Opinion

Cementing ties with India

Vinay Kamath | Updated on March 12, 2018

Martin Kriegner, Country-CEO, Lafarge India

I was never overly excited in the good years and I am not pessimistic now because there is a dip. I think we need to have more balanced views. MARTIN KRIEGNER, COUNTRY CEO, LAFARGE INDIA





He loves biryani and paneer and Indian food in general. A collector of modern art, he has an eclectic collection from Europe, Malaysia and India. A doctorate of law with an MBA to boot. All this doesn’t add up to a picture of a phlegmatic Austrian who has now lived in India for six years and in East Asia altogether for over a dozen years.

Martin Kriegner, country CEO of French building materials and cement major Lafarge’s Indian affiliate, says he and his family have taken to India (his son was born in Mumbai) like ducks to water. Says he, “One has to really dive into India, engage and live here in the true sense and not just be a tourist or guest. We see India as our home and I think that makes a difference because people also feel that you are here to invest in them and the relationship …that makes a huge difference.”

I catch up with the lean, 6’3 Kriegner at the Trident, near the airport. He’s in Chennai for a quick tour of six ready-mix concrete plants that Lafarge operates in and around the city.

We meet at the business lounge where the hotel staff has laid out a big spread: sacher torte, an Austrian chocolate cake, apple strudel and black forest pastries with masala vadas and mini samosas thrown into the mix. Tea cakes, cookies and hot coffee to follow. There’s enough fuel to keep a conversation going.

Long association

Lafarge has been in India for almost 15 years, entering the country with the acquisition of Tata Steel’s cement business. Along the way, it took over Raymond’s cement business and later the ready-mix concrete business from L&T. India, says Kriegner, is a very important market because of its size and potential. “The whole construction market is open to us, which is around €300 billion in India this year. It’s a huge number in absolute terms. On the other hand when we take per capita indicators and compare with other countries, India is at a very early stage of development,” he explains, as we help ourselves to some vadas and samosas.

Kriegner can handle Indian spices, I learn.

Cement demand in India, he continues, is 180 kg per capita while the world average is around 350 kg. “It is a cycle which goes up to 700-800 kg in developed countries, and then it peaks and matures and when the population is older it comes down again. So, we have countries where we have 800-1,000 kg per capita when there is a peak.

So you can extrapolate that to say there is huge potential in India. More housing is needed, the population is growing and urbanisation is increasing. So it is obvious that this market is bound to grow.” India is among the top 10 markets for the French cement major, but Kriegner expects it will soon come into the top five.

The cement industry has been feeling the blues in the past year so I ask him about prices and if there’s a revival in demand.

“You must have seen the last quarter numbers of cement companies,” he says.

“The industry’s performance is down and many have invested to grow their capacities, so debts are high. And then there is cost inflation on top of all this. I think this will gradually reflect in the price. Pricing has been quite strong this year. The problem has been on the costs. They are going up significantly and there is definitely pressure to pass this on to consumers.”

But the upside is that the good monsoon all round will boost rural demand. “There is a strong correlation between a good monsoon and construction,” he adds.

Unforgettable memories

The hotel staff plies us with a constant supply of food, but we are stuffed, we wave them away. Over a steaming cuppa I ask Kriegner about his memorable India experiences.

There is one story from the early days of his first stint in India.

“In Austria, when you want your secretary to connect you on the phone with somebody, the English translation of the instruction means ‘bring in’. In my office in Mumbai, I had asked my assistant to ‘bring me’ this official from Kolkata,” recalls Kriegner. Then he forgot about him. To his great surprise he found the gentleman from Kolkata standing in front of his desk that evening! His secretary literally ‘brought’ the man from Kolkata to Mumbai by the next flight thinking the chief wanted to meet him.

“And she said you told me to bring him so I got him here. I learnt then how there was a different meaning to what I said,” recalls Kriegner with a hearty laugh.

His travels to rural markets and villages in India have taken him to the boondocks. “Some of our plants are at remote places because that’s where we have the limestone. I think living in the city gives you a really different picture of India from the small villages where there is no power. I have been to very basic places and sometimes there is nothing. I must be the first foreigner ever touching such places,” he elaborates.

Love for art

Kriegner has an abiding interest in modern art, but he buys it because he likes it and not as an investment. “I don’t buy the big names,” he says.

A collection of over 60 paintings of modern Austrian artists has been in storage at home ever since he shifted base to the East, and started collecting again.

He bought art during his stint in Malaysia as well and now that he’s back in India he’s a regular at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery to see what’s new.

He has a host of paintings by several artists, including newcomers such as Neeraj Patel and Vivek Sharma, who specialises in photorealism.

Kriegner has a painting of M. F. Hussain by Sharma, much like a photo, very realistic and detailed.

“It must have taken him ages to do this; interesting to see what young artists are up to,” he adds.

Kriegner is upbeat about the India story even though muchpessimism abounds. “There will always be cycles, economies never grow in a straight line but I am optimistic, you know. A good balance needs to be maintained to see how the global scenario is impacting India or not. I was never overly excited in the good years and I am not pessimistic now because there is a dip. I think we need to have more balanced views on this,” he says as he signs off.

It’s time for his flight to Mumbai and I leave with the evening tea settling like cement in my tummy.

Published on September 14, 2013

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