Cement industry reactions to coronavirus

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Cement producers and suppliers are now reacting to the coronavirus pandemic at scale. The biggest obvious development has been the lockdown in India that began on 24 March 2020. The implications for the cement industry are profound given the country’s population (1.3Bn) and massive cement consumption under normal conditions. It is the country with the world’s second largest cement production capacity.

UltraTech Cement, the biggest producer, said that it was suspending production at ‘various’ locations although it added that the situation was ‘dynamic’ and that it was monitoring it from time to time. Ambuja Cement and JK Lakshmi Cement have done likewise. The latter has suspended cement production at an integrated plant in Rajasthan and three grinding plants in Gujarat. Some Indian states have moved faster than others towards shutting down movement of people so JK Lakshmi’s decision may merely be based on legal necessity. However, a difference may arise in producer strategies between keeping integrated and grinding plants open. Building up inventory is one strategy seen in poor market conditions previously around the world. Alternatively, moving to more of a grinding model might make sense in some territories if, as is happening, countries implement lockdowns at different periods. However, some Indian states have moved faster than others towards shutting down movement of people and JK Lakshmi Cement’s closure pattern may simply reflect this.

At the international scale HeidelbergCement gave an idea to Reuters of the challenge facing the multinationals. Chief executive officer (CEO) Dominik von Achten described the start of 2020 as being strong but that construction projects were being delayed in the US and that activity in France and Spain was starting to weaken. Unsurprisingly, the company has shut down three of its plants in Lombardy at the centre of the Italian epidemic. He added that the group was holding a daily crisis call to assess the effect of the virus upon staff. He also said that the group was stockpiling cement amid the disruption. The clear warning sign was of an existential threat like that faced by the airlines whereby sales could simply stop for a three or four week period… or longer.

On the supplier side, Denmark’s FLSmidth has issued a robust plan on how it is aiming to maintain service and support for its customers. Past all the now-usual stuff such as remote working it included detail on how to support clients on site where absolutely necessary on a case-by-case basis. With regards to its supply chain it pointed out that it was confident, “that any local interruptions to our suppliers can be minimised, even when the agility of some suppliers is put to the test. We have redundancy built into the system.” To this end it emphasised the global nature of its business to ensure that it could deliver parts and equipment to its customers. It claimed that it coped with coronavirus in China due to its ‘very flexible’ supply chain but did admit to some supply chain impacts. Yet it says that production is back to approaching full capacity with workshops in Qingdao and Shanghai above 90% as they work their way through accumulated backlogs. Finally, it is also offering advice on how the company can support its customers on reducing or shutting down operations.

Other supplier comments on the situation have mainly been about protecting staff, working remotely and supporting customers through continued supply of equipment and services. Back in India, Sameer Nagpal, the CEO of refractory manufacturer Dalmia-OCL told Business Standard that the company was coping so far with the crisis with little major impact seen so far. Its raw material supply chain was dependent on China but after some minor disruption it was secure. Most of its customers are domestic, where it hadn’t reported problems so far, although this may change with the Indian lockdown. Exports were a different story as it sends around 10% of its production abroad and it has a plant in Germany. In Europe it was seeing a challenge due to supply chain disruption.

The experiences above are a snapshot of some of what is happening in parts of the industry as coronavirus disruption hits home. China’s restrictions are easing, most of Europe is in lockdown, India has started its quarantine and the US has restricted movement in about a third of its states. The current restrictions in the UK, for example, allow for construction work to continue but local media is debating the associated risks for workers. Other territories have different rules. All of this is affecting demand for cement and concrete. This in turn feeds through to producers and their suppliers. Global Cement continues to monitor the situation and wishes readers a safe passage through the pandemic.

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