PPC has been in business for close on 129 years and has become a household brand in South Africa. IMIESA talks to Dave Miles, head: Materials Business Unit, PPC, about market gains and growth strategies in this multifaceted segment.

How is PPC responding to the business challenges in the Covid-19 environment?

DM  Fortunately, we were already well positioned to weather the storm and continue supporting our customers. Of course, we all know that the sudden arrival of Covid-19 put the handbrake on projects across the South African industry. Despite this, PPC has continued to forge ahead, thanks to our strategic marketing and forward-thinking approach. Adaptability, flexibility and diversification have been key contributing factors to our success. A prime example is the establishment of our Materials Business Unit around 2010.

Ongoing acquisitions form a key part of our expansion strategy. In 2013, for example, we acquired Pronto Readymix, as well as Ulula Ash. Then, in 2016, we bought 3Q Readymix. 

Currently, we operate 27 readymix plants, two ash plants, and four aggregate quarries (two in South Africa and Botswana, respectively). Our South African quarry operations, both situated in Gauteng, comprise Mooiplaas and Laezonia. The latter is the only quarry in Gauteng with an amphibolite deposit. Being a very hard material, amphibolite is the best-in-class material for the roads market.

How has Covid-19 affected PPC Materials and its contributions to infrastructure?

Overall, our product lines – namely aggregates, fly ash, readymix and premix – all performed well. In fact, our Ash business had one of its best trading years during 2020, spurred on by a huge demand for bagged cement from the formal and informal home building market.

The bulk of cement sold in South Africa has some sort of extender, whether it be slag, fly ash or limestone. Therefore, thanks to increased PPC bagged cement sales, our Ash business boomed.

Going forward, we will be expanding the PPC Fly Ash business with new contracts that have been awarded to Ulula. We’ve been very active in supplying large private industrial developments, especially in Gauteng, with some government work. Residential building also started to rebound from May 2020. 

However, within regions like Limpopo, North West, and Mpumalanga, mining infrastructure developments were postponed in 2020, as mines held back on capital expenditure.

The Aggregates business did exceptionally well, especially in terms of our readymix volumes. Other key sectors like the chemical, metallurgical and agricultural industries performed with mixed results depending on how the pandemic impacted their business operations.

Significant growth in construction aggregates during 2021 will be dependent on additional public infrastructure investment, particularly in roads.

How has PPC Materials been able to support SMME builders?

To sustain our Materials business during 2020, we looked for additional opportunities. Given the rise in bagged cement demand, we decided to do more in-depth research on the micro CPM (concrete product manufacturers)and building materials sectors in some of our larger townships. Our investigation showed that SMME builders generally felt PPC was too large to engage with directly.

We saw this as an opportunity to adapt our business model to match their expectations and requirements. This included implementing systems and processes at our weighbridges to make it easier to do business with PPC and servicing smaller loads at the quarry.

Our business philosophy is to sell the value based on a non-negotiable commitment to product quality. We shared this view with our SMME client base. The point driven home was that substandard quality is bad for any business. The precast concrete masonry bricks produced by micro CPM enterprises in the townships are a case in point, often using the cheapest materials at hand. Producing better bricks has lifted the standard of building in these townships and provided a competitive advantage for quality-driven SMMEs. Homeowners benefit from a structure that should now last for generations.

How is the premix product line developing?

Today’s professional teams are seeking faster and more efficient construction solutions. In response, PPC’s research and development teams have focused on technical, fit-for-purpose products. That’s where our premix range comes in.

Instead of workers having to mix on-site, with varying results, our premix products (dry mortars, plasters and screeds) are readymade, which achieves two things: major savings on time, and consistent quality assurance.

A growing number of contractors recognise the advantages. For example, the contractor at Tembisa Mall, completed in 2020, exclusively used PPC’s premix plaster, accelerating the overall construction programme and opening date.

For larger projects, we supply PPC SureMortar and SurePlaster (mortar and plaster) in 30 t silos and some 90% of our business is done this way. These silos feature an integrated continuous mixer. All the contractor needs to do is add water for an instant mortar. As a further plus, we blend our cement with extenders and numerous admixtures to make the product easier to use, even by semi-skilled workers – making the premix range ideal for Expanded Public Works Programme and labour-intensive construction projects.

The price per tonne might be more for premix, but this greatly outweighs the business and reputation risk of having to go back to site to fix defects.

Does PPC Materials’ readymix team provide custom solutions?

Definitely. This is one of the ways we demonstrate our ability to create ‘out of the box’ engineered solutions. A prime example is the DSV warehousing complex in Kempton Park, constructed in 2020. The main DSV warehouse covers an area of around 110 000 m2.

The developer approached us with very stringent performance requirements for the concrete mix. Together with our technical team, mixes were developed that met all the stringent technical requirements the professional team had. The scope entailed the pouring of 200 mm thick concrete floor panels, with joints every 2 500 m2. (For traditional slabs, the joints are installed every 25 m2.) To achieve the end goal, we worked with the client to design a unique readymix recipe. The project was a huge success, with evidence of zero cracking.

Will the PPC Sure bagged range be extended in 2021?

Last year, we launched the SureMortar and SurePlaster bagged products. Customers can watch this space, as we continue to develop application-based products that customers need.

What is the project pipeline looking like?

We’re busy across the board. In the roads segment, we’re currently supplying two major upgrade projects on the N4 between Rosslyn and Brits, and Witbank and Middelburg.

We are also negotiating with Eskom for further opportunities to source and process other ash dumps within their power station network.

On the readymix side, we’re investigating new supply opportunities in the renewable energy sector (wind farms and solar PV), as these projects start to gain momentum during 2021. We also expect mine infrastructure expansions to recommence this year.

Can PPC Materials make a difference?

Absolutely. We recognise the vital importance of providing a basket of products to our customers, irrespective of their size, or the scale of the project. This, combined with our expert technical support, makes the difference. Together, we are significantly stronger as we rebuild South Africa in the present and post-Covid-19 environment. 

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