Technology

Umicore looking for ‘silent’ Grynberg’s successor

Marc Grynberg steps down after record figures as CEO of the Belgian materials multinational Umicore. He does not want to say whether he does this of his own free will. There are some reservations about his policy.

“I can reassure you,” Marc Grynberg (55) began his Zoom call about the results and his departure as CEO with slight irony. ‘I am physically fit and, according to my entourage, also mentally okay.’

He did not give a personal reason why he is leaving – his departure was announced in the margin of the annual figures. He just said that after almost 13 years as CEO it is time for someone else to head Umicore and that it has been decided, in consultation with the board of directors, to look for a successor.

“When I became CEO in 2008, I had to take Umicore to the next level of development,” says the commercial engineer, who started as a controller in 1996. ‘I have transformed the company into a world leader in recycling, clean technology and clean mobility with strong market shares, promising technology and a strong balance sheet. I am proud of what I have achieved. Now is a good time to pass the baton on to someone who can take the company to the next level. ‘

Grynberg can be proud. Together with his predecessor and current chairman Thomas Leysen, he turned the former ‘polluting’ Union Minière into a modern environmental multinational company from the former ‘polluting’ Union Minière since 2000 as financial director and then as CEO. Umicore is a world leader in the manufacture of alloys for rechargeable batteries for electric cars and one of the world’s leading manufacturers of catalytic converters.


With its ‘gold mine’ of clean technology, Umicore should be the European figurehead of electrification in the automotive sector and the circular economy. “But it is not,” can be heard in analyst circles.

He transformed the recycling site in Hoboken – the company’s roots – into the largest recycling company for precious metals in the world. Last year, the site was the strongest point of the group. Thanks to the sky-high prices of rhodium, palladium and gold.

To achieve that growth, Grynberg invested hundreds of millions of euros in new factories for the production of battery materials, as well as in Hoboken. He dragged Umicore unscathed – through ‘thick and through thin’, he says – through the crises of 2008 and 2011 and now through the 2020 corona year, which he closes with record figures.

Charisma

When asked whether he is leaving of his own free will or under pressure from the board of directors, he does not want to answer. In any case, some have reservations about his CEO position.

Grynberg did not have Leysen’s charisma and, despite his perfect trilingualism, was not really a good communicator. Last year he came under heavy fire when it turned out that children near the factory in Hoboken had high levels of lead in their blood. But he had his factory manager remove the chestnuts from the fire.

To solve that problem, Grynberg is earmarking 50 million euros to buy up surrounding houses and to build a ‘green’ buffer around the factory, a solution that has raised eyebrows for some. “If the company is so technologically ingenious, it can also solve its lead problem without making houses disappear,” he said. Also in the downturn of Nyrstar – of which Umicore was a shareholder – Grynberg made his voice very late.

That caution – Grynberg is not a table jumper and always proposes his words – is not appreciated by everyone. He boasts that Umicore’s market capitalization has been multiplied by seven since he took office. But with its ‘goldmine’ of clean technology at its disposal, Umicore should be the European figurehead of automotive electrification and the circular economy. “But it is not,” can be heard in analyst circles. Read: Under Elon Musk, the Umicore share would be much higher.

Grynberg has also been criticized for not getting his battery materials division – which was to become the group’s growth hub – on track. He invested 600 million in two factories in China and Poland. But in Asia he has to contend with fierce competition and price pressure, a situation that will take some time. In Poland, the finishing of the factory has been postponed by Covid-19 to the end of this year.


As a CEO, you shouldn’t get carried away when things are going very well, but you should also not panic when things are going badly.

Marc Grynberg

CEO Umicore

Grynberg, however, remains positive. ‘There is an acceleration in the electrification of cars. Many car manufacturers have brought forward their deadline for a fully electrified vehicle fleet from 2050 to 2035. Now 7 percent worldwide is electric or hybrid. That means that 93 percent of the market still has to switch. That is a huge potential and we will play an important role in it. ‘

Umicore will certainly increase capacity in Poland, says Grynberg. ‘But we remain cautious and will try to synchronize the investments with the real situation.’ In a mature market that is easy, he says. ‘That is a challenge in a market that is developing rapidly. My successor has to take that into account. He has to grasp and utilize that growing market potential. ‘

Tesla

The fact that the large battery manufacturers and especially Tesla – which Grynberg called a hype seven years ago – also want to take a piece of that gigantic battery alloy market, is nothing to be concerned about, according to the CEO. Everyone has competitors. That is part of it. ‘ With those words, he has been brushing aside plans from other companies for years. Usually he adds, “We are much further.”

Euphoric statements are not for him. Even after the record year 2020, he remains cautious. ‘We got off to a strong start to the year, but visibility remains low, although 2021 will probably get even better.’

It is not clear when Grynberg will leave. “That depends on how soon my successor arrives.” He does not know what he will do next. ‘Until further notice I am 100 percent CEO of Umicore.’

Grynberg does not want to answer the question about his most memorable moments. ‘There were many. Every day is different. But as a CEO you must have a solid constitution, a lot of resilience and a high degree of serenity. Don’t get carried away when things are going very well, but also don’t panic when things are going badly. ‘ Hopefully his successor can do something with that.

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