The Kiln of Theseus

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Congratulations are in order for CalPortland. It celebrates its 125th anniversary or quasquicentennial today. According to the company blurb on the website, a cement plant was established in 1891 in Colton, California. This was the first plant west of the Rockies and it went on to supply building materials towards the development of Los Angeles. However, the website doesn’t exactly shout about its purchase in 1990 by one of the Japanese companies that eventually became Taiheiyo Cement. Its earliest constituent company, the Cement Manufacturing Company, was established 10 years earlier than CalPortland in 1881. So perhaps CalPortland could celebrate the 135th anniversary of its Japanese owners at some point this year too.

Company Country Year Age
LafargeHolcim Switzerland 1833 183
AnhuiConch China 1997 19
CNBM (Sinoma) China 1984 32
HeidelbergCement Germany 1873 143
Cemex Mexico 1906 110
Italcementi Italy 1864 152
China Resources China 2003 13
Taiwan Cement Taiwan 1946 70
Eurocement Russia 2002 14
Votorantim Brazil 1918 98

Table 1: Age of leading cement companies by production capacity: Source: The Top 100 Report 2016, Global Cement Directory 2016, company websites, Wikipedia

As can be seen from Table 1, a list of major cement producers by production capacity in 2016, most of the European or non-Chinese multinationals are old. They have roots in various predecessor companies going back at least a century. By contrast most of the Chinese producers on this list are far younger having been established since the 1980s.

Company Country Year
Lafarge (LafargeHolcim) France 1833
Vicat France 1853
Dyckerhoff (Buzzi Unicem) Germany 1864
Italcementi (HeidelbergCement) Italy 1864
Essroc (Italcementi) US 1866
HeidelbergCement Germany 1873
Taiheiyo Cement Japan 1881
CalPortland (Taiheiyo Cement) US 1891
PPC South Africa 1892

Table 2: Age of selected older cement companies still in business: Source: Company websites.

Table 2 adds an international perspective from the cement industry to CalPortland’s achievement. It’s an arbitrary list chosen from larger, mostly multinational cement producers that still operate today. As such it may well be missing some key names. However, they all follow the first industrial revolution innovators in cement such as John Smeaton, Joseph Aspdin or Louis Vicat. A generation later the first cement companies that have endured to the present in some form or another such as Lafarge, Vicat or Dyckerhoff started to appear. As impressive as the longevity of these companies are though, they pale in comparison to Saint-Gobain, the French construction materials company that was first established in 1665.

A BBC News article on company lifespans found that the average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading US companies had decreased from 67 years in the 1920s to 15 years in 2012, according to research by Professor Richard Foster of Yale University [LINK]. By this measure most of the cement companies examined here are doing well. Yet, most of the older ones have endured such a tangle of mergers, acquisitions and changes that it is debatable whether any of them could be considered the same company as their originator. Joseph-Auguste Pavin de Lafarge may have started his operations at Teil in the Ardèche region of France in 1833 but LafargeHolcim, its modern day successor, is only one year old following its creation from Lafarge and Holcim in 2015.

This leads to the Ship of Theseus' paradox or the thought experiment regarding whether an object that has all of its parts replaced is still the same object. Just as humans gradually have most of their constituent parts (or cells) replaced over time so too do long-lasting companies. One superficial response is to point out that memory or heritage can have a lasting effect for individual, national and corporate entities. Just compare, for example, the different outlook of western European national states with millennia of continuation to much newer nations in the Americas. European countries, like the UK, are often seen as being old and stuffy compared to new world dynamism despite all the citizens in both regions being younger than their countries.

To end on a cementitious note, perhaps this dilemma should be renamed the Kiln of Theseus paradox for the cement industry. If a cement plant’s engineers replace all the parts of a cement kiln is it still the same kiln? The suspicion is that the staff at CalPortland would definitely think it is!

If any readers have a suggested name for a 135th anniversary This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Last modified on 21 September 2016


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