Pier Pressure Threatens Rival's Plan to Challenge Nesher's Cement Monopoly

Government declares support for competition, and the Trajtenberg Committee specifically advocates introducing competition to the cement sector.

The UK-based World Cement Holding partnership is expanding its operations to 15 countries, and decided a year ago to include Israel on the list - where it would have the distinction of shattering the almost-absolute monopoly of the Nesher cement company for the first time in almost a decade. But there is a snag: It remains unclear that Nesher's would-be rival can obtain competitive cargo unloading services at Ashdod Port, apparently because of obstacles from the port workers.

The government has declared support for competition, and the Trajtenberg Committee - tasked with devising ways to improve the lot of the citizenry - specifically advocated introducing competition to the cement sector.

Ashdod port
Ilya Melnikov

Cement is imported in bulk by ship and needs unloading, a service the port is supposed to provide. But the Ashdod port has no system to unload cement, unlike other bulk loads such as grains and sugar.

World Cement Holding, operating through its Israeli group company Nur Cement, acquired a mobile cement unloading system, which should reach Israel in a matter of weeks. Also, the company leased an area to build a logistics center near the port to store the cement. Construction should be finished in a couple of months, and a packaging system the company acquired should be arriving inside a month.

Nur has invested about 5 million euros in building infrastructure in Israel, says Hanoch Tempelhof, one of Nur's controlling shareholders.

The question is where to put all of that equipment and maintain a competitive price.

"The problem we're dealing with is the cement unloading pier," says Tempelhof. There is an appropriate pier, No. 30, outside Ashdod Port, which, though outside the port area, is under the responsibility of Israel Ports. The Israeli Navy has first priority on using it during emergencies. Five years ago the state issued a tender for its use. There was only one contender - Lev Baron Commodities, a small cement importer with a 10% market share. (There is already cement unloading equipment at Pier 30 but it belongs to Lev Baron, hence Nur had to import its own, whether for use at Pier 30 or inside Ashdod Port. )

Lev Baron accordingly won the tender, and its lease runs out on December 31. Yet the state has tarried about issuing a new tender, for which Cement World Holding could compete.

"We can't get an answer from Israel Ports about what they plan to do at year-end and whether they will be publishing a new tender, or not," says Tempelhof.

So why might Israel Ports delay issuing a new tender?

If Nur decides to unload cement within Ashdod Port, using the equipment it's importing, it would still have to pay six port workers to unload each cargo, even if they sit around twiddling their thumbs. The port makes them pay the six even if they're not needed, says Tempelhof, because it's in the agreement with the labor union. Even though Pier 30 isn't owned by Ashdod Port, anybody unloading there has to employ two workers, again even if they spend the day spotting seagulls. In other words, unloading within Ashdod Port would cost three times more than unloading at Pier 30, so Nur wants to lock in a lease for Pier 30.

The ones to decide who gets the lease on the pier are Israel Ports together with the government. A government source explained to TheMarker that Israel Ports is worried that publishing a tender for Pier 30 would lead to a strike by the port workers.

Tempelhof says Israel Ports told Nur six months ago that a new tender would be published. It hasn't been and despite talks between the company and Israel Ports, no clear answer is forthcoming, he says. All Nur wants is to compete under the same conditions, says Rafael Sadi, another Nur partner.

In response, Israel Ports commented that its people had met with Nur Cement's heads to find answers to their desire to unload cement at Ashdod, but the company chose to reject Israel Ports' suggested solutions.

A government source told TheMarker that Ashdod port workers want to preserve their monopoly over the waterfront, including the adjacent Pier 30. "The state doesn't know what to do about them," the source said. "Maybe an agreement can be reached with the workers to run [Pier 30], even though it's controlled by the state and isn't in the area of the port. We know that solution would make imports more expensive and hurt competition. However you look at it, the state comes out of the story looking pretty bad. It has to find a solution to the monopoly of the workers."

Nesher is controlled by Nochi Dankner's IDB Group. World Cement was founded by businessmen from Turkey and Spain. It is registered in London and operates in Italy, Spain and Algeria. It made the strategic decision to enter the Israeli market a year ago, where the market for gray cement is 7 million tons a year, according to Sadi. But he believes the market's potential is 10 million tons a year.