Back to business in 2015


Updated Thu, 08 Jan 2015 10:12:20 GMT

The end of 2014 proved a good time to tidy up outstanding business for various organisations with links to the cement industry. Lafarge and Holcim received clearance from the European Commission for their proposed merger and they announced their executive committee, Holcim and Cemex concluded their transactions in Europe, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced regulations for coal ash, HeidelbergCement found a buyer for its Hanson Building Products business and even PPC managed to appoint a new CEO.

The HeidelbergCement sale is of interest because the company has said it is using the proceeds to pay off debt rather than to make purchases. CEO Bernd Scheifele said in the press release that the intention was to improve the company's 'credit-worthiness.' This isn't directly related to the cement industry because Hanson Building Products produces concrete gravity pipe, concrete and steel pressure pipe and clay bricks in the US, UK and eastern Canada. Yet the potential cash bonanza is relevant. Remember, this is happening at the same time that Lafarge and Holcim have been offloading lots of their own assets to meet competition regulations in various territories.

When the initial public offering was made for Hanson Building Products in September 2014, analysts assumed that HeidelbergCement was positioning itself for a spending spree. The purchase price for Hanson Building Products agreed with a private equity firm was US$1.4bn. This could be used to buy five 1 Mt/yr cement plants at an average price of US$250/t for cement production capacity!

Unfortunately for HeidelbergCement its net debt rose from Euro7bn in 2012 to Euro7.5bn in 2013. This was the first time it had risen since 2007 when it hit a peak of Euro14.6bn. That year was when it agreed to purchase Hanson. It also marked the start of the 2007 – 2008 financial crisis. Similarly, ratios such as net debt to operating income before depreciation (OIBD) also rose in 2013. Although it looks from interim financial reports that HeidelbergCement's debt may have decreased again in 2014, it is probably not doing so at any great speed. Hence the Hanson Building Products sale.

For comparison with debt held by the other European-based cement producers, Lafarge's net debt stood at Euro10.3bn at the end of 2013, Holcim's net debt was Euro7.9bn, Italcementi's net debt was Euro1.9bn and Mexico-based Cemex's net debt was Euro14.8bn. Compared to most of these their operating incomes these company's have net debt to earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortisation (EBITDA) ratios (net debt/EBITDA) of between two and three-and-a half suggesting that they can pay back their debts within a few years if absolutely necessary. The outlier here is Cemex with a ratio of over six following previous acquisition bursts.

The implication here is that Lafarge and Holcim have chosen to sell their wares at a time when their European competitors are weakened. Meanwhile their Chinese competitors have only just started to directly expand outside of mainland China. Smart move.