LafargeHolcim took what appeared to be a surprising decision this week when it announced it was buying roofing and building envelope producer Firestone Building Products (FSBP). The deal raises eyebrows because it seems to be a departure from the building material producer’s previous dedication to its three major pillars: cement, aggregates and ready-mixed concrete. Yet, it follows the logic of sticking to safer markets both geographically and in terms of sustainability.
First some background. Originally, Global Cement was following the auction for FSBP via its sister publication Global Insulation. Reporting from Bloomberg in December 2020 focused on more obvious bidders such as Ireland-based insulation producer Kingspan and roofing products producer Standard Industries. However, Kingspan has been struggling publicly with fallout from the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry in the UK. Despite not formally supplying any of its products for the tower block in London, it has become embroiled in the allegations of a general culture of cheating safety tests for foam board-based insulation products. At the almost the same time that it dropped out of the FSBP bidding, its chief executive officer (CEO) Gene Murtagh apologised for ‘process shortcomings’ that had been highlighted by the ongoing inquiry. Make of this what you will. No word on why Standard Industries left proceedings but it also seems to part of a consortium trying to take over US-based chemical producer WR Grace. All of this is relevant because, from publicly-available sources, LafargeHolcim appeared to emerge out of nowhere to snaffle up FSBP. However, it seems ludicrous that a company with a revenue of around Euro25bn in 2019 could simply pull something like Euro2.8bn out of its pocket at the last minute. It’s likely it was quietly in the bidding process the whole time.
Back in the early 2010s Lafarge was busy selling off its major ‘non-core’ assets like its gypsum business in the wake of picking up debts from acquisitions like cement-producer Orascom in the Middle East. This then turned into a string of divestments following the merger with Holcim to try and shore up the business along with a general pivot towards concrete as the key end-product as sustainability concerns gathered pace. Producing cement remains a major part of LafargeHolcim’s business but a focus on the whole lifecycle of concrete is vital as a hedge against the high process emissions associated with making clinker. Cement factories run the risk of becoming so-called stranded assets depending on future government regulations.
In its acquisition statement LafargeHolcim played up the sustainability credentials of buying FSBP. It noted that up to 60% of buildings’ energy is lost through roofs and that FSBP’s products help to reduce this. Then it made the link that FSBP’s technologies and products complement LafargeHolcim’s sustainable building solutions like its ECOPact green concrete and its EcoLabel sustainable product range. Later, when LafargeHolcim CEO Jan Jenisch spoke to US broadcaster CNBC he described the move as a ‘perfect fit’ for his company’s goal, “to be the most sustainable and most innovative building materials supplier in the future.” The geographical point of the acquisition hasn’t been dwelt on as much as sustainability but no doubt buying a business based in the US with revenue of US$1.8bn is seen as being far safer than buying, say, a similar concern in East Asia.
Investing in a business that sells products that reduce energy loss in the building envelope follows the trend of the moving sustainability-related risk along the supply chain from cement to concrete and beyond. Ultimately consumers will have to pick up the true carbon price of their buildings, but if building materials producers buy more of the envelope they can spread this cost more thinly and hopefully build up the market in the process. One can also imagine it fitting with the mindset of CEO Jan Jenisch, the former boss of Sika, a company that sells speciality chemicals across a wide range of markets. The real test here is whether LafargeHolcim will buy more companies in the wider building materials sector or if other heavy building materials producers will copy them. If so then the days of heavy building material producers sticking to the three pillars of cement, aggregates and concrete may be numbered.