A global empire bolted together

Karina Robinson on Lakshmi Mittal's rise to become a world leader of steel
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The Independent Online
STEEL tycoon Lakshmi Mittal was seated to the right of a top minister at a dinner hosted by the Mexican government during the high- powered World Economic Forum in Davos four years ago.

The seating was no accident. The Mexican government was desperate for foreign currency after the peso collapsed, and Ispat Mexicana, Mittal's Mexican steel subsidiary, was one of its biggest foreign exchange earners.

But the Indian-born entrepreneur with steel interests across the globe no longer needs public dinners to meet heads of state. He now has meetings with people like Ernesto Zedillo, president of Mexico, in private.

Mittal's company, Ispat International, last week became the world's seventh-largest steel maker by taking over Inland Steel of the US for $1.43bn (pounds 860m) - "a classic Mittal move," said one admiring analyst. Ispat's operations spread to Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, Germany, Ireland and Mexico. The US acquisition completes the jigsaw.

Yet this is far from enough for chairman and chief executive Mittal, who only floated Ispat's shares in New York and Amsterdam late last year. Through his privately held LNM group, he still owns 80 per cent of Ispat, as well as steel companies in Indonesia and Kazakhstan, which makes him in effect the world's fourth-largest steel maker. "And why not the largest in 10 years?" he said in an interview. "Although then I'd be 57 years old..." Perhaps it will happen sooner than that.

Mittal and his father founded Ispat - the sanskrit word for steel - in 1976. In the 1980s he branched off on his own with a 65,000-ton mill in Indonesia and has not looked back. He is the only entrepreneur in steel who has built a growing business in a dinosaur industry.

"It is arguably the best steel company on the planet," said Jeremy Fletcher of Credit Suisse First Boston, which is advising Ispat on the Inland purchase. The last set of results show the pace of growth. In the 1997 financial year, net income rose by 16 per cent to $186m on sales up 18 per cent to $2.19bn.

The secret of Mittal's success lies in his managerial ability to turn round badly performing companies. He picks aging, money-losing plants, makes major investments in new facilities, boosts production and streamlines bottlenecks. Then he cuts the costs of raw materials and improves productivity. The Trinidad plant, for example, was losing $1m a day when he took it over. Within a year, it was profitable. The policy is backed by rigid targets for management, and Mittal is not afraid to change his managers if they do not perform.

A big part of the success story is Mittal's use of integrated mini-mills - small mills which are more efficient than traditional blast furnaces. Many of these employ the DRI method - direct reduced iron - to produce raw steel rather than relying on scrap metal. It is a cheaper way of producing steel, and Ispat is now the world's largest DRI producer as well as one of the lowest-cost producers of steel globally.

"His track record is impressive. The group is a fantastic operator of steel assets. They've got production out of plants which no one thought possible," said Neil Robson, a fund manager at Baring Asset Management.

In addition, the company takes a global approach to business, shipping steel to wherever prices are highest. Most steel groups only think regionally, say analysts.

Shares in Ispat, originally priced at $27 in September 1997, dropped as low as $17.25 before creeping back up to $26.25.

This does not worry Robson, who has a stake in the company. He says there are one-off reasons for the share price: "The valuation on coming to market wasn't cheap anyway, but also the Asian crisis hit."

Analysts see the shares rising as the company becomes better known due to its size, and as US steel analysts follow it because of the Inland purchase.

"We are not looking at major acquisitions now, but we are looking at smaller opportunities. If the right opportunity came along, though, we would consider listing more stock to pay for it," said Mittal. The company's debt-to-equity ratio is now about 35 per cent, up from 16 per cent at the end of 1997.

Mittal's Indian roots - he was born in Rajasthan and graduated from the prestigious St Xavier's College in Calcutta - have not prevented him heading the company from a London base. A few years ago he decided it would make sense for a global company to have its headquarters in London, and set up opposite the nightclub Annabel's in Berkeley Square. The UK's favourable tax treatment of non-resident foreigners probably also influenced this decision.

Mittal's constant travelling means he isn't a fixture on London's social scene, making only token appearances at events when he is in residence at his 12-bedroom home in Hampstead's millionaires' row, The Bishops Avenue.

His LNM Group Foundation makes annual donations of over $10m to charities, mostly in India and Kazakhstan. His son Aditya is director of finance and head of mergers and acquisitions at Ispat, while his 17-year-old daughter Vanisha is also earmarked to join the business.

The Asian crisis has pushed down the cost of steel assets in that region, but so far not by enough for the Ispat way of doing things. "I find their mindset is not yet ready for a change of control or new management. They're looking for partners who are willing to put money in without taking control," said Mittal.

His management style consists of allowing the chief executive of each company, everywhere from Mexico to Kazakhstan, to be "an entrepreneur". Each one "runs their company like a stand-alone business. However, as we are a global company we integrate that knowledge."

A few analysts have queried whether the Inland acquisition is a departure from the Ispat style of buying companies cheap. Inland produces high value-added goods, particularly products for the car industry. Mittal sees this linking up with his Mexican operations, which will send steel slabs to Inland to allow the US operation to exploit fully its hot-rolled steel capacity, currently underutilised.

But most analysts are keeping the faith. "Inland is one of the most atrociously managed steel companies," said one. "Mittal will turn it around and add 20 per cent to volume output."

Ispat is looking to save $100m on purchasing alone in the next three years. Taking advantage of synergies with its plants in Germany, Canada and Mexico means Inland's operating profit should increase by $100m a year, said Mittal.

It is doubtful Mittal will now have much time for his daily swims in the heated pool at his Hampstead home. But, for a man who confesses to taking only working holidays, maybe this doesn't matter much.