When Acme Steel decided in the early 90s to spend $400 million turning a Riverdale cornfield into “a continuous thin slab caster/hot strip mill complex,” Archie Lieberman saw a photo opportunity. He persuaded Chuck Nekvasil, Acme’s director of investor and public relations, to hire him to document the construction. “My main point was to show the bravery and the skill that went into building the plant,” says Lieberman, who’d worked with Nekvasil photographing other steel mills but is probably best known for his book Farm Boy. He traveled from his home near Galena to visit the site every week from 1994 to 1996. “Archie fell in love with the project,” says Nekvasil. “He became an Acme person. When employees saw Archie in the plant they’d wave to him.”
As Tom Andreoli explained in Crain’s Chicago Business, the new plant was the first to blend “the decades-old process for making high-quality liquid steel from raw materials used by integrated steelmakers…with the exacting finishing techniques pioneered by upstart mini-mills.” It once took Acme workers ten days to convert a giant ladle of liquid steel into a thin sheet–now they could do it in 90 minutes.
Industry analysts and company executives alike expected this increase in efficiency to benefit both Acme and its customers, including makers of TV picture tubes, fine cutlery, medical equipment, and hand tools. But it didn’t work out that way. Acme’s cost of production came down, but the price of steel came down more.
After the mill started up in October 1996, the company suffered seven straight quarterly losses. The 1998 Asian economic crash was the final blow, drastically reducing the prices Acme’s overseas competitors could charge. That fall the company, like many other steelmakers, entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In September 2000 it received a guarantee for $100 million in financing from the federal Emergency Steel Loan Guarantee Board.
The new mill ran at 89 percent capacity during 2000, but many of the products it turned out were selling at their lowest prices in 20 years. Acme sold $349 million worth of steel in 2000–and lost $24 million in the process. “The plant is state-of-the-art,” a company official said last summer. “Someone will operate it in some form.” But the losses continued through 2001, and no buyer could be found. In October it was shut down.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Archie Lieberman.