Eurocement changed owners this week when Sberbank took control of the company’s parent organisation. Due to a ‘difficult financial situation’ the state-owned bank said it had consolidated 100% of the shares of Eurocement’s parent company GFI Investment Limited. It’s uncertain quite how difficult this situation is but in 2016 the cement producer owed the bank Euro700m. Local media agency RosBiznesConsulting (RBC) reported in September 2020 that the ‘problem borrower’ that had caused a record increase in overdue debt at Sberbank in July 2020 was none other than Eurocement. Whilst Sberbank has said so far that it does not have operational control of the group, it is seeking a strategic investor for the asset.
This is a major story given that Eurocement is Russia’s largest cement producer and it operates 19 cement plants Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. It said it produced 16.5Mt of cement domestically in 2019 but this compares to a production capacity of around 50Mt/yr suggesting a considerably low utilisation rate of just one third! The producer has embarked on a modernisation programme in recent years but many of its plants are old and use wet-process production lines.
2019 finally saw the Russian cement market turn around following decline since 2015. Unfortunately, CM Pro reports that cement production in Russia as a whole fell by 5% year-on-year to 25.1Mt in the first half of 2020. Cement shipments fell by a similar rate. This trend appears to have carried on through July and August 2020. Cement consumption has fallen fairly uniformly in most regions with the exception of the Northwestern Federal District, which has seen a modest increase. In the middle of the year, Soyuzcement - the Union of Russian Cement Producers, was expecting wildly different scenarios ranging from falls of up to 10% in a negative situation to rebound of up to 3% in a positive one. It was pinning its hopes on government support for the construction industry in various ways. With the trend to August 2020, record breaking numbers of new coronavirus cases in early November 2020 and the onset of winter, it seems unlikely that Soyuzcement’s positive thinking will come to pass.
With this in mind who might want to buy into Eurocement? No doubt various private equity firms and local producers are watching the oil price carefully while they plan their next move. Internationally, LafargeHolcim seems the obvious western multinational contender with a presence in the country. Yet it seems unlikely it would want to take the risk, following its departure from certain regions like South-East Asia in recent years and persistent rumours about other divestment targets. HeidelbergCement’s balance sheet, credit lines and appetite for risk might not yet withstand a major investment in Russia. Buzzi Unicem has actually been expanding recently with an acquisition in Brazil but whether it’s prepared to bet on another market disrupted by coronavirus is unknown. China National Building Materials Group Corporation (CNBM) was reportedly planning on becoming a shareholder of Eurocement Group in 2016 but this may have just been bluster surrounding geopolitical links between Russia and China, and general cooperation between the companies on upgrading Eurocement’s old production lines. However, Russia is the next location in China’s Belt and Road initiative so it’s not ridiculous. Whoever steps up can expect the Russian government to take a keen interest, depending on how much control Sberbank wants to offer up of Eurocement. The story continues.