ARM Cement twisted in Kenya

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It’s been a tough week for ARM Cement with the announcement that PricewaterhouseCoopers placed the company into administration on 18 August 2018. Given the performance of the company of late, this is not a surprise. It reported a growing net loss of US$55m in 2017 due to poor demand in Kenya and Tanzania.

First, the company made a series of personnel changes to the board of the company at the start of last week, according to Business Daily and other local press. This was led by the announcement on 13 August 2018 that Pradeep Paunrana would step down as the chief executive officer (CEO). This is significant since Paunrana’s father Harjivandas set up the company, previously known as Athi River Mining (ARM), in 1974. Paunrana was reported as owning 9% share in the company in late 2017 with his family controlling a further 14%. He will remain as a board member. Paunrana’s departure was also joined by Wilfred Murungi who stepped down as chairman following 24 years as a director of the firm and Surendra Bhatia, who will retire as deputy managing director. Although ARM Cement is yet to announce who its new CEO will be it has said that Linus Gitahi will become the new chairman and he has also been appointed as a non-executive independent director. Former Lafarge executive Thierry Metro has also been appointed as a non-executive independent director.

Then, over the weekend PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) announced in the local press that it had placed the beleaguered company into administration. Muniu Thoiti and George Weru have been appointed as the lead administrators tasked with the job of either rescuing the company or preserving the best possible value for its creditors. On 20 August 2018 the local stock exchange, the Nairobi Securities Exchange, suspended trading of ARM Cement for seven days.

ARM Cement blamed its woes in 2017 on elections in Kenya causing reduced cement demand, a coal import ban in Tanzania causing production issues at its Tanga cement plant and increased competition in both countries. Those last two reasons carried resonance this week with the news that the Petroleum Development Corporation and Dangote Industries Tanzania had signed a long-term gas deal. Dangote Cement has also had energy supply problems in the country, being forced to resort to diesel generators at its Mtwara plant. Due to this its 3Mt/yr cement plant only sold 0.2Mt of cement in the first half of 2018, a decrease of 48% year-on-year from the same period in 2017. The forced reliance on diesel also caused earning losses that negatively affected its wider Pan-African area margins.

The general consensus in the local press is that the CDC Group forced the latest changes in management. The UK government-backed investment company owns a 41% stake in ARM Cement. In June 2018 it replaced two of ARM’s board members and appointed a new executive director and a new company secretary following resignations. CDC Group injected US$140m into the firm in mid-2016 in return for a 40% stake in the business. When the Nairobi Securities Exchange suspended trading, ARM Cement shares were a tenth of the value CDC Group paid for its stake. Given that the share value of ARM has steadily fallen since 2016, the question that occurs is: why did CDC Group take so long before taking action?

Two thoughts occur at this point. One: whatever else emerges in the coming weeks and months about how ARM Cement has ended up in administration, it is unfortunate that a burgeoning multinational producer took a hit in more than one country at the same time in an area with such growth potential for construction. As has been proved, market potential and performance are not the same thing. Two: if this is any indication of how the UK government will act in the post-Brexit world generally, then investing in pound sterling assets before the end of March 2019 may be unwise.

Last modified on 22 August 2018

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