LafargeHolcim chief steps down to restore “serenity” after Syria controversy

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LafargeHolcim has confirmed its chief executive will step down after an internal investigation into a plant the Swiss-French cement company operated in Syria until September 2014.

Eric Olsen said he was quitting to help relieve the pressure LafargeHolcim has faced over a Lafarge cement plant that the company continued operating as Syria descended into civil war. But in a statement on Monday he denied any direct responsibility in the affair.

“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,” Mr Olsen said.

LafargeHolcim said Mr Olsen would leave on July 15, two years after becoming chief executive and taking responsibility for the implementing the €41bn merger between France’s Lafarge and Switzerland’s Holcim.

Beat Hess, chairman, will takeover as interim chief executive until a successor is found.

Mr Olsen’s departure follows the conclusion of an internal review into the operation of the Jalabiya plant in Syria as the country’s civil war intensified in 2013 until it was evacuated in September 2014. Human rights groups have alleged the company helped finance terrorism.

LafargeHolcim said the report had confirmed initial conclusions “that a number of measures taken to continue safe operations at the Syrian plant were unacceptable, and significant errors of judgement were made that contravened the applicable code of conduct.”

It added:

The findings also confirm that, although these measures were instigated by local and regional management, selected members of Group management were aware of circumstances indicating that violations of Lafarge’s established standards of business conduct had taken place.

However, the company said Mr Olsen “was not responsible for, nor thought to be aware of, any wrongdoings that have been identified as part of its review”.

LafargeHolcim said a range of measures would be taken to strengthen controls to prevent a repeat of the incident, but because of legal proceedings in France, it would not comment further on the findings or on the conduct of individuals.

Paris prosecutors have opened a preliminary inquiry into alleged dealings between Lafarge and sanctioned groups in Syria following a complaint by the French finance ministry.

Human rights groups in France have filed a lawsuit and have alleged that the company had “business relations” with militant group Isis and may have taken part in financing the group.

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