Meet America’s biggest bull (Hint: He’s Russian)

June 22, 2012, 1:00 PM UTC

Alexey Mordashov

FORTUNE — It was my first encounter with a Russian billionaire. The setting was a nondescript meeting room, down a long, bland hallway of meeting rooms, at the Sheraton New York Hotel, where Alexey Mordashov was attending a steel industry conference. His press people had cautioned that Mordashov, Russia’s leading steel magnate as chief of Severstal (2011 revenues: $15 billion) and one of his nation’s biggest investors in the U.S., is the antithesis of the flamboyant Russian oligarch. He eschews collecting yachts or U.S. basketball franchises, and instead supports the local hockey team in his hometown of Cherepovets, where his parents labored in the giant steel mill Severstal now owns.

On an infrequent break from talking numbers, strategy and business, his lieutenants say, Mordashov displays another passion by breaking into a recital of the Russian poems he knows by heart.

Mordashov, attired in a blue suit and loosely-knotted blue tie, greets me with a crunching handshake worthy of a welder. He speaks fluent if heavily accented English learned as a business student at Northumbria University in Britain. At 46, Mordashov is trim and youthful-looking with neatly-cropped brown hair. Indeed, after starting as a low-level finance manager, he rose to head Severstal in 1996 at age 30, building a conglomerate by purchasing steel, mining and coal companies. His net worth reportedly exceeds $18 billion.

Mordashov became the one of the first major Russian investors in the U.S. when Severstal purchased the legendary Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, in 2004. “Steel plants in the U.S. were in worse shape than the Russian plants we renovated,” says Mordashov. “A lot of the technology was 150 years old. They’d suffered from under-investment for many years.”  Worker morale, he adds, was as big a problem as decaying furnaces. “People were expecting Rouge to go bankrupt, so there was a lot of anxiety. The corporate culture problem was even worse than in Russia. And at the same time, the work rules were more difficult.”

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In the past eight years, Mordashov has poured $1.4 billion into refurbishing the former Rouge plant, now called Severstal Dearborn. “The future is in green energy,” he says, “it’s in making steel for energy-efficient cars.”

Severstal is a pioneer in producing extra-strong but lightweight steel that improves gas mileage by reducing the vehicles’ weight, but also meets the most stringent crash standards. Its initiative so impressed the Department of Energy that it gave preliminary approval for a $740 million loan to expand Dearborn’s advanced steel output, but to Mordashov’s shock, canceled the commitment in January.

“We’re now looking for financing we didn’t get from the DOE to expand production,” says Mordashov. “We’re already making the lightweight steel at Dearborn, but the U.S. will need far more production in the future to meet fuel standards.”

Given his big losses in the U.S., it’s remarkable that Mordashov remains so optimistic about the future of steel — and America. At the top of the market in early 2008, Severstal paid $2.6 billion for plants in Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland. When the recession pounded both volumes and prices, Mordashov slashed production and put the mills up for sale. In March of 2011, he sold all three to companies controlled by mining magnate Ira Rennert, renowned for his gigantic “house that ate the Hamptons” on Long Island. The price: just $80 million, leaving a loss of over $2.5 billion in just three years.

Mordashov decided to concentrate Severstal’s dollars on two mills, the Dearborn facility because it benefits from the resurgence of the auto industry, and a new, $1.5 billion mill that Severstal recently opened in Columbus, Mississippi. The Mississippi plant, says Mordashov, will also become a leading supplier to automakers in the southern U.S.

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Most of all, Mordashov reckons that many people are far too glum about America’s future. “We’ve seen a significant change in the U.S. economy recently, and it’s not well understood,” he says. “The U.S. has done a great job improving productivity. We’re making a lot more steel in Dearborn with fewer people. The unions have accepted much better work rules. An industrial renaissance is happening, and it’s underestimated.”

He also notes a second big improvement, a major reduction in energy costs. “It’s because of the shale gas revolution. I know a Russian entrepreneur who wants to build a fertilizer plant in the southern U.S. because energy costs are so low.” An industrial park, part-owned by Severstal, is attracting local steel fabrication companies in Mississippi, epitomizing what’s happening all over America.

As Mordashov gives me a parting, buzz-saw handshake, he says, “What you need to keep most in the U.S. is the entrepreneurial spirit. It provides the impetus for job creation. It has created a great quality of life for Americans.”

Alexey Mordashov is convinced that an empire built on great manufacturing is poised to strike again.