The cement industry is adding capacity in a poor market.

I was recently in the office of a ready-mixed concrete producer, which had been a player in what was once a red-hot housing market.

“Four years ago, I drove to work with a knot in my stomach, wondering which customer was going to be mad at me that day because I didn’t have enough concrete because of the cement shortage,” he said. “But that’s all changed. Now the knot is how I keep cutting costs to make it through this.”

What a pendulum swing in just a few short years.

If we think the ready-mixed concrete industry has been challenging the last 18 months and has more ahead in 2009, at least we are not witnessing new greenfield plants or unsubstantiated plant capacity expansions underway. In fact, producers are closing non-productive plants, parking trucks, or leaving markets altogether. This brings capacity in line with demand.

So imagine the quandary in which the U.S. cement industry finds itself, as demand continues to fall while new capacity is coming online. PCA has issued downward revision after downward revision to its tonnage outlook.

This past fall, cement analyst Roy Grancher released a seminal report on the domestic cement industry, focusing on the capacity expansions undertaken during the boom years of mid-decade and the impact this will have on supply and demand for the next couple of years. Here are the highlights:

  • Market control: Much of the domestic capacity expansions have been driven by a change in the strategic mindset of the cement industry toward further control of what lies down the value chain. The new PCA mission statement explains, 1) that “vertical integration is here,” thereby “the importance of partnership is readily apparent in both cement and concrete,” and 2) the objective to focus on “concrete market development as a cement association.”
  • Out with old, in with the new:  Three greenfield cement plants are underway: the Oldcastle plant in Sumterville, Fla.; the GCC plant in Pueblo, Colo., and in St. Genevieve, Mo., where Holcim is adding 4 million tons of annual capacity. And significant capacity expansions are unfolding, either physical or through acquisition, by at least six other multi-nationals: Cemex in Balcones, Texas; Essroc in Martinsburg, W.Va.; Ash Grove in Foreman, Ark,; Vulcan’s purchase of Florida Rock; Cemex’s acquisition of Rinker; Lafarge’s expansion in Joppa, Ill.; and Lehigh Hanson’s expansion in Mitchell, Ind. Others are upgrading and expanding.

These projects will add millions of tons of capacity while the market is driving older plant closures and expansion cancellations, such as Votorantim’s Florida plant.

  • Homegrown profits:  These expansions, coupled with the industry downturn, have dramatically reduced imports, and will for the foreseeable future. The 1990s saw supplemental imports to meet demand climb steadily from single-digit millions of tons to almost 30 million tons, accounting for 28% of national supply.

This leveled off in the last recession, then moved up again to new record buying. In 2006, 36 million tons were purchased, representing 30% of U.S. consumption. In 2007, U.S. imports tumbled, down 13 million tons. Forecasts point to a further sharp fall in U.S. imports, with projections pointing to a fall below 7 million tons within two years.

The good news is that some optimists, including me, see the cement demand curve swinging back up as early as 2010, and certainly by 2012. Another important factor: When the recovery comes, producers won’t face a cement shortage.

Let’s hope the cement industry’s plans work and the economy responds. A healthy cement industry is good for the concrete industry.

Pierre Villere is President and Managing Partner of Allen-Villere Partners. Contact Pierre Villere at or telephone 985-727-4310.

© 2009 Hanley Wood, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Republication or dissemination of “Finding the right balance” (The Concrete Producer, January 2009) is expressly prohibited without the written permission of Hanley Wood, LLC. Unauthorized use is prohibited. Allen-Villere is publishing “Finding the right balance” under license from Hanley Wood, LLC.