HeidelbergCement’s Lorenz Näger

The CFO of HeidelbergCement discusses the German building-materials firm's recent takeover of Hanson and assesses the outlook for capital markets following the subprime meltdown.

Cement alone isn’t enough to make a building. Aggregates such as sand, natural gravel and crushed stone are also needed to bulk out and strengthen the concrete. Likewise for HeidelbergCement, a German building-materials group, which invested heavily during the past year to ensure that it has the right mix for its business.

With a history dating back to the city of Heidelberg’s first cement plant in 1873, the firm’s business was solely domestic until the late 1970s when it invested in French cement company Vicat and bought Lehigh Cement in the US. In the subsequent years, it expanded across Europe, Africa and Asia. But it was only in 2006 that its board decided cement was no longer enough for the €9 billion group.

“We were based purely on cement, standing on one leg,” recalls Lorenz Näger, the Frankfurt-listed group’s CFO since October 2004. “We came to the conclusion that that’s not sufficient in mature markets and that we needed a second, raw-materials business line to round up our strategic position in many countries, especially the UK and North America.”

That decision led to the May 2007 acquisition of Hanson, a public UK-based aggregates company formed ten years earlier from the break-up of an eponymous conglomerate. Heidelberg paid £8 billion (€11.8 billion) for the company in a deal backed with debt from Deutsche Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland. In the following months, the group sold several non-core assets — including its stake in Vicat — to help refinance the takeover.

Näger says the integration and refinancing are running according to plan, and the group expects to report operating income of €1.8 billion for 2007, up from €1.3 billion a year before and including about €200m from Hanson. Nonetheless, ratings agency Fitch changed its outlook for HeidelbergCement to negative from stable in late January, arguing that uncertainties in global credit markets may make it difficult for the group to use further disposals in refinancing the acquisition cost.

HeidelbergCement responded by reiterating its commitment to de-leveraging and stabilising its investment grade ratings. Shortly before these events, Näger discussed the Hanson acquisition, integration and market outlook with CFO Europe.

You completed the Hanson takeover in August last year. How has the business been integrated?

Our ambition was to have a blueprint of the future organisation 100 days after closing. We split the integration team into countries and segments: operational excellence, meaning improving day-to-day operations; market synergies; and administration and other central functions. My involvement was mainly in shared service centres and IT, where we have big challenges to reduce the number of systems and bring together accounting, payroll, treasury, risk management and other functions.

Now the planning is done, and the challenge is to implement it.

During a busy year for the company, what aspects did you find most challenging as CFO?

The biggest challenge is going through every project’s decision-making process a second time and repositioning each one. It’s a leadership challenge to motivate people and redirect their ambitions, while breaking the group vision into detailed decisions. There’s the overall picture of going from a single-product company to a two-product company — processes that were right yesterday may need to be changed for the future. But what is the impact on the IT department? What is the impact in the shared service centre? And so on.

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