James Sanderson one day hopes to name a horse in the Kentucky Derby after British metals magnate Sanjeev Gupta, who he believes will save the steel industry in Georgetown, S.C.

For now, Mr. Gupta is fighting to save his empire. The entrepreneur's GFG Alliance group of companies says it is seeking to refinance billions of dollars worth of debt after Greensill Capital, its main lender, filed for insolvency in March. While the drama of Greensill's collapse is unfolding in financial centers like London and Zurich, and has sparked a scandal at the top of British politics, blue-collar towns like Georgetown could face the worst consequences if GFG fails to refinance.

In an industry used to a stop-start existence and financial troubles, some metalworkers see Mr. Gupta as a savior, a contrast to the criticisms his company now faces from politicians. "People here, they've got a lot of respect for Sanjeev, they support him for what he will do in this steel town," said Mr. Sanderson, a former steelworker who is now a local union official. 

Liberty Steel's plant is reflected in the company's corporate offices in Georgetown, S.C. on Friday, April 30, 2021.

Mr. Gupta was dubbed the savior of steel in Britain after buying up unloved metals businesses in run-down areas. He followed a similar playbook in the U.S., acquiring Georgetown steelworks in 2017 and six other assets for what he said would be a significant American steel business.

That business never fully materialized.

Two plants Mr. Gupta bought -- including Georgetown -- stand idle, and even before Greensill's troubles, his company, Liberty Steel, was accused by some suppliers of having unpaid bills.

Georgetown's 70-year-old steel works had been closed for three years when Mr. Gupta fired up the furnaces again in 2017. In 2020, Georgetown fell silent again as the pandemic hit demand. 

Now, only 14 of the 160 staff that worked there under Liberty Steel are employed at the mill. Critics accuse Mr. Gupta of making grand promises that haven't been delivered on. Mr. Gupta said he would take his U.S. and Australian businesses public and hired banks to do so, but neither have listed.

Ronald Mcinnis said he grew up with the mill, a massive rusty-brown and green structure that dominates the harbor front. His father worked there and so did he, once. "It gave opportunities for skilled blue-collar workers, welders, heavy machine workers, and Georgetown needs that," said the charity worker.

When Georgetown's operations were idle, the company paid workers for around a year to landscape the area around the site and help with community efforts like food drives. In February, Mr. Sanderson, the union leader, began reading reports online that Mr. Gupta's GFG was in financial trouble after Greensill's insolvency. As it played out in London, the action felt far away, but Mr. Sanderson and the steelworkers wondered how it would affect their mill. At one meeting, attendees mused how if they had a horse in the Kentucky Derby they would name it Sanjeev, Mr. Sanderson said. Mr. Sanderson's son, who worked at the steel mill, has stopped waiting and taken a job elsewhere.

Using Format