LafargeHolcim’s announcement this week that it is to close its headquarters in Paris is the latest sign of the tension within the world’s largest cement producer. The decision is rational for a company making savings in the aftermath of the merger of two rivals – France’s Lafarge and Switzerland’s Holcim – back in 2015. Yet, it also carries symbolic weight. Lafarge was an iconic French company that had been in operation since 1833. Its hydrated lime was used to build the Suez Canal, one of the great infrastructure projects of the 19th century.
In the lead up to the merger in 2015 the union of Lafarge and Holcim was repeatedly described as one of equals. However, the diverging share price between the two companies killed that idea on the balance sheets in early 2015. Renegotiation on the share-swap ratio between the companies followed with an exchange ratio of nine Holcim shares for 10 Lafarge shares. In the end Holcim’s shareholders ended up owning 55.6% of LafargeHolcim. Lafarge’s Bruno Lafont lost out on the top job as chief executive officer (CEO) in the frenzy but the role did go to another former Lafarge executive. The new company also retained its former corporate offices in both France and Switzerland.
Since the merger LafargeHolcim has underperformed, reporting a loss of Euro1.46bn in 2017. Former senior executives from Lafarge have become embroiled in a legal investigation looking at the company’s conduct in Syria. LafargeHolcim’s first chief executive officer Eric Olsen resigned from the company in mid-2017 following fallout from a review into the Syria affair. Both Olsen and Lafont are currently under investigation by the French police into their actions with respect to a cement plant that the company kept operational during the on-going Syrian conflict. Olsen’s replacement, Jan Jenisch, is a German national who previously ran the Swiss building chemicals manufacturer Sika.
Regrettably the closure of LafargeHolcim’s corporate office in Paris will also see the loss of 97 jobs although some of the workers in Paris will be transferred to Clamart, in the south-western suburbs of the city. Another 107 jobs will also be cut in Zurich and Holderbank in Switzerland.
One more knock at the local nature of cement companies in the very international arena they operate in doesn’t mean that much beyond bruised national pride. British readers may mourn the loss of Blue Circle or Rugby Cement but the country still has a cement industry even if it mostly owned by foreign companies. France’s industry is doing better as it recovers following the lost decade since the financial crisis in 2008.
Jump to 2018 and LafargeHolcim is being run by a German with links to Switzerland, Holcim shareholders had the advantage during the merger, its former Lafarge executives and assets are facing legal scrutiny over its conduct in Syria and Lafarge’s old headquarters in Paris are being closed. LafargeHolcim in France still retains the group’s research and development centre at Lyon and a big chunk of the local industry. Yet Holcim has held an advantage ever since the final terms of the Lafarge-Holcim merger agreement were agreed so this slow slide to Switzerland is not really a surprise. From a distance it feels very much like the Holcim acquisition of Lafarge is finally complete.