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Tata Steel will pursue recycling route to grow in India: TV Narendran – Economic Times

The India business at 20 million tonnes will generate enough EBITDA to take care of the growth that is required in India without having to borrow to support that growth, says TV Narendran, CEO & MD, Tata Steel.

I never thought Tata Steel which is a commodity company will report this kind of robustness in their profit. We are talking to you at a time when steel prices and steel demand is at record high, so acche din (good days) are back but are acche din here to stay?
Yes these have been good times for the industry and rightly so. This industry has invested hugely in building capacity over the last many years and we have struggled with a lot of challenges over the last decade. We are seeing more stability in global markets. We are seeing more discipline out of China as far as steel exports are concerned and we are seeing demand coming back because many economies including India are investing in infrastructure and Tata Steel over the last few years has grown in India very significantly. India has always been at world-beating profitability levels from an industry benchmark point of view.

The steel cycle normally lasts for four to five…
The steel industry is going through a structural change. The steel prices will continue to be volatile. Secondly, the cost structures are changing because carbon costs are there in Europe. Thirdly, the demand side is showing improvement with everyone investing in infrastructure. So there are some structural changes. Prices will be volatile at a much higher level than it has been in the last 10 years.

One favourable factor could be the new American administration programme of Build America. America is the net importer of steel and they are now looking at creating a new infrastructure. Do you think from a demand standpoint, it is no longer China but the US which is going to create the biggest demand and that is the benchmark which we should use now?
In the US, the hot rolled coil prices are over $1,800. So, when we talk of high steel prices in India and the US, the cost of steel is twice that of India. Secondly, the US is not a great market or not an easy market to export into because there is a lot of protection in place. As a consequence, US steel prices will be high. The US is also a big exporter of scrap and that means, scrap prices will continue to be high in the global market. So the US will certainly drive a lot of the sentiment in the steel industry. But it may not be a great market to have access to because of all the restrictions they have.

While the steel cycle may be in a boom in India or China, the problem is Europe. That is a slow moving part for you. You have indicated in the past that you want the European business to become self sustainable. How far is the European business away from being atmanirbhar (self-reliant)?
I think it is already there. This year, the European business will be significantly EBITDA positive. It is already PAT positive. It will be cash positive. So they are already atmanirbhar. In fact, even last year, we hardly sent any money to our European business. They are pretty much standing on their own. The Netherlands business has always stood on its own and the UK business is also turning around quite well. You will see much better quarters ahead because in Europe we have a hangover of older contracts with lower prices. A lot of those have been renegotiated or have expired and new contracts have come in. So you will start seeing significant flow through into the bottom line in Europe starting this quarter. Europe is already standing on its own.

Your five-year capex plan shows very modest numbers. It is about $2 billion. Why is that?
We have announced that we will complete the Kalinganagar expansion which is 5 million tonnes and had already been announced earlier. We will complete that in the next couple of years. That is our primary focus. Beyond that, we have the opportunity to go to 40 million tonnes in India in our existing sites. We said that it is not part of our capex plan because we have not yet taken it to the board. But we have that possibility. Last year we said first let us get the debt down. Obviously the debt is coming down faster than we had planned. This year also will be strong as far as debt reduction is concerned. That gives us a lot of headroom to expand as and when we want and where we want.

Then there are inorganic growth opportunities in India as well. So from a growth point of view, the India business is committed to go to about 40 million tonnes over the next decade and we have both organic and inorganic growth possibilities to achieve that number. As far as Europe is concerned, the business will take care of itself. The capex required there will be more sustenance capex, improving the product mix, transitioning into a greener future and so on. It is not growth capex. Growth capex will be in India.

In a downcycle, everybody talks about debt. In an upcycle, everybody talks about capex. You have given us an indication of capex, let us talk about debt. In the non-declared capex plan, if you have to expand do you think you will be able to generate enough cash flows to sustain them or could this debt to equity ratio be compromised as you expand?
Typically the India business is able to take care of its own growth because the India cash flows have always been strong. In the case of the India business over the last 10-15 years, the lowest point has been 20% EBITDA margin and that is not so visible sometimes because of the consolidated numbers. But the India business is fundamentally strong and can stand on its own even in a downcycle and can take care of its own capex.

Growth in India need not be compromised even in a down cycle. What we have also said is in the long term, we will try to keep the debt EBITDA to less than 2. Today we are at 1.6 and it is going to go down further as we pay our debt but that is a headroom available to Tata Steel, even if we have to borrow. The business at 20 million tonnes will generate enough EBITDA to take care of the growth that is required in India without having to borrow to support that growth.

Unlike IT and a lot of other businesses, the steel cycle is cyclical. This is a boom time which means you would be generating a lot of cash and realisations will be higher. How are you planning to conserve the cash?
Primarily, we will pare down the debt. We pared the debt by almost Rs 27,000 crore last year. This year also there will be significant debt reduction playing out over the subsequent quarters. So there is a significant debt reduction plan that gives us the headroom to expand when we want to. We are certainly going to make sure that our balance sheet is fixed for good and we are strong enough to participate and pursue growth opportunities in India. We are committed to growing in India. We are very bullish about the prospects for steel in India and we will invest to grow.

Your annual report mentions that you are looking at lowering your dependence on iron ore and increasing your dependence on recycling. How will this change your operations and the timeline of your capex?
What we were basically saying is that while Tata Steel has traditionally been an iron ore and blast furnace based producer, we will pursue the recycling route to grow in India. Our south-east Asian business is totally recycling. It is all electric arc furnaces converting scrap into steel and outsteam products. What we said is particularly for long products business. We will leverage this process. We have already set up India’s first shredder and organised recycling facility in Rohtak.

We are scouting for an opportunity to build a mini steel plant there. We are talking to the different state governments there and we are looking at using this kind of a model to grow in the north, west and south where there is more scarp available than in the east. In the east, where there is iron ore available, our focus will be on iron ore base growth and we have three big sites in Kalinganagar, Angul and Jamshedpur to allow us to grow there. So we will have a mix of both. Iron ore based growth in the east and recycling and scrape based growth in the north, west and south.

There are very few sectors in India which have seen complete consolidation. Telecom is one. Steel is the other one. The reason why I am asking you this question is that you said you are open to inorganic opportunities. Are there any inorganic assets available in India?
Not so much in the private sector, but the government has announced plans for

Ispat. We are participating in the process there. There has been talk about RINL, we are waiting to see what the timeline is on that. So we will wait and see what are the inorganic growth opportunities. But in inorganic, we will be more focussed on long products because for flat products, our existing sites allow us the runway for growth and we should look at consolidation differently from flat products and long products. Flat products are very consolidated like you said but long products are 40-50% secondary sector. The bigger players account for less than 50% of the production in India. So there is room for consolidation in long products as well.

We are aware that Tata Steel is now trying to build a branded steel business. As percentage of your turnover, how large is that? What is the difference in terms of your long term contacts with auto companies and other buyers versus when you are selling it in the wholesale market or when you are selling steel or Tata Steel products as a brand?
So the whole concept of branding the way we do it today, started about 20 years back. The Tata Steel B2B business is the automotive, oil and gas business. There we focus on high quality products, discerning customers and approval-based business. It is technically challenging to get in and that is where we think we have an edge and we focus our B2B businesses there.

The B2C business leverages the Tata name because that business is about selling steel in single tonnes, one tonne, two tonne, three tonne for somebody who is building a house and that somebody who is building a house is not a regular steel buyer and is willing to pay the premium for Tata Tiscon which is our brand for rebars or Tata Shaktee which is a roofing sheet brand. They are ready to pay 10-20% more for steel which is 5% of the cost for building a house. So the whole business is built on that. It is worth about $2 billion now. We want to target about 20-25% of our revenues coming from B2C business including the services and solutions that we are selling to those customers. So these businesses are stickier as far as prices are concerned because the price depends on local issues and does not depend on what is happening in China or south-east Asia or elsewhere. This has been a strong business for us and continues to grow.

Another addition to that is we are doing almost Rs 100 crore a month of this online. Consumers are coming online and buying the steel. We have a platform called Aashiyana and that did Rs 700 crore business in the year that went by. We will do Rs 1,500 crore this year. It was Rs 300 crore when we started two years back. So we are seeing a different route to market developing, a different way of order generation and fulfilment, which are opportunities we want to leverage.

The steel cycle is good and so whatever is happening in Europe right now, will be overlooked and the numbers and the realisations would be different. But what is the long term plan to ensure that the European business is self-sufficient even in a steel downturn?
A lot of actions have been taken over the last few years. In ,Europe we shrunk the business when we first acquired it. It was 18 million tonnes, we shrunk it to 10 million tonnes and most of that shrinkage happened in the UK which was 10 million tonnes when we acquired and is 3 million tonnes now. So between the 3 million tonne plant in Port Talbot in the UK and the 7 million tonne plant in the Netherlands, we have the right sites in Europe.

Our Netherlands plant is one of the most cost efficient plants in Europe. It is well located and structurally strong and should be able to ride the downcycle. It has always done well even in the downcycle. We have had some operational issues in the last few years but now we are back to normal.

The UK is where we have had a bigger challenge and again there a lot of heavy lifting has been done. I think we are better positioned there. While we do not report the UK numbers separately, till last year, they were coming close to being EBITDA positive and now we are very clearly EBITDA positive. Hopefully, this year we will be cash positive in the UK as well. We are better positioned to ride the down cycle in both these places.

We are also talking to the governments because in Europe there is a transition plan being developed by different governments and the governments are willing to support industry because they want to decarbonise and hence they are willing to support industry in this transition. So there are conversations going on with both the Dutch government and the British government to see what the role government can play to help us transition to a green future.

Looking at the demand-supply and especially looking at the demand supply both in India and also globally, how long will it take for capacities to kick in because demand will remain strong that is what indicators are indicating us?
The difference between what is happening today and what happened 10-12 years back is that very few countries are adding capacity. Between 2000 and 2010, when demand was strong, China was adding 50 million tonnes a year of capacity. It is no longer happening. In fact, China is cutting down on production, China is reducing exports. The only country which is adding capacity significantly and rightly so is India.

That is why globally there will be a better balance. The big exporters of steel in the world are China, Japan, Korea and Russia. Japan has already said they are going to cut down local production because they do not want to export steel. Korea also is expected to go that way. Russia is also discouraging exports. Globally you will see a better balance in the trade and capacity if added, will largely be in India which is the right place to add capacity because India has good quality iron ore and India needs more investments and needs to create more jobs.

I believe India will emerge as a reasonably large exporter. We are already exporting one-and-a-half million tonnes a month now. India is certainly better positioned to be an exporter than Japan or Korea because we are a lower cost place to produce steel. It is not just Tata Steel, all our peers in the industry also produce steel efficiently and at a lower cost than most of our peers outside the country. When you look at Make in India, the steel industry is certainly an industry which should be backed. We are creating jobs in remote parts of the country and India is a good place to export steel from. I do not see excess capacity being built so fast this time.

There are indications that some ministries are not very happy about the sudden price hikes which have happened in cement and steel and indirect hints have come that industry needs to be more watchful. Could that pour cold water on the brilliant steel story in India?
Honestly the answer to rising steel prices is more steel production in India and the answer to more production in India is investments in steel in India and that investment will come if the steel industry is profitable. In the last 10 years, steel and power have suffered the most in terms of financial performance. If we do not have profit, where will the money come to invest and create more capacity and if we do not have more capacity, how do you manage prices in a globally traded product?

The problem of steel prices is not just an Indian problem, it is a problem globally. So unless there is profitability in the industry, investors will not invest in the industry. We should allow the industry to invest and if they have to invest, obviously there would be some years where they have to make some money and deleverage their balance sheet which is what is exactly happening. The steel industry together has announced investments of almost Rs 100,000 crore over the next few years. All of us have announced expansion plans. The money which is being made is getting reinvested in building more steel capacity, hopefully that will help stabilise prices in India but globally if steel prices are strong, that will have an impact on India as well.

Does the industry need entry barriers now?
I would like to clarify what entry barriers means. Anybody anywhere in the world can invest in India to build a steel plant. You cannot say that of most countries. Today, if some Indian steel company wants to invest and build a steel plant in China or Japan or Korea, it cannot. So from the investment point of view, we are freer than most countries in the world. The problem was steel was being dumped in India. Import duty for steel was 5% or 2.5% or 0% for some countries with whom we had an FTA. How many industries in India have 0% import duty or 2.5% import duty or even 5% import duty? Very few. So that was a time when the industry said that there has to be some support because tens of thousands of crores have been invested in this industry and because some countries were trying to get rid of 50-60 million tonnes of steel, India cannot be the dumping ground. That was the primary point the industry made and yes the government played a very big role in giving us that support and rightly so. So this industry has come back and is investing in India.

My answer to that question is anybody who wants to participate in the opportunity in India should come and invest in India like all of us and sell in India. That is a great opportunity. It is a land with the government’s ambition of Make in India and we are one of the free-est countries as far as investment is concerned. I would push for that rather than say make steel anywhere and then sell it in India. How do you create jobs in India if you do that?

What are chances that we could see a push back on exports?
Obviously that is a government’s prerogative but most Indian companies are exporting between 15% and 25-30% of what they produce which is not so significant. The important point I want to make is a lot of concern has to do with steel being used in construction. Those are long products. They are hardly exported. Most of the exports are flat products. So I am not sure if any export controls will help bring down the long product prices if they are high globally or they are high because of input costs being high. The problem with long products is that 50% to 60% are being produced by the secondary sector. They are struggling with higher input costs so I am not sure if export taxes will help that problem.

What do you think the headline would be on Tata Steel in 2025? Right now the headline is that Tata Steel has reported record profits.
Tata Steel is a fundamentally strong company. We have had some challenges for the last 10-12 years. I think a lot of them are getting fixed. We are adding high on a commodity cycle now but you will see us as a structurally stronger and future ready company doing well.