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Elkem’s new owner: ‘We’re no vampires’

“We are neither imperialists nor vampires,” the incoming Chinese boss of Norwegian metals firm Elkem told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Wednesday. He was reacting to criticism from workers at a French metals firm, which was taken over by Elkem’s new owner, China National Bluestar, three years ago.

Elkem Solar boasts that it can produce solar grade silicon with one-fourth of the energy compared with similar technologies. Elkem's new Chinese owner wants to develop Elkem's ideas.PHOTO: Elkem/Nicolas Tourrenc)

The French workers had told DN that China National Bluestar, which took over the silicon operations of Rhodia of France in 2007, hasn’t made any new investment nor been open about its plans for the company. “That creates enormous uncertainty among the employees,” Eric Ulme of French union CGT told DN, adding that apart from a visit from the head of Bluestar’s parent company, no top Chinese executives from Bluestar had been seen at the Bluestar Silicones plant outside Lyon.

A colleague was even more harsh in his criticism, even though both conceded that Bluestar hadn’t made any major changes at Rhodia, that the same management was in place and production was status quo. “The Chinese are like vampires,” claimed Jean Granjon of CGT. “They come and suck up our technology to take it back to China.”

That brought a reaction from Robert Lu, chief executive of Bluestar in Beijing. “They called us imperialists or vampires?” Lu asked, quickly adding they are neither. “This is about growth and running an international business,” he told DN in a telephone interview.

Lu said Bluestar aims to strengthen the existing operations that it acquires and will have the same strategy at Elkem. Local management, he indicated, is left in place to keep running the businesses. His absence from foreign plants “doesn’t mean we’re vampires. It’s the same with all global companies, and has nothing to do with China.”

Lu said Bluestar doesn’t intend to send permanent employees from China to Elkem in Norway, which Bluestar has agreed to acquire from Norwegian industrial concern Orkla for NOK 12.5 billion. “But we will send our people to Norway for temporary training programs,” Lu told DN. “We will discuss operations with local management.”

He said the large Chinese company probably won’t open any new plants in Norway, but won’t close any of Elkem’s old ones either. “We want to develop synergies between the companies (Elkem and Bluestar) and develop Elkem’s ideas in China and Asia,” Lu said.

Nor does he think cost levels in Norway are particularly high. “Elkem has very good technology and good energy deals,” he told DN. “It’s a competitive company and earns well.” He said salary levels “aren’t everything,” claiming that Bluestar thinks Elkem can continue to earn money in Norway.

Lu also claimed that Bluestar’s negotiations with Orkla over Elkem weren’t overly influenced by the Chinese government’s anger over the Nobel Peace Prize, but said he and his colleagues were still working towards receiving regulatory approval and financing in China. He said the process should be completed within a few months.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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