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Reading the Future: Steel (40 Years of Arkansas Business)

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a special magazine celebrating 40 years of Arkansas Business. The full magazine is available here.

Patrick Schueck says he could go on for an hour about the future of the Arkansas steel industry. But on a hectic Friday morning, David Stickler had only five minutes to sum up his thoughts.

Still, both executives said basically the same thing, envisioning a vibrant short- and long-term future in steel for Arkansas, particularly in Mississippi County.

Schueck’s Lexicon Inc. has been a major player there since Nucor started building its first Arkansas plant, Nucor-Yamato, in Blytheville 40 years ago. Osceola, about 15 miles south, is where Stickler built the $1.3 billion Big River Steel plant and is now building Hybar, an advanced and sustainable $700 million rebar plant due to start production in 2025.

“As far as steel manufacturing goes, I see those markets continuing to expand in the short term, and I see the finish-out coming at Big River Steel 2,” said Schueck, Lexicon’s CEO. “I believe Nippon Steel [of Tokyo] will ultimately be successful in buying U.S. Steel, and ultimately believe they’ll continue down the same path that Big River was on.”

U.S. Steel fully acquired Big River Steel in 2021; its agreement to be bought by Nippon is under review.

“I expect Nucor to continue its capital investments for the betterment of Nucor-Yamato and Nucor Steel Arkansas,” Schueck said, referring to the first two big steel mills in Mississippi County, completed by Nucor Corp. of Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1987 and 1992. Many expansions followed. “I expect great things from David Stickler and Hybar, and I think there are other things that will come in the long term; I believe you’re going to see a lot of ancillary businesses come in that neck of the woods.”

<p>David Stickler, CEO of Highbar LLC</p>
David Stickler

Stickler, formerly CEO of Big River, said if he wasn’t bullish on the steel industry in Arkansas, he wouldn’t be investing $700 million in another Osceola plant.

“We’re building a technologically advanced, environmentally sustainable rebar mill,” Stickler said.  “I’ve been doing this for 30 years all across the country and overseas, and the mills that have located in northeast Arkansas over the last nine years — Big River, Big River 2 and Hybar — are like aircraft carriers. All around them are the support ships,” companies that finish out the steel. “I’ve seen it time and time again, because people want to receive their steel with basically zero transportation costs. Those customers take the steel and further process it or fabricate it.”

Schueck, Stickler and Mississippi County economic developer Clif Chitwood also feel good about steel’s long-term prospects to improve lives in an economically depressed corner of the state.

“Over the next 20 years northeast Arkansas will be the home of the finest steelmaking assets in North America,” Stickler said. “These are some of the most environmentally sustainable, most labor efficient, most automated steel mills in the world. And once you build a mill, it lasts for 40 years.”

Chitwood said Mississippi County has prospects for downstream steel companies, “for instance stamping plants or metal fabricators to buy significant amounts of steel from Nucor or U.S. Steel, and turn it into something else.” He also said an effort to persuade steelworkers to live in the county by offering housing incentives is bearing fruit. The Work Here Live Here initiative pays 10% of the purchase price for homes bought by manufacturing workers.

“We just essentially finished our first year, and I think we had about 1,600 homes built,” said Chitwood, who considers it a “pretty good start.”

Stickler said continued interest in the northeast Arkansas steel industry heartens him. “It’s changing so many people’s lives up here in one of the poorest parts of the state of Arkansas.”

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