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I won't beat around the bush: Nucor (NYSE: NUE ) CEO Dan DiMicco is something of a hero to me. The leadership he has provided for his company during this protracted economic downturn -- typified by the company's struggle to weather the worst of the storm without resorting to widespread layoffs as its competitors swiftly did -- constitutes an iconic achievement that warrants recognition.
DiMicco led his company through persistent market headwinds to a nearly six-fold increase in net profit during 2011, delivering earnings of $2.45 per share for 2011 compared with just $0.42 in 2010. Net sales soared 26% to $20 billion, reflecting an improved pricing environment for the modest 5% increase in tonnage shipped to outside customers. Nucor enters 2012 with a steel-clad balance sheet that boasts $1.2 billion in cash and equivalents, nearly $1.4 billion in short-term investments, and ample credit with a $1.5 billion revolving credit facility. Sharing its position of relative strength with shareholders, Nucor raised its dividend for the 39th consecutive year!
The fourth-quarter result of $0.43 per share sailed past the company's guidance for $0.22-$0.27. It appears the acute margin compression that assailed steelmakers earlier in the quarter reversed course for a final sprint to the finish in December. DiMicco adds: "The declining trend in steel margins appears to have bottomed overall as December was our most profitable month in the fourth quarter." Scrap-metal producer Schnitzer Steel's (Nasdaq: SCHN ) fiscal first quarter ended Nov. 30, which may account for why Schnitzer's anemic earnings did not reflect the sort of margin improvement that Nucor subsequently observed. Steel Dynamics (Nasdaq: STLD ) , for its part, converted organic sales growth of 20% during 2011 into a 98% boost to the bottom line. Steel Dynamics CEO Mark Millett added optimistically: "We believe there is the possibility for more stability to develop in 2012 as improvements continue in certain market sectors, such as energy, agriculture, automotive, transportation and construction equipment."
In his familiar straight-talking manner, Nucor's DiMicco was a little more circumspect regarding the market outlook for the year ahead: "In 2012, we expect to see continued growth in sales and earnings for Nucor, albeit in a slow growth in this economy burdened by a challenging regulatory and overall business environment. Uncertainties in Europe's financial sector will weigh on both global and U.S. growth in 2012."
While I consider DiMicco a proven and highly effective leader of Nucor, it is perhaps the leadership he provides for his country that I find most intriguing. DiMicco has been sharing his vision for a more prosperous future for America to anyone who will listen, and I consider his latest call to action from the company's recent conference call an important message for investors and concerned citizens alike to consider:
…a move back to creating, making, and building things as the major driver of our economy's growth and the growth of the American middle class is long overdue. The idea that a service-dominated economy alone could provide substantial wealth creation is a hugely failed business model, as proven over and over again in the last 20 years. It has given us ill-advised government policies and financial sector business practices that have created one economic bubble after another; culminating with the great financial collapse and panic of 2008 that is still with us today. U.S.-based manufacturing holds the key to reinvigorated growth for our country in the years and decades to come. The time is right, the opportunity is here for us to seize, and the path forward is clear. And the naysayers should go back into their closets. New opportunities in energy, infrastructure and rebuilding our infrastructure, revitalizing our manufacturing sector, are shouting out to us as the path forward for future generations of Americans to have the opportunity to earn a rising standard of living.
This is the path that will create the 30 million net jobs we need over the next five to seven years, while rebuilding our economy, our tax base, our middle class, and our global competitiveness. We at Nucor, working together with our partners in the domestic and multi-national manufacturing community, are applying our can-do attitude management level to shine a bright light on this exciting path forward.
DiMicco's positive message of all that can be accomplished to build a better economic future for the United States resonates with me in a powerful way. My current investment focus on the shares of quality gold and silver producers is in some ways a reflection of my own despair toward the inefficacy of prevailing economic and monetary policy, along with the extraordinarily daunting challenges presented by a deep well of fundamental missteps. Although I have no intention of parting with my coveted shares of Goldcorp and Silver Wheaton -- because I can identify no safer havens from the storm that continues to howl -- DiMicco reminds this Fool to retain some hope for a more rational and sustainable path forward for this beleaguered U.S. economy.