1929 - 1990
Willy Korf was born in 1929. At age 16, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, he studied at commercial college in Cologne before joining the family business in 1948.Following significant damage to the firm’s infrastructure during Allied bombing raids, Korf pivoted to move the company into transportation, with a shipping firm and an airline. A further shift came in 1953, when he began manufacturing steel reinforcement mesh and bar. By 1961, he had bought a welded wire mesh plant and started construction of his first rolling steel mill, Badische Stahlwerke (BSW). Completed in 1968, BSW was located in Kehl, West Germany, opposite Strasbourg on the banks of the River Rhine.
However, Korf soon encountered obstacles to his plans to grow the business, courtesy of the state steel companies that operated in a heavily subsidised cartel. He therefore chose to set up his own electric furnace works. The melt shop’s Demag continuous caster gave the plant an in-line reduction capability. Although Korf later abandoned this approach, it enabled the mill to manufacture billets of varying sizes from a single basic mould. For Korf, this innovation was just the beginning.
In 1969, he became the first European steel manufacturer to export the ‘mini-mill’ technology to the United States. He established the first of these with a $40m investment in Georgetown, South Carolina. The European-style plant at Georgetown Steel boasted three 60-ton electric furnaces, a continuous wire rod mill and two continuous casters, and was capable of producing half a million tons of output per year. Meanwhile, his European plants, including facilities in Hamburg and Montereau in France, grew to produce three million tons of steel annually by the time of Korf’s death.
A lifelong innovator, Korf partnered with Midland Ross Corp., Cleveland, to set up the first Midrex plant at Georgetown in the early 70s. The plant, which was financed by the North Carolina National Bank, was the first in the US to use alternative iron units with an electric arc furnace. Korf then expanded to establish a second Georgetown Steel mill at Beaumont, Texas, and by 1974 he had acquired the Midrex Corporation.
Korf has been described as a legend of the global steel business. Clyde Selig, retired CEO of CMC Steel Group, said of Korf: “He made friends easily and was an adept judge of talent.” Selig went on to note how the success of Korf’s company, BSW, was aided by the long-term partnership between Korf and engineer Gerhard Fuchs. Fuchs was a pioneer in electric furnace steel production, whose innovative designs gave Korf a tremendous competitive advantage. Such was BSW’s technical expertise, the company consulted to steelmakers worldwide and even offered training services, based on the apprenticeship scheme which it had developed in-house.
In 1990, Korf’s life was cut short when his private plane crashed into a mountainside near Innsbruck, Austria, during a return journey from Italy to Germany. He was just 61 years old.