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June 02, 2020

Michel Cornelissen: "Guarantee the safety while remaining operational to keep the vital industries running"

5 questions to Michel Cornelissen, our Senior Vice President of the High Temperature Solutions Business Area and a member of Imerys Executive Committee.

Michel Cornelissen Imerys

Michel joined Imerys in 1991, after a career as a Sales Engineer at Prayon Rupel Group. Since joining, Michel has worked in Sales & Marketing, Business Development and General Management within a number of Imerys businesses. In 2014, he became General Manager North America of Imerys Refractory Minerals and in 2017, he was appointed Vice President & General Manager of the Monolithic Refractories business, (Calderys). Michel was appointed Senior Vice President High Temperature Solutions in November 2018.

1. How did your Business Area respond to the Covid-19 crisis?

The High Temperature Solutions Business Area is a global business which serves iron & steel, foundry and thermal industries with ready-to-use formulated products and on-site services. As we operate 35 plants in 18 countries, we felt the impact of Covid-19 early on in China. It became rapidly evident to us that this crisis would not be limited to China alone. Very quickly, we established a global crisis team. 

Our  priority was the health of our employees and customers and we are immensely proud to have been able to continue to operate on our sites and on our customer premises without compromising this. 

We were also able to learn from the experience in China, where for example blast furnaces remained operational throughout the lockdown; knowing that, we prepared to help integrated steel mills in other regions to stay operational. We also saw issues with availability of imported raw materials, which led us to source more locally to ensure we could operate throughout the confinement periods.  

2. What is the specificity of your Business Area and how is this specificity managed in the exceptional Covid-19 situation?

The High Temperature Solutions Business Area operates not only on our own plants but we are also present on many customer sites. Globally about 20% of our workforce is dedicated to customer installations. Covid-19 has impacted both our own operations and those of our customers. 

Our industrial footprint has been a great advantage in our ability to keep our customers and the vital industries they serve running throughout this crisis. 

In the context of crisis management, as the epicentre of the epidemic travelled from one region to the other, in order to secure customer production and avoid supply chain risks, we moved sourcing from one site to the other, in addition we offered to pre-ship finished goods to our customer sites.

3. What are the impacts on your operations and markets? 

Nearly all our 35 plants remained operational throughout this Covid 19 crisis. In many cases our customers operate in critical industries, so maintaining our plants open and continuing to provide essential services in a safe manner has been paramount. 

We have also faced challenges with border closures. In response, we moved to more local teams allowing our installation and project teams to remain operational. We implemented strict hygiene and safety protocols, for example by encouraging home office where possible, by separating plant shifts and respecting social distancing.

Our determination was to guarantee the health and safety of our employees and our customers while remaining operational to keep our customers and the vital industries they serve running

Furthermore, we have seen that in some of the more remote areas where we operate, the impact of Covid-19 has jeopardised the wellbeing of local communities, so we have been quick to extend and adapt our CSR activities; for example, we distributed masks and even supplied food in India. 

4. What will the consequences of this unprecedented crisis be?

Today we are probably among the Imerys Business Area that has been most impacted in terms of sales by the Covid-19 crisis and this after an already challenging year 2019. Both the iron & steel and the automotive markets have been severely hit by Covid-19, in addition many refractory renovation projects are being postponed into the second part of this year or even into next year. In the coming weeks and months, we will be focusing on cash and costs, while remaining flexible and agile to adapt and respond to customer demand. 

This crisis has been fascinating in terms of rethinking the way we interact as a global business, leading us to give more autonomy and more empowerment to the regions, the hubs, the plants. It has certainly shown that it is possible to be global without leaving your home country! Going forward, it raises questions on the right balance between video conferencing versus physical visits. Personally I see both as being useful, but perhaps in different ratios to pre-crisis. 

5. What are your Business Area’s future prospects?

Although testing, this period will nonetheless have taught us a lot about how we function as a Business Area, above all demonstrating the fundamentality of people and teams. More than ever I have been aware that our business rests on the expertise of our employees and it is thanks to their commitment that we have been able to adapt throughout this crisis to respond to our customer’s needs. 

Of course, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about the months ahead, and we are not expecting to go back to pre-crisis demand soon. However, the speed and efficiency of our response in this instance make me confident in the High Temperature Solutions BA’s prospects for the future. Both our employees and customers have remained calm and worked together to find solutions, and I know our customers have appreciated our ability to keep them running. Looking forward, I keep seeing a lot of growth potential for HTS. Emerging from the crisis we already know that some regions will recover faster than others. We will make sure we are present in these areas as we keep looking to expand our footprint in fast growing regions. We will also continue to expand our product range to respond to changing customer requirements, which are increasingly oriented towards full-service demand. 

A few words to conclude 

My conclusion can be summed up in two words: engagement and commitment, to our teams, to our customers, and to the communities where we operate.

Throughout this challenging period, the consistent light has been the engagement of our teams and their commitment. Moving certain employees so rapidly to a home office base set up while maintaining others on site has been no small feat, yet all our employees approached it with strong dedication – for which I am grateful. 

I know that everyone has been working extremely hard and am very thankful to have been able to lead such a united and aligned group of people. 

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