CRH's ambitions took a setback this week when the Irish Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) raided the offices of its subsidiary Irish Cement as part of an investigation into the bagged-cement industry in Ireland. Details are vague but the media reports state that the inquiry is examining whether or not the Irish market leader has abused its dominant position in the market, valued at Euro50m/yr.
Undoubtedly CRH and Irish Cement hold a leading place in the local cement industry. Irish Cement runs two integrated cement plants in the Republic with a combined production capacity of 2.7Mt/yr. This constitutes 79% of the country's 3.4t/yr total capacity.
Previous acquisition activity such as CRH's purchase of Dudman Group's UK import terminals in July 2013 has led to concerns regarding market competition. At that time Irish cement importer Eircem complained to the UK Competition Commission (CC), claiming that 'there is no free competition' in the market and also to initiate proceedings against CRH for damages relating to alleged anti-competitive behaviour in that market.
Roll the clock forward nearly two years and CRH is making the headlines once more for a much larger acquisition portfolio: the purchase of the largest chunk of assets sold from the merger of Lafarge and Hocim. With regards to Ireland and the UK, CRH will take on three (Dunbar, Tunstead and Aberthaw) of Lafarge Tarmac's five cement plants. Lafarge Tarmac's other two plants (Cookstown and Cauldon) will become part of the Aggregate Industries division of Lafarge Holcim. And once again, following acquisition activity competition, questions are looming as the CCPC raid suggests. This time though the potential impact of any market abuse, if it is actually happening, is far larger given the influx of UK and European assets that CRH are taking on.
We don't know what the CCPC will find but we can look at how CRH was viewed in the UK CC report on 'Aggregates, cement and ready-mix concrete market investigation' published in January 2014. At that time the CC concluded that, "We have seen nothing to suggest... that the recent acquisitions by CRH will result in importers collectively or individually offering a significantly greater constraint on cement producers than in the past." Amusingly though CRH also told the CC that it had no major expansion plants for the UK.
We also know how one of CRH's competitors felt about them. One of the more telling quotations from the CC report was from a Commercial Manager, at Lafarge Cement Ireland who viewed expansion in Ireland by Lafarge as a 'mechanism' to control CRH's ambitions by attacking it in its home market by showing CRH that Lafarge was a global player. Ironically the comments of that anonymous manager look very different now that CRH is on track to becoming a global player itself.