Polysius: Building foundations

30 May 2003
Going global was hardly Andreas Ernst Gottfried Polysius' intention when he opened an iron foundry and machine workshop in the northern German town of Dessau in 1859. Fifty years later, his heirs took the company name worldwide. Having become specialists in the design and manufacture of machines for crushing, grinding and processing raw materials and in the construction of cement works, Polysius' successors in 1907 sold and set up a complete cement works in Egypt, followed by one in China a year later.

Its outward-looking strategy has continued ever since. In 1946, Polysius relocated its base from Dessau to Beckum in the hinterland of Westphalia - a region rich in limestone. Since then, it has won contracts in the cement and minerals industries from South America to Europe to Malaysia, and established a network of 11 subsidiaries around the globe.

The Middle East emerged as a core market for Polysius' cement business in the late 1950s, when the company won two of the first three cement projects in Saudi Arabia. The successes were followed up by more work in the kingdom and in Iran, Egypt and Morocco throughout the 1970-80s. In the 1990s, cement industry expansion in the two North African states led to more contracts, although business in the Gulf slowed down due to a slump in construction activity and overcapacity. Today, however, the Gulf countries are again gaining the full attention of international cement firms such as Polysius.

'The Middle East and Saudi Arabia and Iran in particular now play a key role for our business, because there are no new investments in Germany and Europe, the boom in the US is over and the Asian market is still recovering,' says Bernhard Mittrup, sales director at Polysius.

As a plant engineering firm with an in-house product range, Polysius offers services from building new facilities to conversions and supplying and installing sections of a plant. Its capabilities have made it a natural choice for the Middle East, a traditional turnkey market. Since entering Egypt almost 100 years ago, Polysius has chalked up numerous prestigious contracts (see below).

While the long project list underlines the region's importance to Polysius, the cyclical nature of the industry has made it hard to come up with a regional strategy.

Says Mittrup: 'It is difficult to define an explicit strategy because we always have to respond to changing market conditions. Therefore it is important for us to be flexible. Two years ago no-one expected any new investments in Saudi Arabia, for example. Now we find the largest and most serious projects there, due to the need to build up the domestic infrastructure and to accommodate fast population growth.'

Two Saudi companies have already responded to the kingdom's need to add further capacity to meet rising cement demand. Eastern Province Cement is tendering a turnkey contract to build a 3,500-tonne-a-day (t/d) cement line at its Dammam site, while Qassim Cement Company is due to receive bids for a 4,500-t/d expansion of its plant in Buraidah.

Further bid opportunities for Polysius are on the cards elsewhere, with Yamama Saudi Cement Company and Arabian Cement Company looking to expand. Mittrup says other local cement producers are considering carrying out replacement jobs - swapping old equipment for new - and renovation works.

There is also talk about a greenfield development in the Western province, but the project is still at a study stage.

In neighbouring Qatar, Polysius is expecting Qatar National Cement Company to release tender documents by the middle of the year for the 1 million-t/y expansion of its Umm Bab plant. Further south, developments are being looked at in Yemen, where cement demand is on the rise but investors have yet to commit themselves to a new project.

Business looks promising on the other side of the Gulf, too. 'There are a large number of projects in Iran: modification jobs, upgrades and new projects,' says Mittrup. 'There are also indications that the private sector plans to play a greater role in the cement industry - although few of these schemes have so far taken off.'

The opportunities may be many, but complicated bidding procedures and difficult legal regulations have turned the Islamic republic into one of the toughest cement markets to bid in the region. A distinct feature of the state-dominated market has always been its ability to incorporate local consultants, contractors and a high share of local content into projects, generally limiting the scope of work for foreign firms to detailed engineering and the supply of specialist equipment. Moreover, the Islamic republic has proved to be an extremely price-conscious market.

Although Iran is not an easy market, the sheer number of projects being tendered and planned - the present capacity of 30 million t/y is set to increase by 4 million t/y in 2003/04 and to double by 2021 - will provide plenty of business for international companies. In an attempt to position itself for the challenges ahead, Polysius is considering opening a branch office in Tehran.

Iraq is yet another candidate offering potentially lucrative contracts over the medium to long term. After two wars and 12 years of UN sanctions, the Iraqi cement industry is on its knees, leaving most cement works running well below capacity, if at all. Expectations are that a huge amount of work will need to be done to bring production back to 1980s levels, when installed capacity stood at about 20 million t/y.

'We have been very active in Iraq at times, having installed production lines at the Suleimaniya, Kerbala and Badoosh cement plants,' says Mittrup. 'There is certainly an immense need to rebuild the cement sector but the question is, when will the industry be able to make decisions? And, of course, when will money be available and where is it going to come from?'

While the Iraq scenario is still unfolding, another factor could affect business in the region. With the appreciation of the euro against the dollar - and subsequently against most dollar-pegged regional currencies - downward pressure has increased on already highly competitive prices.

This will not prevent Polysius from pursuing further its global drive, a move that would certainly have received the approval of the company's founding father.

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