The economic winds shifted for chemical producers in 2014.
The collapse in the price of oil during the second half of the year was good news for European and Asian chemical companies, which enjoyed a reprieve from high raw material costs. But it was bad news for the Middle Eastern and U.S. firms that saw their usual advantage from using gas as a feedstock erode after their oil-based competitors cut chemical prices.
The decline in oil prices shows up as a trend in this edition of C&EN’s Global Top 50, which measures the performance of the world’s largest chemical companies using their financial results for 2014.
Combined sales for the Global Top 50 were $961.3 billion, a less than 1% decline from the $965.1 billion the group posted a year earlier. That’s consistent with declining selling prices for chemicals, although nothing like the 40 to 50% plunge in oil prices.
Profits, on the other hand, rose. The 44 companies in the ranking that publicly report profits combined for $82.7 billion in operating income, a gain of 3.8% from the previous year. Profit margins increased to 9.6% from 9.3% a year ago.
Although the overall changes were modest, this year’s Global Top 50 survey uncovered a lot of company-level volatility. By and large, petrochemical companies, which are closer to the oil barrel, lost ground to downstream specialty chemical makers.
Five firms—Alpek, Eni, PotashCorp, Styrolution, and Total—dropped from the list altogether. Alpek, Eni, and Styrolution make petrochemicals and polymers. Total does too, but it is gone because it no longer reports its petrochemical results. PotashCorp suffered from a decline in potash prices.
Newcomers to the survey this year are Hanwha Chemical, Siam Cement, BP, Ecolab, and Johnson Matthey. BP joined because it is now breaking out its chemical sales in a timely fashion. Siam Cement and Hanwha are benefiting from rising economic fortunes in Asia. Ecolab and Johnson Matthey are both specialty materials suppliers that are seeing strong growth.
Regular readers of the Global Top 50 survey will notice a new presentation this year.
For the first time, C&EN is providing short profiles of each of the top chemical companies. The numbers in the survey don’t lie, but they also don’t tell the whole story. The new profiles complement the data by adding quick strategy reviews of the world’s top chemical makers.
For the ninth year in a row, BASF is the largest chemical company in the world. This year also happens to be the company’s 150th anniversary, so in April it threw itself a party. Attendees were treated to a musical composition, “Symphony No. 8: Water Dances,” written by British composer Michael Nyman for the occasion and performed by London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The work was inspired by 1,500 recordings made at BASF offices and plants. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was on hand, and in addition to praising the company, she did remind the audience about BASF’s role in supplying chemical weapons during World War I and gas used in the Holocaust. BASF’s strategic initiatives were modest during its birthday year. The company inked a deal last October to sell its textile chemicals business to Archroma, the former Clariant textile chemicals business now owned by SK Capital. In May, it agreed to sell its fine chemicals unit to Siegfried, continuing a trend by major chemical firms to beat a retreat out of custom synthesis.
2 Dow Chemical
Andrew N. Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical, spent much of the past year on the defensive. His company was beset by activist investor Daniel S. Loeb, whose hedge fund Third Point owns 1.9% of Dow. Loeb maintained that Dow’s strategy of integrating petrochemicals with downstream specialty chemicals was counterproductive and that the company, the largest U.S. chemical firm, should be earning $2.5 billion more per year. This marked a stark difference of opinion with Liveris, who once told reporters that a company focused solely on commodity chemicals has “no control of its destiny except the whims of the markets.” But before resorting to a contentious proxy fight, Liveris and Loeb made peace, and Dow allowed two Third Point directors on its board. Dow has since agreed to sell its chlorine and derivatives business to U.S. chlor-alkali specialist Olin.
Being the largest supplier of petrochemicals in the country that for a decade now has been the linchpin of global industrial growth has done wonders for Sinopec’s chemical revenues. China’s Sinopec is the world’s third-largest chemical company. A decade ago it was merely the ninth largest with $16.7 billion in revenues. However, Sinopec’s strong position hasn’t guaranteed high profits. Owing to a lack of competitive raw materials, China is one of the most expensive places in the world to make petrochemicals, which shows in Sinopec’s operating loss for 2014.
Mohamed H. Al-Mady, who led Saudi Basic Industries Corp. since 1998, stepped down from the firm in February to accept a post in Saudi Arabia’s defense industry. Al-Mady presided over dynamic growth as SABIC used cheap Saudi ethane to fuel high profits and capital expansions. Knowing its feedstock advantage couldn’t last forever, SABIC has rolled many of those profits into international acquisitions such as its 2007 purchase of General Electric Plastics. Recently, the company has been focusing on technology. It is considering an oil-to-chemicals complex for the kingdom. It is forming a polyethylene joint venture with South Korea’s SK Innovation, and it even has a nanotube venture, Black Diamond Structures, with U.S.-based Molecular Rebar.
Unlike major oil companies such as Shell and BP, ExxonMobil never made major divestitures in petrochemicals. “We see the value of the chemical businesses,” former ExxonMobil Chemical president Stephen D. Pryor told C&EN shortly after retiring on Jan. 1. “The prospective value of chemicals has only grown over time, and you will see chemicals an ever-larger part of the company.” Indeed, ExxonMobil recently doubled petrochemical capacity at its refining and petrochemical complex in Singapore. It is also building an ethylene cracker in Texas and working on a massive elastomers joint venture in Saudi Arabia with Saudi Basic Industries.
6 Formosa Plastics
After a string of seven serious industrial accidents in 2011, Formosa Plastics made a strategic imperative of upgrading its flagship complex in Mailiao, Taiwan. The company spent $400 million to improve the facility to make it less susceptible to corrosion and easier to inspect. Meanwhile, Formosa is also exploiting shale gas riches in the U.S. At its Point Comfort, Texas, complex, the company is building an ethylene cracker, a propane dehydrogenation unit, and polyethylene and polypropylene plants.
7 LyondellBasell Industries
Bhavesh V. (Bob) Patel, LyondellBasell’s new CEO, has some big shoes to fill. His predecessor, James L. Gallogly, led the company out of bankruptcy and made it one of the most respected names in petrochemicals by the time he retired early this year. Conservatism seems to be the company’s mantra. While more than a dozen firms are building multi-billion-dollar U.S. ethylene crackers to take advantage of cheap shale gas, Lyondell is focusing on incremental expansions of existing plants as a way to boost output more quickly and cheaply.
To activist investor Nelson Peltz and his firm Trian Partners, DuPont CEO Ellen J. Kullman and her management team can’t do anything right. The 2.7% stakeholder in DuPont says the firm’s high overhead hurts profitability and that its R&D spending yields disappointing results. Most other shareholders, it turns out, took Kullman’s side. At DuPont’s annual meeting in May, they voted down the four directors Peltz nominated to the board. Nevertheless, DuPont is making major changes. It just spun off its performance chemicals unit as Chemours, a company which on its own should rank among the world’s Top 50 chemical companies in 2016.
Ineos is one of the world’s 10-largest chemical companies despite only having been founded only in 1998. Acquisitions, such as the 2005 purchase of BP’s Innovene olefins unit, made Ineos grow up fast. And Ineos hasn’t relented from this strategy. Last year it took over BASF’s share of the firms’ Styrolution styrenics joint venture, and this year it formed a polyvinyl chloride venture with Solvay that it will ultimately take over. Additionally, Ineos seeks to revolutionize the European chemical industry—now struggling with high-cost raw materials—by importing low-cost ethane from the shale-gas-rich U.S.
The German giant is one of the last major companies to play in both pharmaceuticals and chemicals. But later this year, Bayer’s MaterialScience business will go by a new name, Covestro. The business, which makes polyurethanes and polycarbonate, had $15.5 billion in sales in 2014, a figure that would make Covestro, on its own, the 23rd-largest chemical company in the world. The business hasn’t been earning the same returns as Bayer’s agrochemical and pharmaceutical units. Even without Covestro, Bayer should remain in the Global Top 50 on the strength of its agrochemicals business, which had sales last year of $12.6 billion.
11 Mitsubishi Chemical
With high costs for feedstocks, labor, and just about everything else, Japan isn’t a cheap place to make chemicals. Japanese chemical makers, resistant to the ax-wielding that U.S. and European managers use to cut costs, have avoided consolidation. Until recently, that is, and Mitsubishi, Japan’s largest chemical maker, is helping lead the way. The company recently formed a joint venture with Asahi Kasei to operate a cracker in Mizushima, Japan, so Asahi can close an old cracker there.
Shell’s sales dropped by 42% in 2014, and its place in the Global Top 50 fell from fifth to 12th. Shell officials blame the decline on an extended outage at its facility in Moerdijk, the Netherlands. The company’s most ambitious current initiative is its planned ethylene cracker complex in Monaca, Pa. Unlike similar projects on the U.S. Gulf Coast, the project has advanced little since being announced in 2012, but it is still active. Shell recently purchased the land and has secured air permits from the State of Pennsylvania. Elsewhere during the past year, Shell completed expansions at its complexes in Singapore and Wesseling, Germany.
13 LG Chem
The South Korean chemical firm has been aggressively growing in materials for electronics. Earlier this year, LG unveiled a $100 million investment in liquid-crystal display polarizers in China. It also has been advancing organic light-emitting diodes for lighting. Its Holland, Mich., lithium-ion battery cell plant started up in 2013. But it isn’t all about electronics at LG. The company recently plunked down $200 million to buy the reverse-osmosis-membrane developer NanoH2O.
Braskem’s second-largest shareholder is the Brazilian state oil company Petrobras, which is enmeshed in a corruption probe. Allegations that Braskem may have improperly benefited from naphtha contracts with Petrobras back in 2009 may rope the petrochemical maker into the scandal. This year, the renewal of an all-important naphtha contract with Petrobras went down to the wire. Additionally, Petrobras may be forced to sell its Braskem stake. But given that Braskem is set to open a multi-billion-dollar petrochemical complex in Mexico, the company may still turn 2015 into a positive year.
15 Air Liquide
The past year has been one of big accomplishments for the French industrial gases firm. In February, the company was tapped to build the world’s largest air separation unit for South Africa’s Sasol. It also won its biggest hydrogen contract ever, in Saudi Arabia. Late last year, Air Liquide announced it is teaming up with Toyota Motor to build a chain of hydrogen filling stations in the northeastern U.S. for fuel-cell vehicles.
The Dutch paint and specialty chemicals maker has been relatively quiet on the strategic front since 2008, when it purchased ICI for $16 billion. Akzo has, however, been active on the technology frontier, especially in clean technologies. Over the past year, the company has unveiled initiatives to make chemicals from sugar beets, municipal solid waste, and even carbon dioxide.
Linde sees the combination of an aging population and rising life expectancy as a key to growth. That’s why in 2012 the German industrial gases maker bought Lincare and Air Products & Chemicals’ European home care business, both of which supply oxygen and other medical gases to patients. New CEO Wolfgang Büchele, who came to Linde last year after heading Kemira, endorses this strategy. “Our medical gases and services for respiratory therapy not only meet this growing demand, but also—even more importantly—support these patients by significantly improving their quality of life,” Büchele says in the company’s annual report.
18 Sumitomo Chemical
Like other Japanese chemical firms, Sumitomo has participated in consolidation in its home country, earmarking an ethylene cracker and a caprolactam plant for closure. Meanwhile, a weakening yen and lower oil prices lifted its earnings in 2014. A big focus for Sumitomo has been on its agricultural chemicals and electronic materials businesses. For example, it is doubling capacity for lithium-ion battery separators.
19 Mitsui Chemicals
Mitsui is trying to do its part to improve the competitiveness of the Japanese chemical sector through consolidation. After the formation of a polyurethanes joint venture this year with South Korea’s SKC, Mitsui will close a toluene diisocyanate plant in Japan. It is also shuttering a Japanese phenol plant it operates with Idemitsu Kosan.
20 Evonik Industries
Over the past year, Evonik has pursued as aggressive a capital expansion strategy as a specialty chemical maker can. The firm is planning a more-than-$100 million precipitated silica plant in the southeastern U.S. It will plunk down more than $100 million on specialty silicones in Germany and China. And with AkzoNobel, Evonik is building a potassium hydroxide and chlorine plant in Germany. The company also has been pushing new technology. Late last year it launched a silica-based replacement for plastic microbeads in personal care products and invested in Wiivv Wearables, a Canadian company that plans to use three-dimensional printing to produce biomechanically optimized shoe insoles.
21 Toray Industries
Among Japanese chemical firms, Toray has arguably the most aggressive growth strategy. The company bought industrial carbon fiber maker Zoltek last year. Months later, it won a new contract to supply carbon fiber to Boeing, a deal that brings its business with Boeing to $8.5 billion over 10 years. Toray likely isn’t finished investing. The firm plans to invest $1 billion in the U.S. and recently bought a 400-acre tract in Spartanburg County, S.C., where it will build a plant making carbon fiber and its precursors.
22 Reliance Industries
Reliance has long wanted to crack the U.S. petrochemical market. In 2009, the Indian firm tried but failed to buy LyondellBasell Industries out of bankruptcy. Reliance then bought into U.S. shale gas production and transportation, fueling speculation that it was contemplating a U.S. ethylene cracker. Instead, the company has decided to import 1.5 million metric tons of U.S. ethane per year to feed its ethylene crackers in India. It already has secured a contract with Mitsui O.S.K. Lines for six ethane-carrying vessels.
Formerly the fertilizer arm of Norsk Hydro, Yara was spun off in 2004 and has ridden the wave of the international fertilizer boom ever since. The company talked merger with U.S. rival CF Industries last year, but a deal didn’t materialize. Perhaps as a consolation, CF is acquiring Yara’s 50% stake in GrowHow, a U.K. fertilizer firm. Yara also will tap cheap U.S. shale gas through an ammonia plant it plans to build in Freeport, Texas, with BASF.
24 PPG Industries
PPG took a big step away from chemicals in 2013 when it merged its chlorine operations with Georgia Gulf to form Axiall. Now PPG is mostly a paint firm, though it retains a sizable silicas business. In cooperation with Goodyear, the company is rolling out high-performance silica for tires. And seeking to secure white pigment for paint, the company licensed its 40-year-old chloride-process titanium dioxide technology to Henan Billions Chemicals, which used the process to build a plant in Jiaozuo, China.
The Belgian firm has been one of Europe’s most active chemical deal-makers. Solvay sold its pharmaceutical business to Abbott Laboratories for $6.2 billion in 2010 and used the proceeds to fund its purchase of Rhodia the following year. Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, who had led a turnaround at Rhodia, was tapped as Solvay’s new CEO. He has continued Solvay’s restructuring, recently sending its chloro-vinyl assets to a joint venture with Ineos and buying the oil-field chemicals firm Chemlogics.