The steel industry faces two major challenges. The first is increased volatility in both demand and raw-material prices. Compounding these factors is the shift of consumption and production from traditional to emerging markets.
This volatility is underpinned by the movement away from traditional yearly benchmark contracts toward quarterly, or even shorter-term, pricing. Experience from other industries that have undergone this transition leads us to believe that this trend is irreversible unless there is an unexpected downturn in China. This means that companies will have to develop new skills in market intelligence and trading.
At the same time, the shift in production and consumption to developing markets leaves limited growth options for companies in traditional markets. When a business environment changes in this manner, so too do the assumptions governing company strategy.
This report looks at the ways in which the steel industry can respond to these changes. Produced by The Boston Consulting Group’s Industrial Goods practice, it follows two earlier BCG publications.1 Notes: 1 See Beyond the Boom: The Outlook for Global Steel, BCG report, February 2007, and Sustainable Steelmaking: Meeting Today’s Challenges, Forging Tomorrow’s Solutions, BCG White Paper, July 2009. It argues that it is possible for established companies to survive and prosper in the current environment. But to do so, they need to find value-generating niches. Companies can do this if they adopt an adaptive strategy that enables them to anticipate and react to changes in markets characterized by constant flux rather than stability. They can accomplish this through high levels of end-to-end value-chain flexibility and R&D. How will this work?
In the first place, flexibility will have to operate across the entire supply chain. Companies need to look at how they procure raw materials, as well as the respective value-in-use in the production process. They must make sure that products meet customer requirements and can be sold to the market.
Flexibility measures will extend to an increasing emphasis on capacity management. Adjustment of blast furnace, rolling-mill, and downstream processing capacity and utilization can be used not only to achieve higher flexibility but also to realize cost savings. The recent downturn saw steel companies “learning” to handle lower blast-furnace utilization, sometimes as low as 30 percent, which is much lower than had been considered feasible.
In addition to these short- and medium-term changes, companies need to develop longer-term strategies that will ingrain flexibility in their culture in the same way that concepts of efficiency are ingrained.
None of this is likely to happen overnight, but companies that ask themselves the right questions and apply the answers sensibly over time will rise steadily toward market leadership. The same applies to the second strand in adaptive strategy—focused innovation. The need for innovation is driven by an environment in which many companies tend to become niche or multiniche operators. In a highly fragmented industry, most companies are, for practical purposes, niche operators relying either on a geographic advantage of proximity to customers or specialist products that can be sold on global markets. This has implications for the place of innovation in company strategy.
Answering such questions helps generate a coherent and effective strategy for focused innovation. Companies need to decide whether innovations are intended primarily to generate profit or growth, and they need to determine for each product whether they aim to be a first mover or a follower.
In this report, we provide fundamental questions and a step-by-step framework outlining how companies can progress toward a fully adaptive strategy.
First and foremost, we would like to thank the steel companies, research institutions, and universities that participated in our research and openly shared their opinions. In addition, we would like to thank our colleagues at The Boston Consulting Group who contributed to this publication, including Martin Fink, Hiltrud Gehrmann, Thomas Geike, Ingo Mergelkamp, Marius Rosenberg, and Alex Xie.