The CEO of Cleveland Cliffs has made one of the boldest statements yet on the resurgence of the taconite industry on Minnesota’s Iron Range.
Lourenco Goncalves — whose company runs Hibbing Taconite, United Taconite and Northshore Mining in Minnesota — said demand for iron ore and a rising price for the mineral has resulted in second-quarter profits quadrupling year over year. He said he expects to see the same results into next year.
“Going forward, we expect 2019 to be a continuation of a great 2018, based on the renewed strength of American manufacturing, the multiyear positive impact of the tax reform implemented in 2018 in the United States, and our strong position as the supplier of iron ore pellets within the Great Lakes region,” he said in a statement.
The strong results, announced Friday, follow four painful years of restructuring — which included idling plants and laying off hundreds and the divestiture of coal and other noncore assets in an effort to focus on U.S. iron ore operations, mainly in Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio.
“With the announced sale of the Asia Pacific iron ore segment, we have now completed our multiyear transformation back to our roots as a supplier of high-grade iron units to the Great Lakes steel industry,” Goncalves said. “This transformation has enabled us to take full advantage of our unique position within the Great Lakes steel market and, with that, the following quarters should be a continuation of this strong second quarter.”
Timothy Flanagan, Cliffs chief financial officer, told analysts during a conference call it was “our best quarterly results since 2014.” The sale of the Asia division has changed the face of the company, he said.
Second-quarter revenue leapt 52 percent to $714 million from the same period a year ago. Meanwhile, profits increased to $165 million for April, May and June. The surge in profits came despite the inclusion of a $64 million loss tied to Cliff’s discontinued Asia Pacific iron ore operations.
For the first six months of the year, Cliffs net income was $81 million, up from the $300,000 reported for the same period in 2017.
Goncalves said that with warmer weather expected for the second half of the year, “we expect to generate in 2018 a level of free cash flow that we have not seen in years.”
Cliffs runs the ore mining and iron pelletizing operations at Hibbing Taconite in Hibbing, United Taconite in Forbes/Eveleth, and Northshore Mining in Babbitt/Silver Bay.
It has started to invest more in its Minnesota operations again.
This spring, Cliffs started expanding its United Taconite mine in Eveleth. In December, Cliffs bought or leased 3,768 acres of iron ore reserves in Itasca County west of Nashwauk, Minn.
The land work follows an investment in processing. In May 2017, United Taconite started production at its new $75 million Mustang “superflux” pellet plant in Forbes, Minn.
Separately, Cliffs had expressed an interest in the bankrupt and half-built taconite facility in Nashwauk that was known by the name Essar Steel Minnesota.
However, the investment group Chippewa Capital Partners that is led by Virginia businessman Tom Clarke, successfully bought the Essar property out of bankruptcy in December 2017.
Earlier this month, the state awarded Chippewa the mineral lease rights to the Nashwauk property.
Cliffs and Chippewa are battling in court over various aspects regarding the Nashwauk mining project, which once complete, is expected to produce about 7 million tons of iron ore annually.
A bankruptcy judge is expected to render a decision about the legal nature of several property sales and lease rights later this year.