The CEO of Franco-Swiss cement giant LafargeHolcim will step down in the wake of the company’s admission that it paid armed groups to keep a factory operating in war-torn Syria.
The world’s largest cement maker said on Monday that its board of directors has accepted CEO Eric Olsen’s resignation. He will leave on July 15, two years after becoming CEO and overseeing the merger of French industrial company Lafarge and Swiss cement company Holcim.
Olsen said he was proud of the merger’s “huge success” involving 90,000 employees around the world but felt his departure was needed to quell internal company strife over the Syria operation.
“My decision is driven by my conviction that it will contribute to addressing strong tensions that have recently arisen around the Syria case. While I was absolutely not involved in, nor even aware of, any wrongdoing, I believe my departure will contribute to bringing back serenity to a company that has been exposed for months on this case,” he said in a statementexternal link.
The board’s chairman, Beat Hess, will take over as interim CEO while the company searches for a successor to Olsen. French prosecutors are investigating the Syrian payments and some human rights groups filed complaints in Paris that the money may have helped Islamic militants commit war crimes.
‘Errors in judgement’
The company admitted in a statement in early March that its staff in Syria paid armed groups in return for being able to operate one of its now-closed cement plants and ensuring the safety of its employees. The statement responded to allegations in numerous publications in 2016 about the company making deals with Syrian armed groups.
The board’s finance and audit committee supervised an independent investigation that revealed the then Syrian branch of the then Lafarge company (before its merger with Holcim) had dealt with armed groups in 2013 before evacuating its factory in northern Syria, located 150 kilometres (95 miles) northeast of Aleppo in 2014.
That investigation, however, only revealed that Lafarge Syria paid a middleman to ensure the security of its plant. It failed to identify the armed groups that ultimately received LafargeHolcim money.
The cement firm claimed its employees acted in its “best interests”, but the measures were still “unacceptable” and showed “significant errors in judgement”.