The former naval warfare officer and self-proclaimed 'policy
guy’ sizes up his legacy in a one-on-one
discussion with Jo Isenberg-O’Loughlin.
As a boy, all Thomas J "Tom" Gibson ever wanted to do "was
fly an airplane and be an astronaut," the president and CEO of
the Washington DC-based American Iron and Steel Institute
(AISI) recalled recently, sharing early dreams of what was to
become a four-decade-long professional career he will bring to
a close in the fall of this year.
"The flying part didn’t work out," says Gibson,
63, who announced his intention to retire in early March after
serving as the AISI’s top executive for 12 years.
"My eyes went bad in my senior year in high school," he
explains. "My left eye was tested at 20/30. And, in those days,
that was disqualifying for aviation."
A graduate of the US Naval Academy, Gibson holds a degree in
Naval Architecture, a subject he describes as "akin to
mechanical engineering. It deals with structure, propulsion,
auxiliary systems and all that," he explains. "So, it can
entail designing anything from a sailboat to an aircraft
carrier and everything in between."
Still very much a designer, architect and builder, Gibson
– along with his colleagues at the AISI – is
busy these days framing policies articulating the US steel
industry’s position on issues ranging from global
trade, infrastructure, and currency manipulation to climate
change and CAFÉ standards. And it is no accident that is
exactly what he was hired to do by the Institute a dozen years
"What the AISI was looking for in 2008 was someone who could
build their capability and credibility," he says. And by all
accounts, Gibson, who by then had served two tours at sea (one
as a guided-missile officer on a cruiser, the other as an
executive officer of a mine sweeper) and various high-level
management positions in both industry and government, fit the
"Ask a headhunter 'What’s
Tom’s reputation?’ and
he’ll tell you Tom is a policy guy," Gibson, who
headed a policy office at the US Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) prior to joining the AISI, notes. "I am a policy
Gibson joined the AISI in what in retrospect can be
described as mid-recession. "The day I was hired, capacity
utilization was over 90%," he recalls. "Things were great
although the commercial guys would probably tell you they were
starting to see some softness over the summer.
"I started September 1, 2008 – US Steel was about
to hit its peak stock price," he recalls. "Then, by the end of
the month, the world had changed."
In an ironic twist in timing, Gibson’s career
at the AISI is marked at its beginning and end by a pair of
crises, both far-reaching in scope and of critical import to
the US and global steel industry. "My tenure has been bookended
by two crises, both of which go well beyond the steel
industry," he comments. "In between, we had one crisis after
A common thread and a root cause of the crises that played
out over the intervening years was global steel overcapacity in
general and China in particular. "When I took over in 2008,
China’s capacity and production were almost half
of what they are today," Gibson recalls.
"What we saw during the first crisis of my tenure –
the world financial crisis – was China never taking
its foot off the expansion accelerator," he says. "The Chinese
just kept adding capacity on a straight line until 2017
– if you believe their data – when things
kind of leveled off a little bit. But it appears to me that
they are taking off again," he cautions.
Statistics compiled by the Brussels-based World Steel
Association show a sustained and steep build-up in
China’s raw steel production capacity from 500.5
million tonnes in 2008 to 928.3 million tonnes in 2018. By
comparison, US raw steel production capacity actually declined
from 91.4 million tonnes in 2008 to 86.6 million tonnes in
Tom Gibson with Wilbur Ross, US Secretary of
The resultant global steel capacity glut and trade
distortions it caused may count as the first, overarching
crisis Gibson faced in his role as the AISI’s new
top executive, but it was far from the last. "I spent a lot of
my time in the first 18 months or two years working on climate
issues," he says. "But I was also spending time in those early
years reconstituting our policy capabilities.
"What I was doing when I wasn’t doing climate
and learning trade issues was building a policy team," Gibson
recalls. "In the early days, I was building that team and
trying to change the culture at the AISI. The AISI was not an
organization in 2008 that commented publically a lot on
"We have always been a voice for the industry on statistics
and the kind of macro-messaging on steel such as the 'New
Steel’ campaign," he notes. "But being a relevant
policy player was something we had to learn to do."
Battles beyond trade
Besides the virtually non-stop challenge posed by global steel
trade issues, Gibson and the 165-year-old trade organization he
heads have faced battles closer to home. One came about half
way through his tenure in the form of competitive materials,
"especially aluminum in autos," AISI’s top
"We saw Ford make a pretty dramatic change on the F-150
pickup from steel to aluminum with respect to body although
they had to retain a steel frame on the truck," Gibson points
out. "The industry’s response to that has been
fantastic. And we have not seen a single major platform switch
from steel to aluminum since then," he notes.
A competitive challenge of an entirely different stripe
surfaced relatively early in Gibson’s AISI career
when talks calling for the merger of the domestic steel
industry’s two major trade associations –
the AISI and the Washington, DC-based Steel Manufacturing
Association (SMA) – surfaced.
The AISI, which was founded in 1855, currently counts 15
producer members – mainly integrated steelmakers
– and 92 associate members. Established in 1990, the
SMA counts 25 producer members, 75 associate members and
comprises electric-furnace-based steelmakers.
Today, the two organizations remain separate but
complementary in terms of their respective strengths and areas
of focus and expertise. "We have probably never had a more
cooperative relationship with SMA and other steel associations
than we have had recently," Gibson says. "We work together on
any number of issues. We are working right now on safety issues
during the Covid-19 crisis," he adds.
Looking ahead, Gibson expects more of the same.
"I’d say probably in the next couple of years,
you’ll see the Associations differentiate a little
bit and specialize in what they are good at," he
"We are a policy shop and we are very good at that," the
AISI’s top executive elaborates. "The SMA has
always been very good at plant level operations and is very
strong in that area. I think companies who are members of both
aren’t going to want to see us duplicating what we
do," Gibson says. "I think the pressure on my successor will be
to work cooperatively with the SMA and look for opportunities,
synergies to make sure we are not duplicating efforts."
A matter of mission
What differentiates the AISI from its sister steel
trade organizations? "I’d say the
AISI’s greatest asset in a lot of ways is its name
and reputation, its 165-year history," Gibson answers. "We have
a very large megaphone when we want to get the word out. And
when we want to use that megaphone, we can get an audience for
"The history, the data that we have going back decades is a
particular strength of the AISI," he adds. "And we want to use
that voice on behalf of the industry.
"When you start looking at external audiences on the Hill,
they want to see a steel industry position," Gibson speaks from
experience. "They don’t want to hear from three or
four different associations. They want to hear what the steel
industry wants, especially in times of crisis.
"I think the core purpose of the AISI remains advocacy,
policy advocacy, and some targeted market programs," the
Institute’s top executive summarizes.
"We’ve got our AutoSteel partnership program and
there is no other material in the auto universe that has such a
"We have some real strengths that enable us to provide
solutions to our customer in the industry," he adds. "Those are
just unique to the AISI and will allow us to continue to
Building a legacy
Asked what he considers the highlights of his AISI
tenure, Gibson is quick to answer: the series of trade law
improvements achieved in 2015 and 2016; long-sought-after
changes obtained in the USMCA (United States-Mexico-Canada
Agreement), the successor to Nafta; and slamming the brakes on
aluminium’s incursion into the automotive market
after Ford Motor’s switch to the lighter-weight
metal on its best-selling F-150 pickup in 2015.
"The trade law improvements made as part of the whole Trade
Promotion Authority (TPA) deal in 2015 and then the passage in
2016 of the ENFORCE Act, which dealt with some issues over at
Customs – anti-dumping and countervailing duty (CVD)
evasions – were enormous industry victories," Gibson
"I had spent seven years making reports to the Board on
'progress,’ on changing the trade laws, on bills
that were introduced, hearings held, letters written," he
recalls. "To the Board, it sounds like so much talk about
"I’d say the AISI’s greatest
asset in a lot of ways is its name and reputation, its 165-year
history," said Gibson
"But finally, after 20 years of effort and instead of just
talking about our successes in having hearings, we got the
actual legislation done and signed into law," Gibson says.
"That is the nature of legislation," he shrugs. "It is usually
impossible but every now and then, (it is) almost inevitable;
if you are ready. It is not like making a product."
Another highlight? Securing changes the industry had been
seeking for years – including a remedy for currency as
part of the trade agreement in addition to provisions on some
improved rules of origin – in the USMCA.
"And we got those in conjunction and working with our Nafta
partners," Gibson points out. "We had united steel positions
throughout the United States and North America and we got those
changes in USMCA."
A silver lining
Dated March 5, 2020, the press release issued by the AISI
announcing Gibson’s intention to exit the
organization "in the fall of the year" landed only weeks before
Covid-19 started its deadly trek across the US and began its
assault on world commerce. The ramifications of the spread of
the coronavirus have cast ominous clouds across virtually every
sector of the world economy.
If there is a silver lining for US steelmakers in the wake
of the pandemic, it could come in the form of a bipartisan push
to pass a comprehensive, national infrastructure bill as part
of a recovery plan.
"There are going to be recovery bills that come after this
that look for opportunities to restart the economy," Gibson
predicted in early April. "The needs for infrastructure
– roads, the electrical grid, hospitals, schools
– are all well-documented and well-known.
Equally well known is the ripple effect in the economy of
construction and infrastructure spending, he points out. "I
think the logic for infrastructure spending is very strong,"
Gibson insists. "The job creation effect, how that aids steel,
aids construction, aids the local economy are all common
AISI’s top "policy guy" notes that there had
been bills – "little pieces" of legislation –
advanced in the Senate on highways. "Rolling this into a
national infrastructure bill seems to me to make a lot of
sense," he says.
Looking ahead, Gibson urges policy makers to avoid wasting
time fighting over extraneous political considerations
– such as attempting to make the bill too "green"
– and to take lessons from the past.
"I would caution against some of the mistakes that were made
the last time, including this obsession with the term 'shovel
ready,’" Gibson warns. "'Shovel
ready’ wasn’t a term that was
particularly good for steel. It was said to be long term
– bridges, things like that – but I think it
overemphasized maintenance, overemphasized asphalt, and that
kind of activity," he says. "We hope they don’t
make that mistake again."
While the AISI’s top executive is critical of
the national infrastructure program launched in the wake of the
world financial crisis, he is definitely upbeat when it comes
to another initiative undertaken to speed recovery after the US
economy tanked in 2008/2009.
"You know, the last time we had something like the 'Cash for
Clunkers,’" Gibson recalls. "Cars that were bought
with Cash for Clunkers eleven years ago are clunkers now," he
points out. "So, maybe we ought to look at that
It is no accident that Gibson zeroed in on federal spending
on US infrastructure and in autos as being pivotal to
steel’s recovery post the Covid-19 crisis.
"Construction and autos are the two biggest steel demanding
sectors of the economy," he notes. "About 40% of steel consumed
in the US goes into construction and some 27% goes into
automotive, so we want to see those two sectors starting as
quickly as they can."
Crisis and change
Ask Tom Gibson what he considers the overarching theme of his
tenure at the AISI and he answers in three words –
crisis and change. And the former Naval warfare officer is
ready to share with his successor the wisdom derived from
twelve years at the helm of the organization.
"I would say, first off, make certain when you come in
– and I was sure of this and it really aided me in the
tough times we had in 2008 – that you forge a good
relationship with the board," Gibson advises. "And when you are
the guy who is hired new, realize that you are never going to
have more leverage and the ability to effect change in an
organization than you have in the early days," he
"I made a lot of changes at the AISI in the early days."
Gibson reflects. "I changed the focus. We became a policy
organization that was what the members wanted when I was
"Make your big changes early," the departing president and
CEO of the AISI emphasizes. "Kicking things down the road
doesn’t make big decisions any easier."
"And try to focus as much as you can on what unites the
members, not on what divides them," Gibson adds. "Try to get
them to focus on what unites them because there is a lot more
that unites them than divides them. You know in any group,
there is a tendency sometimes to focus on what divides
The next chapter
At 63, with a myriad of interests, Gibson is looking forward to
an 'active’ retirement. "At some point, some way,
somehow, I will probably get back to thinking about ocean
issues," he says. "That was a big focus of mine when I was in
the Senate, and obviously fits with my Naval Academy
experience. So, possibly some teaching at high school or just
teaching sailing," he says.
"I have an abiding interest in manufacturing," he adds. "So,
there may be opportunities there to consult. We’ll
see when we get to the other end."
Gibson, who does not own a boat at the moment, but does own
a home in Newport, Rhode Island, is looking forward to visiting
his son and daughter in New York City and traveling once travel
is safe again.
"For fun, I’m about the
'B’s’ – bikes, boats, books,
beaches and baseball," Gibson says. A long-time Washington
Nationals baseball fan, the AISI’s top executive
attended his very first World Series game last year after
overcoming some Big League obstacles to make it to the ballpark
in time for the first pitch. "Getting to that game was a pretty
wild experience," he recalls. "I was in Tokyo for the Global
Steel Forum and had to go through a flash flood at Narita and a
six-hour flight delay. But there was no way I was going to miss
Gibson, who is known among steel circles as somewhat of a
baseball fanatic, has the credentials to prove it. At last
count, he had visited "about 20" of Major League
Baseball’s 30 Parks. And there is little question
the future beckons. "I’ve got to get on the road
again," he says as retirement draws near.