Vampire Capitalism? Please
By Kimberley A. Strassel @ WSJ (May 17, 2012)
To hear the Obama campaign, this is a tale of greed: GST was a healthy, happy, quality steelmaker until Bain plundered its worth and stripped its 750 workers of their due. “It was like a vampire,” laments one former employee in the ad. “They came in and sucked the life out of us.”
GST is a tragic tale, though in a different way. The real story of GST is that of a private-equity firm trying to spark some life into a uncompetitive, over-unionized industry. Bain’s crime here—if that’s what you call it—was giving a dying steel plant an unexpected eight-year lease on life.
When Bain bought the Kansas City mill in 1993, steel was a scene of carnage. Global players were pouring out cheap products, and America’s high-cost steel plants couldn’t compete. The industry had lost 200,000 jobs in preceding years. In 1992 alone, the six largest U.S. steel mills had lost a combined $3 billion. Armco, the company Bain would buy the plant from, would lose $641 million in 1993.
The Kansas City plant was itself dying. At its 1970 height it employed 4,500; by the late 1980s it was down to 1,000. A year before acquisition, Armco had laid off another 75. Its equipment was old; it faced fierce competition at home and abroad.
B.C. Huselton, a vice president of the business at the time, tells me that in 1990 the Armco CEO held a meeting. “He told us, ‘Look, we either try to sell it, or we’ve got to shut it down.'” Armco had shut down another Kansas City facility, Union Wire Rope, only a few years before.
The Kansas City plant had two product lines—high-carbon rods and grinding media (used in mining)—that it felt could give it a competitive edge. But it needed investment, and Armco was tapped out. Bain nonetheless saw some potential and in 1993 joined other investors to acquire it for $80 million. Management renamed it GS Technologies (which would become part of a larger GS Industries) and poured an additional $100 million into modernization.
And then came the tsunami. The late 1990s saw a new outpouring of cheap steel from elsewhere around the globe. The Asian financial crisis walloped the mining industry, cutting demand for GST products. The price of GST’s electricity and natural gas skyrocketed. The union dug in, refusing to make concessions. By April 1997, it was on strike, shooting bottle rockets at guards. Labor costs spiked, and by 1999 GSI was reporting $53 million in net losses.
In 2001 it would become one of 31 steel companies that went bankrupt from 1993 to 2003. (Mr. Romney left Bain in 1999.) The steel crash was the economic drama du jour, with Congress railing about “dumping.”
The Obama ad doesn’t note that the broader company, GS Industries, employed 3,500 and that the Kansas City plant (with 750 workers) was the only one shuttered. Other plants were bought and operate today. Nor does it mention Bain’s other steel investment in the early 1990s, in an Indiana start-up called Steel Dynamics. The firm touts innovative technology and a nonunion workforce. It today reports $6.3 billion in revenue—25 times what it claimed in its 1996 IPO—and employs 6,000.
A private-equity firm looking to quickly strip value from a company—to “suck” the life out of it—does not do so by investing $100 million in modernization and holding on for eight years, through bankruptcy. Bain has surely made its share of mistakes, and one may well have been trying to resuscitate a traditional steel firm in the grip of industry upheaval. The irony, says Mr. Huselton, is that this plant “wouldn’t even be in today’s news, if it hadn’t been the opportunity that came with Bain. Those jobs would have been gone in 1993.”
That’s a more revealing story—of the pressures of a global market, the dangers of an inflexible workforce, and the opportunities that come with private equity and risk-taking. It’s just not one Team Obama wants to tell.