BASF gives agriculture, battery units more autonomy but no plan to split

By Ludwig Burger and Patricia Weiss

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – BASF plans to turn its agriculture, battery materials and coatings businesses into autonomous units to try to boost earnings, a major revamp for the German chemicals giant that has traditionally been highly integrated.

The company, with sales of 87 billion euros ($94 billion) last year, will create legally separate entities for the three units, trade union IGBCE said in a statement on Thursday, which was confirmed by a company spokesperson.

Over the last two years, BASF has also made its catalytic converter business, which relies on combustion-engine powered cars, a standalone subsidiary ready for “strategic options”.

The company said in October that there were no current plans to sell the catalyst unit and on Thursday said any sale of the three additional units earmarked for separation was not on the agenda.

Still, CEO Martin Brudermueller said in a media call that external investment partners could be taken on board to share the cost of expanding the battery business.

Other industrial groups in Germany, including ThyssenKrupp, have pursued separation moves, which are typically welcomed by investors who often prefer to buy shares in pure-play companies.

Bayer, a rival maker of seeds and crop chemicals, last month said it was considering breaking up its business to improve a battered share price, while chemicals distributor Brenntag will reorganise into two independent divisions as it faces pressure from activist investors.

“When something is separated, people draw their own conclusions and expect a sale,” the head of BASF’s works council, Sinischa Horvat, told Reuters.

He said management had assured him this was not the case but it would have to earn the trust of staff.

The revamp comes as Brudermueller gets ready to retire from BASF in April 2024 to become non-executive chairman of Mercedes Benz. Markus Kamieth, in charge of BASF’s Asian operations and chief technology officer Melanie Maas-Brunner are vying to succeed him, a person familiar with the matter has told Reuters.

Unlike major rivals such as Dow and Dupont, BASF has traditionally relied on integrated chemical complexes known as Verbund, producing most of its intermediate substances in house to cut transportation and energy costs and utilise by-products.

“Businesses that are less deeply integrated into the Verbund will gain more space to meet the needs of their specific customer industries while keeping the benefits of an integrated company,” BASF said in a statement, calling it a “more differentiated approach to steering individual businesses”.

The union said close to 2,500 employees would be affected by the overhaul at BASF’s Ludwigshafen headquarters, or almost 10% of staff at the site.

The Agricultural Solutions unit had 10.3 billion euros in sales last year, competing with Bayer, Corteva and China’s Syngenta.

Battery materials and related recycling business units generated sales of more than 1 billion euros in 2022, but it is one of two areas where BASF invests the most, the other being a new chemical complex in Zhanjiang in southern China.

The coatings business had 4.2 billion in revenue last year, selling mainly to carmakers and repair shops.

Hit by a subdued European home market, BASF in October mapped out further cost cuts, scaled back investment and said 2023 earnings and sales would be at the lower end of target ranges due to an “extremely uncertain” global macroeconomic outlook.

(Reporting by Ludwig Burger and Patricia Weiss; Editing by Miranda Murray, Kirsten Donovan)