The changeover at the top of LafargeHolcim, with Eric Olsen standing down and with the appointment of Jan Jenisch (CEO of Sika AG), is worthy of note for a number of reasons. American/French Eric Olsen has been in charge of the merged company since its inception and has made a good job of bringing together two very different companies, while at the same time battling uneven economic growth worldwide which has seen some patchy results over the last two years. Given more time, he would undoubtedly have presided over more robust results as yet more synergies are discovered in the newly-lean company.
In fact, lean-ness is one of the four ‘strategic pillars’ that are now governing LafargeHolcim, according to the recent fascinating 2016 annual report. Alongside ‘commercial transformation,’ ‘cost leadership’ and ‘sustainability,’ the report stipulates that the company will be ‘asset light.’ The report goes on to explain that LafargeHolcim ‘will optimise our current asset base, better leveraging our industrial footprint, reducing our capital expenditure and exploring new growth opportunities with lower capital expenditure.’ It says that ‘Future growth will be focussed on low-capital intensive business models that enable us to access more of the value chain.’ Putting numbers to the words, LafargeHolcim’s capex in 2016-2017 was CHF3.5bn (Euro3.21bn), but it will plummet to CHF2bn (Euro1.83bn) from then on. As CEO, Eric Olsen’s prints are all over this plan.
The company plans to use its ‘know-how in preventative maintenance and capacity optimisation’ to reduce its ongoing capex in the cement industry, and says that ‘we outsource our fleet management whenever possible and develop alternative logistics offers to reduce capital expenditure.’ So, out with its own fleets of vehicles, and in with contractors, freeing-up capital (but possibly leading to lower retained profits). The company also says that ‘the leveraging of our global trading platform enables us to serve some markets without the need to invest in local clinker capacity.’ Alongside various statements in the annual report that suggest that the company has quite enough clinker production capacity already, we can see that it intends to stop building any new greenfield plants, and to potentially invest in clinker grinding facilities in markets where it does not have a presence, supplied by its currently under-utilised clinker-producing plants. It plans to expand into low-capital concrete markets, stating that ‘we are implementing franchise models in the ready-mix and retail segments, enabling us to reach customers in a differentiated way while keeping capital expenditure low.’
Eric Olsen’s plan is/was a sensible one: stop sending money out the door, make the current assets work a lot harder, and get into businesses with a good margin but which don’t cost a lot in which to become established. This is a plan that will take time to come to fruition, but unfortunately, Eric Olsen will not be at the helm of the company to see the benefits. He resigned at the end of April after an internal investigation at the company showed that managers at the company’s cement plant in Syria had paid-off local militias in order to stay open. As Eric Olsen stated at the time, “While I was absolutely not involved in, nor even aware of, any wrongdoing I believe my departure will contribute to bringing back serenity to a company that has been exposed for months on this case.” It seems that the chairman and the board of directors owe Mr Olsen a few beers - at least - for taking the heat off the company.
German national Jan Jenisch steps into Eric Olsen’s shoes at an interesting time then. He is coming from a company, Sika AG, that has also seen some tumultuous events in the last few years. The company’s controlling family wish to sell its 16% stake (including 53% voting rights) to multi-national building materials group Saint-Gobain, which is eager to buy, against the wishes of the company’s board, senior managers and other shareholders. So far the sale has been foiled by Mr Jenisch, but a crucial court case decision is due later in the year. Who knows, in the meantime maybe another building materials company might step-in to try to take over Sika’s attractive business? Mr Jenisch managed to increase Sika’s profit by 22% in the last full year of operation of the company, and the board of LafargeHolcim will be hoping that he can repeat the magic with his new company. If he manages it though, just remember that he has inherited Eric Olsen’s ‘cunning plan that might just work.’