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F. Kenneth Iverson, 76; Built Nucor Into No. 2 Steelmaker

April 20, 2002|From Times Wire Services

F. Kenneth Iverson, who turned a failing nuclear instruments company into a firm that helped redefine the workings of the U.S. steel industry, has died. He was 76.

Iverson died Sunday in Charlotte, N.C., of complications from emphysema and heart trouble.

In the mid-1960s, Iverson became president of the Nuclear Corp. of America, a company based in Phoenix that was facing bankruptcy.

"It was by default that I took over," Iverson told a reporter some years ago. "Everyone else was too afraid to be at the helm of a sinking ship."

Iverson starting rebuilding the company around the Vulcraft steel division. He sold or shuttered half the company's businesses and moved the firm to Charlotte.

He implemented cutbacks that reduced the corporate staff to about 50, making it one of the smallest of a Fortune 500 company, and dumped corporate perks such as company cars.

The headquarters itself was part of a suburban Charlotte office park. Iverson's office in the five-story nondescript building overlooked a parking lot.

He often joked that the executive dining room was the delicatessen across the street from the office. But joking aside, that's where Iverson held his lunch meetings. When he visited company mills, Iverson flew economy class and rented a car.

Iverson said he got his ideas for Nucor--"a company without walls"--from his first job after graduate school. He went to work at Vulcraft, a maker of steel joists used in construction, as general manager of a plant in South Carolina.

"There were segregated high schools, segregated Christmas parties, segregated bathrooms," Iverson told a reporter for Bloomberg News some years ago. "The first thing I did was to tear down the bathroom walls."

In refocusing Nuclear Corp.--the name was changed to Nucor in 1972--Iverson decided to manufacture steel entirely in relatively small factories using recycled steel scrap. Such mini-mills, which make steel more cheaply and quickly, were copied by other steelmakers and now produce more than half of all steel made in the United States.

The technology helped build Nucor into the country's second-largest steelmaker. Iverson's incentive-based pay structure was credited with driving up wages and productivity. He chose managers with an entrepreneurial drive and gave them tremendous autonomy, as long as they met financial expectations and treated workers with respect.

Nucor now has 8,400 employees and produced earnings last year of more than $100 million. Sales last year topped $4.1 billion.

Born in Downers Grove, Ill., Iverson attended Northwestern University before serving in the Navy during World War II. After the war, he finished his course work in aeronautical engineering. He later earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue.

The first President Bush awarded him the National Medal of Technology in 1991. Iverson stepped down as Nucor's chief executive in 1996 and resigned as chairman in 1998.

He is survived by his wife, Martha, a daughter and a son.

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