SSS XXXIII: GFG Alliance eyes steel long assets, mulls scrap strategy

GFG Alliance is eyeing what it calls “higher value” steel long products rather than flat-rolled products for potential US acquisitions, a top executive told American Metal Market.

The UK-based conglomerate, which fired up a Georgetown, South Carolina wire rod mill earlier this week, isn’t ruling out acquisitions or restarts of flat-rolled mills, but is prioritizing steel long products for now, said Jon Bolton, chief executive officer (CEO) of GFG’s Liberty Steel unit.

Globally, “our preference to date has been more on the longs side, and I see more opportunity on the longs side than with flats,” said Bolton in a June 26 interview at the Steel Success Strategies XXXIII conference in New York, co-sponsored by American Metal Market and World Steel Dynamics Inc.

GFG Alliance, a privately held firm with $15 billion in annual revenue, is currently exploring additional US steel acquisitions, but Bolton declined to discuss specifics. GFG prefers to restart idled steel mills or acquire functioning ones, rather than building new mills, because with the first two one gets a head start in “both capital and time,” executive chairman and CEO Sanjeev Gupta said in a keynote speech on the same day.

Globally, GFG will look to “get more involved” in the collection and processing of ferrous scrap, but the company is still drawing up its overall scrap strategy for the US, Bolton explained.

It’s not clear how many more, if any, US scrap metal companies GFG will purchase, he said. GFG acquired Tampa, Florida-based Export Metals LLC, a scrapyard and exporter, in March for an undisclosed amount.

Export Metals will indeed supply scrap to the Georgetown mill, but that mill also has “quite good connections with the local scrap markets,” added Bolton, who acknowledged that Export Metals alone can’t supply the 500,000 melt tons-per-year Georgetown mill with its scrap needs.

“We are still working as to the extent that we would want to do it,” said Bolton, referring to whether GFG’s planned 5 million tons of US steel capacity would be supplied entirely by GFG-owned US scrapyards. GFG plans to invest $5 billion in US assets, the company said earlier this week, though its interests vary widely and range from energy to financial and general industrial assets.

In general, GFG would prefer to get scrap in the US rather than import it even though a lot of high-quality, low-residual scrap from the UK does end up in the US, according to Bolton. GFG does not own UK-based scrap export assets and importing UK scrap would be contrary to GFG’s emphasis on local and low-carbon steelmaking.

“That’s why we’re passionate about electric arc furnaces (EAF). There’s the ability to actually utilize existing local raw materials, rather than transport virgin iron ore halfway around the world,” said Bolton.

Other US mills have started to “push the boundaries of steel product development” within the EAF arena, partly by using direct reduced iron (DRI) or hot briquetted iron (HBI), or by improving scrap processing. The latter is where GFG sees an opportunity, said Bolton, an executive who now oversees Liberty Steel’s 3 million tonnes per year of steel capacity in Australia and the UK.

GFG also prefers to use renewable energy, where possible, to power its manufacturing. But in other countries, GFG has simply bought power generation assets and used funds from the sale of electricity to finance industrial expansions, he added.

In Scotland, GFG acquired the last working aluminum smelter in the UK, traditionally powered by hydroelectric power, and then later bought those hydroelectric assets, Bolton said. In turn, that helped to fund expansion at that smelter, where the company installed downstream assets such as an aluminum wheel, he said.

“We are passionate about the lowest possible carbon steelmaking you can get,” said Bolton. “In theory, that’s renewable energy into electric arc furnaces, melting scrap.”

GFG’s ambitious US expansion drive comes at a time when US steel prices have hit multi-year highs. Prices for domestic industrial-quality wire rod, Georgetown’s key output, had not topped $40 per hundredweight since January 2012, while US steel-scrap spreads have neared levels last seen in the 2008 US steel price boom.

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