René Thibault takes the helm of building-materials giant Lafarge in Western Canada
Verbatim: Building Blocks
by Alberta Venture Staff
René Thibault first worked for Lafarge Canada in the summer of 1982, when he was 16. Eight years later, equipped with a civil engineering degree from Queen’s University, he joined the company full time. Now, recently returned from a two-year stint at Lafarge’s global headquarters in Paris, Thibault is CEO for Western Canada (the company has split Canada in two for administrative purposes, due to the country’s geographic size and its importance to Lafarge’s bottom line.) He oversees the company’s five product lines– cement, ready-mix concrete, aggregates, concrete pipes and precast concrete for anything from wall panels to girders for overpasses – here and in northwestern parts of the U.S.
Photograph Shaun Robinson
On the basics of making cement
“A lot goes into cement. We have to take limestone and bake it. You take limestone, crush it and put in a big oven. You heat it up and burn off the CO2. You make a chemical reaction that makes cement. There are a bunch of other things that go into it, but that’s the basics.”
On the importance of the western Canadian market to Lafarge
“It’s an important country as far as returns are concerned. We like to joke that Western Canada is an emerging country in a developed environment. We’re very bullish on growth, especially here in Alberta and in Saskatchewan. Between the potash and the oil and gas, we foresee decent growth.”
On the portions of the U.S. he oversees
“The Dakotas are an exciting place. There’s a lot going on with the Bakken and our demand there is very good. The Pacific Northwest is not so good. No real signs of the economy growing there yet.”
On the challenges he’s facing
“Transportation here in Western Canada, for all of our businesses, from delivering cement and concrete to delivering precast panels. We have to ship cement from places like Exshaw west of Calgary as far away as Winnipeg. We have to use rail infrastructure quite a bit, and it’s been an issue for us. It’s probably an issue for a lot of companies that use rail a lot.”
On Lafarge’s work to build a net-zero home for Habitat for Humanity in Edmonton
“It’s a partnership with Stantec and we’re just finishing it now. It’s a total precast home, right from the foundation to the roof. Using precast does a couple of things: you have better thermal mass, so it’s better for heating and cooling, and you also have better seals around the home for air tightness.
There are a bunch of other things included in the home such as solar panels and geothermal energy, too. It took a bunch of solutions to make it net zero. We’re going to have MIT be part of our study over the next few years to understand if we’ve truly gotten to net zero, but that’s the aim.”
On other innovations in concrete
We have a type of concrete called Hydromedia. It’s a porous concrete, so in a place like Vancouver where it rains a lot it could have applications. When you build a parking lot out of this material you don’t have to have retaining ponds for water. The water drains through into the ground just like you didn’t have a parking lot.
Even in our asphalt business, we now manufacture an asphalt which doesn’t require as much energy to heat it. It’s just as high quality and it’s also better for the workers because there aren’t as many fumes. It’s the mix design, the way we’ve introduced the materials together allow it to be made at a lower temperature.”
On other efforts to go green
“When we manufacture cement, there’s a high CO2 emission, so we’re using different technologies to try to lower the CO2 emissions at our plants. It’s an ongoing effort, right from using newer equipment and technologies to using alternative fuels. Alternative fuels can be a lot of different things, including the use of demolition construction waste. When we tear down a building, we’ll use that to burn instead of oil or coal or natural gas.
We’re also, in some cases, trying to capture [the CO2]. At our facility in Richmond, B.C., we’ve chosen to work with Mantra Energy Alternatives because we think they have one of the better technologies, the most advanced, at the present time [through electrochemical reactions, the technology turns CO2 into a feedstock for fuels]. It’s not commercially viable, but it is interesting for us because they will use CO2 to create a product that is usable.”
On taking the family to Paris for two years
“My eldest children were young teenagers when we went over. There wasn’t much enthusiasm when we told them we were moving, but when it was time to come back, there wasn’t much enthusiasm then, either. They got comfortable there.”