Steel industry chief places importance on adapting and embracing change

By Scunthorpe Telegraph | Posted: 25 Mar 2019

The steel industry must be flexible to thrive and survive, leading light Cornelius Louwrens has told a Scunthorpe audience.

Recently appointed chief executive of Liberty Steel UK, the former works’ long products executive returned to his old stomping ground to deliver the keynote speech at Lincolnshire Iron and Steel Institute’s annual dinner. 

Now overseeing the former Caparo Merchant Bar in Scunthorpe, with it being acquired in 2007 as part of the portfolio, he said: “Success and survival is about ability to adapt to change. Theropods – meat-eating dinosaurs – survived because they adapted to change and evolved to be birds. Cockroaches as well survived but I would rather aspire to be a bird. Steel has been doing this. Globally steel is incredible.”

Highlighting the first reference to steel by Greek historian Herodutus in 7th Century BC - a bowl inlaid with steel - Mr Louwrens said: “Fast forward a few thousand years and British inventor Henry Bessemer created a way to mass produce steel in the mid-1850s. Now more than 75 per cent of the grades of steel in use today had not been invented 20 years ago. New steels make applications 40 per cent lighter and stronger – reducing the environmental footprint.

“The threat that aluminium will take over in cars has not happened due to innovation. Additive manufacturing and 3D printing are game-changers.”

Top table, left to right, Gerald Reichmann, chief financial officer and deputy chief executive at British Steel; Kishor Tailor, chief executive of Humber Local Enterprise Partnership; Grahame Wallace, presidet of LISI, Nic Dakin, Scunthorpe MP, Cornelius Louwrens, Grace Skelton, sneior policy adviser at UK Steel and comedian Andrew Ryan. 

Reflecting on the astounding growth in the past decade, with more than 1.8 billion tonnes made in 2018 compared to 1.3 billion in 2007 - almost half from China – Mr Louwrens told The Baths Hall audience: “Everything is made from steel or with steel but, for sure, more change is coming. 

“Driverless cars - carbon fibre, aluminium, plastics and glass, etc... Slowing Chinese demand. Could India be the next China?”

Drilling down into the growth in the past decade, he told how Central and South America was up 10 per cent, the Middle East up 31 per cent, non-EU Europe up 33 per cent, Africa up 62 per cent and China leading the way at 85 per cent.

The EU 28 (including the UK) is down 16 per cent. 

“UK crude steel production has halved in this same period,” he reflected. “Steel demand in the UK went from 14 million tonnes to below 11 million tonnes. So, what is going on? Why are we not following the global trend in steel?

“Environmental laws; reactions of countries to protect against imports; electricity cost – double those of France; high business rates; higher labour cost; auto industry impacts – just in the last year UK auto demand fell 9.1 per cent and Brexit uncertainty.

“When we look at things that we don’t like and want to change, categories cannot be changed – we have to accept and adapt - the birds and cockroaches. We cannot change it but we can influence and get things changing -such as energy costs and business rates.

“If it is within your control, change it – get it done! Let’s make sure we are part of the solution, not the problem. Are we changing fast enough?”

LISI(Lincolnshire Iron and Steel Institute) Annual Dinner

Lifting the mood, he added: “There are some positive signs. A shift is occurring with domestic steel consumption; in last year, for UK made, we are up +3.3 per cent, while imports are down 5.1 per cent. Unemployment dropped to a stable 40 year low of 4 per cent.

“We’re not sure what Brexit effects are going to be on this – watching Nissan, Honda, etc."

As reported, Honda is pulling out of the UK, with Nissan switching production out on some vehicles, with Toyota and BMW also issuing warnings should a no-deal outcome to leaving the EU emerge. 

"The landscape of steelmaking in the UK is also changing," Mr Louwrens continued. "Tata is shrinking, and you have new players like British Steel and Liberty appearing and expanding.

“In the end, success is all about the people. Our attitude and willingness and ability to change and innovate.

“Recognise that everything from the past is not bad; some things, however, must be changed – otherwise it is insanity. Be happy and be strong; it won’t be easy but it will be worthwhile.”

Part of the Gupta Family Group, led by chairman Sanjeey Gupta, 40 years ago Liberty was a bicycle wheel manufacturer. 

The group has evolved to include steel, aluminium, mines, engineering, power, banks, and trading. It is now the UK’s fifth largest private land owner – highly diversified. 

It bought Caparo Merchant Bar in 2017. It followed the purchase of two plate mills in Scotland and a speciality steel business in Rotherham, from Tata Steel.

Mr Louwrens said: “It has been an incredible journey, in the past four years it has gone from a few hundred employees to 30,000. It is the only UK producer of some things – aluminium, steel plate etc.

“It is also the largest recycler of steel in UK and Australia. Every eight seconds a car is produced in the UK containing a Liberty component  Every three seconds a plane takes off with Liberty Steel in the undercarriage.

“We supply steel for everything from drill bits in remote arctic drilling stations to safety components in a family SUV. High performance camshafts in Nascar and Formula One cars, landing gear and engine shafts in Rolls Royce and Boeing aircraft.”

Additive manufacturing and 3D printing, have been added, with Liberty also developing a vacuum atomiser to produce steel and special alloy metal powders, in a move backed by investment from Tees Valley Combined Authority.

“Our over-arching vision is known as the Greensteel Strategy,” he said. “We recycle scrap using renewable energy producing metal products in facilities close to OEM plants. Our aim is to produce five million tonnes of steel in the UK. 

“Liberty has invested in plants in the UK, switching previously mothballed assets back on – employing now more than 3,000.”

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