James Dennin, Kapitall: The New York Times published a profile this week about Wolfgang Eder, a former litigator-turned CEO who runs a mid-size Austrian steel company. Despite being relatively small for a commodities manufacturer – its market cap is a little over $7 billion, and despite being something of a mouthful – Voestalpine AG (VIE:VOE) might be a stock worth looking at more closely.
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That's because the modestly-compensated CEO has turned around the company as well as the local community, at a time when many steel manufacturers are struggling to turn a profit. This is especially true of European manufacturers, where a stalled economic climate at home, coupled with increasing competition from Chinese and Turkish developers have made doing business even more difficult than it already was. Though it is manufactured rather than mined, steel is still viewed by most investors as a raw commodity - meaning that the companies which manufacture them are relatively limited in changes they can make to their company if the price of steel goes down. Being completely dependent on the whims of the market is not an easy place to be if you're expected to raise returns year-in, year-out. But Eder is trying to change that.
His goal has been to refashion his steel from something people view as simply a raw-good, into a cutting-edge technology that people will see as a way to help them grow their business. It seems like a tall order for a material that was popularized in the late 1850s. However he's had a lot of luck, boosting revenues for his own company by almost 60%. What's the secret to his success? By keeping his company from becoming too big.By keeping the company small, Voestalpine has been able to maintain focus. This helps on the research-and-development end, Eder has tripled the budget over the last three years, but it also helps the company get better at targeting the right buyers. With steel, that can make a huge difference. This is because while the most common steel parts are relatively cheap ($2-300 per ton), certain kinds of special parts, such as those required by luxury auto-manufacturers, can be much more expensive. By focusing intently on this section of the market, and bolstering their innovation, Voestalpine has been able to boost profits while many giants of the industry, such as Arcelor Mittal (MT) have been struggling. Will smaller commodities manufacturers become the norm? Use the interactive list below to being your own analysis.