LafargeHolcim retained its ability to surprise this week with the news that it may be making preparations to leave Brazil. Local press in Minas Gerais revealed on 20 April 2021 that the company was about to try and sell its operations in the country. The building materials producer has not made a public statement yet on the matter, it may not until a deal is done and/or this could all be a great big misunderstanding. So treat the following with caution.
Firstly, LafargeHolcim deciding to sell in Brazil fits with the selective approach increasingly shown by the non-Chinese cement multinationals in recent years. It famously decided to sell up in South-East Asia from 2018 and it got as far as divesting assets in Indonesia and Malaysia. It also tried to sell in the Philippines but the local competition commission didn’t give permission for the proposed deal in the end. As Global Cement Weekly mentioned at the time this was a bold move and doing the same in Brazil seems similarly decisive now. It’s a big market to leave! CRH and HeidelbergCement have both talked openly as well about taking a value-first approach to their divestment strategies rather than trying to retain blanket coverage. However, just because a sale in Brazil by LafargeHolcim sounds right doesn’t mean it is right.
Secondly, data from the National Cement Industry Association (SNIC) shows that the Brazilian cement industry had a good year in 2020. Despite the relentlessly bad news from the coronavirus pandemic, the Brazilian government decided to keep the economy mostly open, allowing the cement industry to continue its recovery since 2018. The sector reported an 11% rise year-on-year in cement sales to 60Mt in 2020. So far in 2021 it has noted a 19% rise year-on-year to 15.3Mt in the first quarter of 2021. Yet, the association forecast slower growth in 2021 as a whole and has warned that the first quarter figures in 2021 don’t show a true picture due to a decline in sales per working day so far in 2021 despite an apparent growth in absolute figures. On the surface it’s a good time to sell cement assets in the country since the sector has been riding a recovery but the general outlook for the country is looking gloomy especially considering the ongoing scale of its coronavirus outbreak and the uncertain damage this may do to the economy as a whole.
Whether or not LafargeHolcim is actually selling up in Brazil or not it, follows the conclusion of the CRH Brazil acquisition by Buzzi Unicem’s Companhia Nacional de Cimento (CNC) joint-venture that was also announced this week after approval by the completion authority. The assets that CRH Brasil has now sold include three integrated cement plants and two grinding plants in the south-east of the country. The subsidiary sold approximately 2.8Mt of cement in 2020. If nothing else this suggests that there should be companies out there pursuing a different strategy to LafargeHolcim, CRH, HeidelbergCement and the rest who will be only too happy to build their portfolio if LafargeHolcim’s Brazilian business does go on sale.
CRH originally bought its plants in Brazil as part of a package deal when Lafarge and Holcim merged in 2015 and any potential sales by LafargeHolcim also link back to this. LafargeHolcim has spent much of the last six years working out what kind of company it wants to be. Certainly, since the current chief executive officer Jan Jenisch took charge it has had the air of a company with a mission. The Firestone Building Products acquisition earlier in 2021 is an example of this, propelling the group away from the triad of cement, concrete and aggregates as the carbon risks of heavy building materials heat up. There is something fitting perhaps that at the company’s next annual general meeting its shareholders will be asked whether they want to change the company’s name to Holcim at the group level. It’s a small thing, all market brands will remain as they are, but it may bookend the post-merger era as much as asset divestments in Indonesia and... potentially Brazil.