Your 1-Stop Steel Supply Shop

We may retain nostalgia for the small neighborhood stores that once dominated the American business landscape, but it's hard to argue with the convenience of our megastores and supermarkets.

Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE: CLF  ) moved one step closer Monday to becoming a one-stop shop for the steel industry by prevailing over a competing bid for Freewest Resources Canada. Cliffs' sweetened offer of one loonie ($0.94) per share, representing a 217% premium over the pre-announcement price, trounced a competing bid by junior explorer Noront Resources.

At play is a significant discovery of chromite, which is used to make a ferrochrome alloy that imparts increased hardness to steel while improving resistance to chemical corrosion. Specifically, at its 100% owned McFaulds property in Ontario, Freewest has uncovered "exceptional widths of high-quality chromite believed to be of world-class caliber." Having unearthed some promising chromite discoveries of its own in the same area, Noront Resources sought to consolidate the scale of its chromite-rich acreage in the McFaulds Lake area to fashion itself into a one-stop chromite shop.

The deal fits well with Cliffs' strategy to "achieve scale in the mining industry" as a steel supply specialist. Just as ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) moved a step closer to becoming a one-stop energy shop this week, and not unlike the full range of coal mining equipment offered by Bucyrus (Nasdaq: BUCY  ) after adding an underground unit in 2007, Cliffs Natural Resources is positioning itself as an ultraconvenient source for steelmakers. Already the leading U.S. iron ore pellet producer, the company was busy building out its coking coal capacity until it scrapped a deal to acquire coal miner Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE: ANR  ) in 2008.

Just as Warren Buffett made his bold move for railroad Burlington Northern Santa Fe (NYSE: BNI  ) in advance of a recovery in freight volumes, Cliffs Natural Resources is gazing past today's troubling softness in steel demand, and even the unsettling outlooks as seen through the eyes of Nucor (NYSE: NUE  ) and Steel Dynamics (Nasdaq: STLD  ) . With strategic moves into additional steelmaking components, like this $228 million bid for Freewest's chromite, Cliffs Natural Resources seeks to be in an optimal position for an eventual recovery in steel demand. This Fool will await some confirmation of recovery in the domestic industrial base before following suit, but when that spark of renewed demand does finally ignite, I see Cliffs Natural Resources forming a solid choice for exposure to this embattled industry.

Do you have a real feel for steel? Clear improvement from the worst levels to date is a welcome sight, but this Fool cautions against premature celebration. To keep track of the complex factors affecting domestic industries, join the free Motley Fool CAPS community and ask 145,000-plus fellow investors what their research suggests.

Fool contributor Christopher Barker is the Nat King of Coal and the wild boar of iron ore. He can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly in the Motley Fool CAPS community under the user name TMFSinchiruna. He tweets. He owns no shares of any companies mentioned. The Motley Fool has a stainless disclosure policy.


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