During its Africa Forum, a gathering of key executives from Saint-Gobain locations across Africa, Jean- Claude Lasserre, CEO of Saint-Gobain Africa, talks about mitigating risk by investing in and supporting its operations on the continent and its long-term commitment to growth.
At Saint-Gobain’s fourth Africa Forum, held at its Midrand headquarters, CEO Jean-Claude Lasserre notes that investment into Africa is high on Saint-Gobain’s agenda and that the company remains committed to expansion and growth.
“Our presence on the continent is linked to the urbanisation and population migration trend which shows no sign of slowing down. We see almost 150 million people relocating to cities across the continent every five years. With the median age being low and population growth set to continue its upward progression, the growth potential is significant.”
The outlook, no matter how positive, comes with challenges. Plugging into local requirements and tailoring offerings to the diverse needs of different markets is key.
“We have modified our operational approach and product offering to cater to specific regions and markets. While consumer needs and wants are often universal, market maturity is an issue with infrastructure and industrialisation still in early stages. Factors such as supply chains, support from retailers, contractors and general compliance standards may not always be available or uniform which complicates doing business. Additionally, Africa’s enormous diverse cultural, ethnic, religious, and aesthetic differences have been the Achilles heel of many multinationals trying to do business on the continent, and we have learnt to avoid most of the pitfalls.”
Despite the challenges, Lasserre is confident that the opportunities outweigh potential drawbacks as evidenced by the acceleration of Saint-Gobain’s footprint in Africa. In 2019 the Group opened three new plants, one each in Angola, Ghana and Zimbabwe. It is planning another five in 2020.
“It goes without saying that the bigger the challenge, the bigger the reward, and the main factor in determining whether the risk will be worth it, is timing. We consider key factors within a region and make our decision based on that assessment. Policy changes, economic reform, and currency movements are some of the key factors we assess when identifying new markets. From an investment perspective, we believe that long-term vision, rather than instant fulfilment, is critical. Looking specifically at South Africa, we have continually partnered with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to ensure we are helping support and grow local industry. Our vision is to establish an enduring, viable presence in all our key markets.”
In line with this local support philosophy, Saint-Gobain has embarked on several initiatives to create expertise and sustainability in the markets in which it operates. According to Lasserre, this holistic philosophy takes both internal and external environments into consideration.
“Innovation is driven by trust and collaboration and we champion these traits. We encourage our people to put trust in their colleagues and empower management to employ and grow the very best talent available. We want new ideas; we want people to have the freedom to exceed their potential. Externally, co-operation is vital. We partner with various organisations to co-develop projects on research that often result in new materials and methodologies.
“When it comes to customers, we pilot several initiatives with distributors and retailers and provide them with new products for testing in real-life situations relevant to the environment of the country. We then refine and perfect the offering and release it to consumers.”
The company is also committed to skills development and training in South Africa.
“The Saint-Gobain YouthBuild Academy produces skilled, professional artisans who are specialists in our building solutions. We provide support for start-ups, assist them in finding projects, and continue with training during the first two years of their venture. This is how we create sustainability within our community and ensure a vibrant, profitable industry going forward.”
Looking back at 2019, Saint-Gobain has seen positive results. “In a fairly lacklustre sector, we have seen growth in areas that had been static. This year will see a continued focus on expansion, investment and market growth. We plan on getting stronger and better, and ensuring our presence on the continent goes from strength to strength.”