Corporate Profile: Circling the world

Cement - a dull and declining industry stuck in a depressing cycle of plant closures and job cuts, say City pessimists. Wrong, says Blue Circle's new boss, as his company goes global and prepares to profit from rebuilding the Balkans
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EXECUTIVES OF Blue Circle Industries have good reason to give more than the usual attention to developments in the Balkans. Britain's largest cement producer has just announced a pounds 401m deal to acquire majority stakes in two of Greece's largest construction materials producers. And part of the rationale is being in the area ready to benefit from the efforts to rebuild Yugoslavia.

But this is not an isolated initiative on the part of Blue Circle. In two years it has spent more than pounds 700m on acquisitions in the Far East, taking 48 per cent of the Malaysian cement market and 20 per cent of that in the Philippines.

This has made for a busy time for Rick Haythornthwaite, who joined the company in October 1997 as head of the European and Asian heavy building materials business and becomes chief executive of the group next month. But the activity is justified, says the 43-year-old former exploration geologist with BP, because "it makes sense to be global. It's the most coherent strategy for a cement company".

But Blue Circle is more than just a cement company, albeit comfortably the UK's biggest, with almost half the market. It sold off its bathrooms business - including the UK brands Armitage Shanks and Qualitas, and Ceramica Dolomite of Italy - to American Standard in February. But it remains a significant player in heating, with the Potterton and Myson names, and has substantial property interests as a result of its extensive quarrying in Kent.

Indeed, one of its disused quarries is the site of Bluewater, Britain's largest retail development, and - although the company sold the site to the Australian developer Lend Lease - it will gain a share of the profits from what has so far proved to be a highly successful venture. Buoyed by this, the company has formed the Whitecliff joint venture with Lend Lease to develop other retail, business and residential projects in an area made highly valuable through its proximity to the Channel Tunnel.

Yet the retiring chief executive Keith Orrell-Jones is widely seen to have made Blue Circle into more of the pure cement company it was of old. No immediate action is expected, but City analysts anticipate his successor will move further in that direction, with the heating business frequently cited as a sell-off candidate.

Kevin Cammack, building materials analyst at Merrill Lynch, says he and other observers were slightly surprised by Mr Haythornthwaite's appointment, since David Lovett, head of the heavy building materials division in the Americas and Africa, had been seen as a frontrunner. But he adds that Blue Circle is an "establishment company" whose new chief is unlikely to set off on a massively different path from the previous management.

Mr Haythornthwaite will only say that a change at the top inevitably means a company will take the opportunity to look hard at options. And he is concentrating on explaining how the recent deals and any future ones - the company is believed to be keen on acquiring interests in South Korea - fit into an overall plan. This is of some importance, since, as Mike Batts, UK and European building analyst at JP Morgan, puts it: "Blue Circle is going to be competing on a more global scale and it's not clear what the endgame is." He is referring to uncertainty over what proportion of earnings will come from developing countries and the countries being chosen for expansion.

Buying into Asia during the financial downturn meant the company was able to pick up interests comparatively cheaply. But, as Mr Haythornthwaite admits, it has also required shareholders to take a longer-term view. The 1998 results saw earnings diluted by the foreign acquisitions to the extent that pre-tax profits fell 7 per cent to pounds 317.6m on turnover that was slightly down at pounds 2.3bn.

The share price has suffered accordingly and the company has fallen out of the FTSE 100 index. But sentiment appears to have become more positive, with institutions seeing the Greek deal as promising a better counter- balance to the company's exposure to developing countries, and the company may even return to the index in the latest reshuffling expected today.

In staking the company's future on globalisation, Mr Haythornthwaite and his colleagues are, of course, merely honouring one of the slogans of the current business age. But Mr Haythornthwaite sees particular benefits, among them the ability to share knowledge of the latest techniques and practices at various locations and, inevitably, cost-cutting.

Cement is one of those traditional industries forever associated with job cuts, plant closures and other cost-reduction programmes. And Blue Circle, which is acknowledged by rivals to have the lowest cost base in the UK industry, is no stranger to these.

Last month saw the closure of the high-cost Plymstock and Mason works - in return for a pounds 43.8m provision in the 1998 accounts. And the continuing improvement programme at UK Cement of which these shutdowns are part, is predicted to produce a pounds 50m reduction on the 1995 cost base by the time the company fires up its state-of-the-art Medway plant, expected for 2002.

Cynics would suggest such savings are not especially hard, since this is an industry that until recently was characterised by cartels and the cosy and complacent business practices such situations engender. The cartels arose out of the best of intentions. After the Second World War, the British government tried to assist the post-war reconstruction by approving a system of suppliers in particular regions effectively charging the same prices, thus ensuring cost stability for the local authorities and others charged with repairing the bomb damage. But the situation survived long beyond those circumstances, with the industry even able to argue it was in the public interest, despite challenges from the UK competition authorities.

In the end, the market prevailed. After being confronted by what one insider called "outrageous prices", building products companies such as RMC that had traditionally been supplied by the cement producers let it be known they would seek alternative sources. And in the late 1980s imports from Greece and other countries began to appear, mainly via Tilbury docks - just across the Thames from the main cement-producing area of Kent.

This expansionist strategy can be seen as a return to the old policy of Blue Circle, or Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers, as it was known until 1978.

In the early years of this century, the company, itself the result of an early consolidation, acquired interests in many parts of the world that had come under British rule, notably Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Malaysia and much of east and southern Africa, as well as Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Indonesia. Accordingly, says Mr Batts: "Blue Circle was many years ago the most global of cement companies."

After a decade in which some of the more peripheral interests have been sold, as part of what Mr Haythornthwaite calls a "cleaning up of the portfolio" under Mr Orrell-Jones, the company is returning to that route, albeit with a clearer focus on certain markets.

Like the recent south-east Asian acquisitions and the 1997 purchase of Canada's St Mary's Cement Corporation, the deal to acquire majority stakes in Heracles General Cement and Halkis, Greece's largest construction materials businesses, announced on 31 May is part of an effort to fill gaps.

But aside from giving the company a "more material presence" around the world, the Greek initiative has several attractions. First, there is what Mr Haythornthwaite calls the vibrant Greek economy. The cement market grew by 5 per cent last year and is expected to be boosted further on the back of the anticipated boom in orders in the run-up to the Athens Olympic Games in 2004.

Second, there is the proximity to the Balkans, where Nato warplanes have created a need for rebuilding once a peace agreement can be reached. Third, the company sees the deal with Calcemento International, the subsidiary of the diversified Italian industrial group Compart which controls more than 50 per cent of Heracles and more than 70 per cent of Halkis, as providing "an excellent platform" for growth into the east as far as Russia.

"You're never quite sure which company is going to open up when," says Mr Haythornthwaite. "It's important to be on the ground, because if you wait until they start, you're already too late." He is preaching overseas expansion as an important driver of growth for a company whose domestic market is close to flat. "We're trying to take a fresh look at opportunities."

He says this includes looking at what is needed to obtain a better performance from existing assets as well as acquiring new ones. "It's part- strategy, part-culture. We are a low-tech business, in which ultimately you're going to win if more of your people are making a contribution than the opposition's."

During Mr Orrell-Jones's seven-year stint at the helm, Blue Circle put a lot of effort into making the workforce better aligned with the business's aims. In particular, in May 1997 the UK cement company reached an agreement with four unions under which practices aimed at improving efficiency and productivity were introduced in return for pay rises and secure employment for the unit's 2,000 workers.

But such expansion can also be seen as defensive. Mr Haythornthwaite and counterparts in the industry insist that the business is much more competitive now that the days of cosy arrangements have long gone.

But, as analysts from Credit Lyonnais Securities pointed out earlier this year: "As a rule, consolidation in all cement markets leads to higher, more stable prices. There are high barriers to entry, cash generation is strong, and demand tends to be price-inelastic." Clearly, one of the best ways of countering cheaper imports is to establish a presence in the importers' markets. Blue Circle is not acting alone. While enjoying hefty shares of such markets as Malaysia and the Philippines thanks to control of such companies as Kedah and Republic Cement, it also faces significant competition from other global players, such as Lafarge and Heidelberger Zement.

In particular, the recent acquisitions by Lafarge of the British building products group Redland and by Heidelberger of Scancem, which includes the UK's second-largest cement producer Castle Cement in its international portfolio, have raised once more the issue of vertical integration.

Historically, the UK has, unlike much of the rest of the world, including mainland Europe, resisted linking ownership of cement production and distribution of other building materials.

Mr Haythornthwaite claims that, while integration may yet come, there is so far little strategic logic in Britain because the market is very much open to imports and there is not much value that can added through integration. For now, analysts seem to be accepting that argument. But, with consolidation set to continue, the issue will not go away.

Mr Haythornthwaite makes much of the importance of the company's commitment to that other mantra of our time - shareholder value - through innovation as well as consolidation and of avoiding being merely at the mercy of the market.

But it is hard to escape the conclusion that immediate prospects are largely dependent upon events over which he has no control - the economic recovery in Asia and the ending of hostilities in Kosovo.

Building Up Britain's Biggest Cement Company

1824 - Portland cement was patented by Joseph Aspdin. Production started soon afterwards using bottles, beehives and chamber kilns.

1900 - Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers was formed as an amalgamation of mainly Kent-based producers. The introduction of the rotary kiln made production more efficient and sparked the first wave of consolidation.

1900-1953 - The company acquired interests around the world, initially in Mexico, Canada and South Africa, later in Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Rhodesia, Spain, Brazil, Chile and Indonesia. After the Second World War, cartels developed in response to a Government initiative to keep cement prices low during post-war reconstruction.

1953 - APCM was listed on the London Stock Exchange as one of the original members of the FT30 index.

1978 - The longstanding blue circle trademark provided a new name, Blue Circle Industries.

1990s - Focus on three divisions: heavy building materials, heating and bathrooms. But a greater focus on cement, and the selling of the bathrooms division in February 1999, leads to speculation about the heating division.

Blue Circle Industries

Market Capitalisation: pounds 3.4bn.

Turnover in 1998: pounds 2.3bn; pre-tax profits pounds 317.6m.

Main Markets:

UK's largest producer of cement, with about half the market, and a leading producer of cement, concrete and aggregates overseas, with major operations in North America, Chile, Malaysia, Philippines and Africa. Also one of Europe's largest manufacturers of central heating products, with Potterton and Myson among its brands. Has extensive property interests with development potential due to significant land-back surplus. Disused quarry was basis for Bluewater shopping centre. Bathrooms business, including such names as Armitage Shanks and Qualitas, sold off in February 1999.

Key Executives:

Lord Tugendhat (chairman); Richard Haythornthwaite (pictured) takes over as chief executive from Keith Orrell-Jones 15 July; James Loudon (finance director)

Number of Employees: 7,200 in UK; 12,300 overseas