At first glance, Norm Maero of Nucor Steel has almost nothing in common with José Colmenares of Southwest Airlines. A determined chain-smoker, the grizzled, gray-bearded Maero prowls a busy construction site, wearing a green plastic hard hart and muttering orders and sardonic asides into a walkie-talkie. But just like Colmenares, Maero spends his time looking for people with the “right stuff” — in this case, the ambition and intensity to make steel the Nucor way.
Maero oversees the construction of all of Nucor’s mills. His current assignment is to complete a $500 million facility outside Charleston, South Carolina. The job involves about 1,400 construction workers hired by 20 contractors, all of them accountable to Maero. Building a mill like this is a job of staggering complexity. And in nearly 17 years with Nucor, Maero has put up eight of them — more, he reckons, than anyone else in the world.
On a sunny afternoon, Maero pulls over his pickup truck to joke with three young men doing some detail work on a building at the site. He asks if any of them had worked on a recently completed project for a different company. “Who, us?” they respond with mock innocence. As he drives away Maero seems pleased. “They’re doing good,” he nods. “I know which crews show up and which don’t.”
Maero keeps tabs on the mood, competence, and diligence of his people for two reasons. The first is to bring the mill in on time and close to budget. The second is to see which construction workers might make good steelworkers. It turns out that the best carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and crane operators will get offers to work in the mill they’re building.
Rodney Mott, the Charleston mill’s vice president and general manager, says hiring construction workers was a necessity in Nucor’s early days. The company wanted to avoid recruiting experienced steelworkers who had picked up bad habits working for U.S. Steel or Bethlehem. Over the years, necessity became a methodology. Construction workers remain one of the company’s most reliable sources of talent.
That’s critical for Nucor (1995 revenues: $3.5 billion) , an operation where sharp minds are more important than big muscles. Nucor’s culture is highly entrepreneurial, extremely performance-oriented, unapologetically tough — closer to Silicon Valley than to the Rust Belt. In other words, it’s not for everybody. Which is precisely why the company works so hard to find the right people.
“We ask our people to treat this like it’s their own business,” says James Coblin, Nucor’s general manager of personnel services. “It’s like, ‘Here’s your McDonald’s franchise, now go to it.'” Coblin says the company’s team-based culture and pay-for-performance ethos creates an incentive for workers to do their jobs more productively — and to push laggards who hold back. “The only reason to work here,” he says, “is to try to get rich. Money is important to our people.”
Coblin says he’s not looking for particular skills. (“We can teach ’em to make steel.”) He’s looking for a mind-set. Nucor workers must be able to talk frankly with each other and perform without lots of heavy supervision. They also need empathy, the capacity to understand what someone else is going through when things go wrong and tempers flare. Like Southwest, Nucor uses written tests and in-depth interviews to evaluate job candidates. It also relies on the expertise of industrial psychologists, who frequently visit the company’s plants to screen prospects and evaluate employees.
But the “construction test” remains an especially revealing technique. Recently, Nucor set aside a Saturday on which it would accept job applications from only construction workers for positions in the Charleston mill. Of the 1,400 men and women building the mill, 800 applied to work in it. Nucor expects to select about 80.