If the Steel Dynamics story were made into a movie, Mark Millett wouldn’t be the charismatic central character.
No, the steel industry executive, who grew up about 200 miles southwest of London, would be the unassuming chap in a hard hat drinking a cup of tea.
And that’s fine with him.
Almost 20 years after helping launch Steel Dynamics Inc., Millett is at the helm of the local manufacturer as CEO, a position he assumed in January. He won the job after the retirement announcement of his larger-than-life co-founder, Keith Busse.
As Millett settles into his expanded role, he feels no need to seek the spotlight. Employees and steel industry insiders already know who he is, and that’s good enough for the CEO, who repeatedly postponed an interview for this article because he thought it would be exclusively about him rather than a look at the Fort Wayne-based company.
But it’s not so easy to fade into the background when you lead the Fortune 500 company with the highest 10-year annual growth percentage: 52.9 percent, as reported in the business magazine’s May 21 issue. Fortune ranked Steel Dynamics as fifth-largest steelmaker in the country, about one-third the size of industry leader Alcoa.
It remains to be seen how Millett, who began as the man in charge of SDI’s scrap melting and steel production, will make his mark on the broader company. Although Steel Dynamics’ stock price has fallen about 8 percent since he took over, that change doesn’t tell the full story.
Like companies in most industries, SDI hit choppy waters during the recession that officially began in December 2007. In the past five years – 4 1/2 of them under Busse’s leadership – the company’s stock has fallen about 45 percent. Pulling back one more time for the even bigger picture, though, Steel Dynamics’ stock price has more than doubled since the company was founded.
Millett said he hasn’t deviated from the successful business strategy established by Busse, who remains company chairman. He describes the company’s transition as evolutionary, not revolutionary.
A hard-knock life
Millett was the youngest of three children in a family living in very humble circumstances in Plymouth, England.
His father, who was a prisoner of war for 3 1/2 years during World War II, worked on a shoe factory assembly line for 44 years. His mother helped support the family by pumping gas in a petrol station and ringing up groceries in a supermarket.
Millett doesn’t remember experiencing the typical sibling squabbles because his brother and sister were older: 14 and 12 years, respectively. Instead, he said, he was surrounded with a lot of love.
He saw how his parents met adversity head-on and adopted their work ethic. And even though they didn’t take many chances in their careers, the Milletts taught their son that sometimes you have to be willing to put everything on the line for what you believe.
He took a huge risk going to war when he didn’t have to, Millett said of his father.
The future CEO developed an ability to forge ahead, taking calculated risks without fearing the consequences.
My mother often said, Don’t worry about it. It will work out,’ he said.
Those words helped her son tackle his studies, which included a degree in metallurgy, and a major move across the Atlantic.
The course of Millett’s life changed when he met a pretty young American named Abby while attending the University of Surrey in England. She was spending her junior year in a study-abroad program. He came to New York to visit her after graduation and ended up staying, making her his wife.
Abby Millett remembers her husband during those years as a white-water kayaker with a gorgeous accent and love for adventure.
We liked challenging ourselves, both of us, she said.
Abby quit her job and they drove to Aspen, Colo., where they’d heard jobs were easy to find. He found work framing pictures, washing dishes and cooking. She worked as a hotel desk clerk then transitioned into a conference coordinator position.
On our days off, she said, we just skied and did what you do when you’re 22, 23 years old.
Unafraid of life
Mark Millett began working with Busse and Dick Teets in 1987 at Nucor, the second-largest U.S. steelmaker.
Together, they helped successfully launch Nucor’s steel minimill in Crawfordsville, a project that carried great risk and the potential for great reward because it relied on untested technology that revolutionized the industry.
Their exploits were documented by Richard Preston in a book titled American Steel: Hot Metal Men and the Resurrection of the Rust Belt.
But eventually, work at Nucor became routine, bordering on monotonous, Millett said.
Over beer, Busse proposed to his two colleagues that building a steel company from the ground up would shake up their lives in a good way.
I wanted to do it for the challenge and for the excitement, to be honest, Millett said. I’ve never really been fearful of life and life’s decisions.
Despite having three young children, including a 2-month-old, Abby Millett supported her husband’s bold leap.
I’ve always had faith in Mark and what he wanted to accomplish, she said, adding that Busse and Teets also seemed like solid bets. As it turned out, it was a good risk to take.
Millett’s modest upbringing has freed him to take some chances.
When you start out in life with no money, having little or no money is more than enough, he said.
SDI’s founders share the same values, vision and culture, which values employees, Millett said. They were all involved in forming SDI’s structure and policies.
I think the three of us all played critical roles, he said. Keith has been the principal architect of the company, and Dick and I have stayed under the radar.
If Millett had craved public recognition through the years, he wouldn’t have been happy to remain in Busse’s shadow. But, he said, that wasn’t an issue.
And Busse did cast quite a large shadow.
Carol Busse, Keith Busse’s wife of 23 years and ex-wife of 10, maintains a friendship with her former husband.
She described him as charismatic, driven, visionary and a perfectionist who is busier in semiretirement than when he was working full time.
He’s always got to be building something, she said.
In his new book, Entrepreneurial Nation: Why Manufacturing Is Still Key to America’s Future, author Ro Khanna devotes half of Chapter 2 to Steel Dynamics. The former deputy assistant secretary of commerce under President Obama writes glowingly about Busse.
In a phone interview, Khanna said SDI’s chairman and former CEO has an unparalleled vision for manufacturing.
Keith Busse is one of the most inspiring manufacturers that I’ve met in the United States, Khanna said. My hope is that he has imparted the company with the values and strategy that will allow the company to succeed going forward.
Despite devoting 12 pages of his book to Steel Dynamics, Khanna never named Millett and Teets, instead giving just the briefest mention to Busse having two partners.
The author said that was his choice, however, and didn’t reflect Busse’s attitude. The executive was always generous in his praise for his co-founders, Khanna said.
Millett ran the scrap melting and steelmaking parts of the business. Teets was in charge of finishing the steel – the operation that rolled steel sheets into coils. Busse ran the corporate office, looking at the big picture and wooing investors, analysts and media.
In a phone interview, Busse acknowledged that he and Millett have different management styles but said they share the same final goals.
I may be a little bit more gregarious, sometimes, than he is, Busse said, adding that he tends to be more spontaneous while Millett is more likely to mull over decisions before acting.
He likes to get all his ducks in a row, Busse said. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Despite having what would seem to be an inside track to the corner office, Millett went through what he described as a rigorous selection process that included Teets and job candidates from outside the company. Busse played a role in picking his successor.
Busse’s maverick persona has helped – and maybe hurt – the company in countless ways.
Millett said for sure Busse’s plus-sized personality might have made it easier for the founders to raise $380 million in startup money. But investors came on board because they trusted the men’s experience, skill and vision – not just their slick sales pitch, Millett said.
A lot of our success has been driven by the (three-person) team, he said, adding that the founders are still very good friends and business partners.
Under his leadership, Millett said, Steel Dynamics will remain a growth company, despite the economic battering it’s weathered in recent years.
But its leaders won’t push growth solely for growth’s sake.
The company’s financial condition, he said, continues to be very strong.
Theresa Wagler, SDI’s chief financial officer, provided examples. The company’s profit margins are better than those of other U.S. steelmakers, she said.
Steel Dynamics has more than $1.5 billion available in cash and a line of credit. And the manufacturer recently restructured some debt to reduce its interest rate and extend the period of time it has to repay the loan, she said.
We’ve built a lot of credibility by underpromising and overdelivering, Wagler said.
That strategy, she said, continues under Millett’s leadership.