Business Irish

Sunday 23 July 2017

Cement giant CEO quits after Syria rebels bribe probe

Syria President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria President Bashar al-Assad.

Alice Baghdjian

The CEO of the world's biggest cement company has resigned after two years at the helm amid a probe into operations in war-torn Syria.

The departure of Eric Olsen leaves LafargeHolcim without a leader as it struggles to make a success of the merger between French and Swiss rivals.

Olsen is leaving on July 15, with chairman Beat Hess named interim CEO during the search for a successor, the Switzerland-based company said in a statement. Olsen called his departure a bid to appease "strong tensions" arising from the Syria case. The company doesn't hold him responsible, saying his role and possible implication "has been a point of attention".

"This is another setback in a long series of bad decisions for Holcim and a necessary step to ensure the company can make a clean start," Bernstein analyst Phil Roseberg wrote in a note.

The resulting "management vacuum at this time is likely to set back their already ambitious goals".

Olsen got the top job as a compromise to get the 2015 merger through. He was executive vice president of operations at Lafarge, the French company that merged with Switzerland's Holcim and was running the Syrian plant. His departure comes after LafargeHolcim said an internal investigation found "significant errors of judgement" after money was paid to armed Syrian groups to keep the site operating. While local and regional managers made the decisions, "selected members of group management were aware".

Syria has been in the grip of a multi-sided civil war that began as a peaceful upraising against the dictatorship of the country's President Bashar al-Assad.

An internal probe found funds were given to third parties in Syria who then made arrangements with a number of groups, including "sanctioned parties". The company said the payments were unacceptable.

Islamic State fighters seized the plant in September 2014.

Yesterday, LafargeHolcim said operating a plant in a war zone and the "can-do" approach to maintain operations led those involved in the running of the plant to "seriously misjudge" the situation.

The resignation "is driven by my conviction that it will contribute to addressing strong tensions that have recently arisen around the Syria case", Olsen said in the statement.

"While I was absolutely not involved in, nor even aware of, any wrongdoing I believe my departure will contribute to bringing back serenity to a company that has been exposed for months on this case."

Olsen, who has both French and US nationality, joined Lafarge in 1999. He was a compromise candidate after Holcim demanded changes to an initial merger agreement that would have installed Lafarge chief Bruno Lafont as head of the new entity. LafargeHolcim said in March that Lafont won't stand for re-election to the board.

A change at the helm of LafargeHolcim was decided just as Olsen was working to capture promised benefits of the merger.(Bloomberg)

Irish Independent

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