygen furnaces first available during the 1950s. Stelco demonstrated considerable prowess in the development of secondary production technology. In 1959 David McLean, superintendent of Stelco's shapes division, organized a team to improve the cooling and coiling of steel rods in a high speed mill. By 1961 the solution was found in an adaptation of a U.S. patent leading to the Stelmor process for high quality and low cost rod cooling and coiling. During the 1970s the manager of product design services, Bill Smith, pioneered a coilbox technique used for intermill transfer of hot bars; this technique remained proprietary technology.

The 1970s comprised the Gordon era of Stelco, named after Peter Gordon, who served as president from 1970 to 1976 and chairman of the board from 1976 to 1985. Gordon guided the company through a major expansion, as the number of Stelco employees mushroomed from 12,500 to 25,000 during the 1970s. Gordon's lasting contribution was the establishment of a new plant on Lake Erie.

Strong market growth before the 1973 oil shock and subsequent economic slowdown led Stelco in 1974 to begin construction at a new location, the Lake Erie works (LEW). This plant began production during 1980. Annual capacity was 1.7 million tons of semifinished steel. The LEW has large production runs of continuous cast low carbon steel that is cold-rolled into auto sheet and steel used in pipes.

The older and larger Hilton works on Hamilton harbor has an annual capacity of 2.8 million tons. This plant produces diverse and sometimes specialized high- and low-carbon steel in strip, bar, and rod forms. The average production run at Hilton is smaller than at LEW. Between 1985 and 1987 financing and technology from the Japanese firm Mitsui assisted in a major upgrading of the Hilton facilities that included the introduction of basic oxygen technology and continuous casting. The Quebec and Alberta plants have small production runs from mini-mills of a capacity less than one million tons, each from electric arc steel furnaces.

Stelco's four primary plants are part of a production process that is integrated from the mine to a wide array of finished steel, including nails, sheet metal for appliances and vehicles, long-distance gas pipes, springs for vehicles, structural members for bridging and building, steel fencing and a variety of hardware. During the 1980s the final destination of output was the construction industry, 35%; automobile assembly, 30%; shipbuilding, 10%; as well as railways, agricultural and other machinery parts, and packaging. Stelco undertook secondary processing at Hilton and in more than a dozen subsidiary plants scattered from Montreal to Niagara and in Alberta.

The 1980s proved a difficult decade. Stelco lost its position as Canada's largest steelmaker. Employment declined considerably. Various facilities closed, and the company's long term debt-equity ratio climbed dramatically. In November of 1989 the Canadian Bond Rating Service downgraded its rating of the firm's senior debentures. Revenues in 1990 were 24% less than the previous year, as the company posted a C$200 million loss.

In part Stelco's problems reflected the burden of more than C$2 billion in investments between 1978 and 1988, just as the demand for steel declined because of slow economic growth from 1973 to 1984, and due to the substitution of other materials for steel for a variety of purposes. Lackluster growth in the market for steel and high interest rates during the early 1980s made it possible for Stelco to finance later growth from internal sources, and the value of these costly investments during the 1970s and 1980s will be determined by their impact on future competitiveness.

Another difficult circumstance for Stelco was the need to reduce emission of suspended particles and sulfur dioxide into the air and various substances into Hamilton harbor. The latter included poisonous coal-tar derivatives and ammonia that deprived the harbor floor of oxygen and hence killed fish. Increasing public concern to minimize environmental damage prompted Stelco to invest in a variety of devices to control pollution. By 1985 the Hilton works alone had 49 facilties to clean waste water and 54 facilities to clean the air. In 1991 there are some signs of improvement in Hamilton-area air and water, although Stelco's emissions remain a concern. In contrast to and perhaps because of the pollution problems at Hilton, the Lake Erie works had been built under careful government scrutiny to minimize environmental concerns.

Difficult relations with organized labor were a traditional Stelco problem. The Hilton workers are represented by Local 1005 of the United Steelworkers of America, which historically had been one of the most militant of Canadian locals. Violence marred an 85-day strike in 1946 that is often seen as a turning point in the modern history of Canadian industrial relations. Another, 86-day, strike in 1958, a violent wildcat strike in 1966, a legal strike in 1969, a 125-day strike in 1981, and a 97-day strike in 1990 continued the record of debilitating labor-management relations.

More significant than resulting wage adjustments is the damage to both workers and investors of a persistently and seriously discordant industrial relations atmosphere. An individual worker needed a very long time to recoup the loss of three months pay. On the other side Stelco had been disadvantaged by disruption of supply continuity and other costs of bitter collective bargaining.

In 1991 there were signs that the challenge of competition from east Asia would force labor and management to collaborate in forging a new survival strategy. The union had agreed to set aside traditional job categories in a steel coating mill within the Hilton works. The new mill was a joint venture with Mitsubishi Canada Ltd. to improve the rust-resistance of sheet metal. Hand-picked Hamilton workers have visited Japan to acquire technical knowledge and improve their understanding of the Japanese culture of company-worker cooperation.

The new coating mill is one aspect of Stelco's campaign to win contracts from Japanese-owned auto assembly plants located in southern Ontario. This response to change in secondary markets reflects the same careful attention to customer needs embodied in 19th-century mergers with the Montreal Rolling Mills and Ontario Rolling Mills. Stelco policy has returned the company to its historically successful strategy of careful integration between primary production and the secondary industry.

Within the North American market Stelco with its new facilities is quite competitive; Canada runs a trade surplus with the United States on steel. The introduction of a Canada-U.S. free trade agreement has favored Stelco because it reinforces a tendency to preserve the North American market for North American producers, among whom Stelco with its new facilities is a strong competitor.

In 1991 the president and chief operating officer was Robert J. Milbourne, a long-time Stelco engineer. The chairman of the board and chief executive officer was Frederick H. Telmer, a career Stelco employee in marketing.

Principal Subsidiaries: Stelco Technical Services Limited; Stelco Holding Company (U.S.A.); Stelco U.S.A. Inc.; CHT Steel Company Inc.; Stelco Enterprises Corp.(U.S.A.).

Additional topics

Company HistoryMetal Manufacturing & Fabricating

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