The latest gift from Greece: bulk delivery of cement

Greeks and known for creating democracy, Doric columns, and the Greek salad. Their latest and least-known gift to the world, however, is bulk delivery of cement.

While much of the world's cement still travels in bags, Greek cement has begun to be exported on ships as bulk material. The new technique allows Greece to produce more cement per capita than any other nation. And its own cement consumption is one of the highest in the world.

Visitors to Greece are struck by a land filled with unfinished houses, skeletons left bare except for concrete beams and posts, like some ancient ruins. Even though short on cash for other things, Greeks can still afford the country's relatively cheap cement.

The landscape is also dotted with ugly scars of hillside quarries being dug as raw material for cement. On the outskirts of the port city of Volos, for instance, lies the largest cement manufacturer in Europe and the Americas.

The huge open mine and factory sit on the side of Mt. Pelion which, according to Homer's myths, was piled on Mt. Ossa by the Titan giants to attack the gods on Mt. Olympus. Volos is also home to the tale of Jason and the Argonauts, who sailed off from here in myth to find the Golden Fleece.

Modern Greeks are searching for new export markets, and the country's fastest-growing export industry since 1974 has been cement. Pioneering the bulk delivery technique has been Heracles General Cement Company, which owns the 4.5 million ton-a-year Volos plant.

Since 1974, Greek cement has poured into North Africa and Mideast construction sites almost as fast as oil exports poured out of those newly rich countries.

"It's as if we had a pipeline to Riyadh," says George A. Tsatsos, managing director of the Heracles Company, which exported more cement in 1980 than all Greek cement exports from 1947 to 1967.

The Greek trick is to moor an old barge permanently in a harbor and turn it into a mini-cement factory near the construction site. Rather than sell cement at $35 a ton at the factory in Greece, the company can sell for $70 on site.

Heracles set up four of its seven "floating silos" in Saudi Arabia for bulk delivery. Nigeria also has a Heracles port facility, and two were built in Egypt since 1980 -- in a record three months each. Two more are planned for Syria, and new customers are likely in Iraq, Pakistan, Oman, West Africa, and India.

This new cement trade represents the classic Greek traits -- speed, flexibility, and closeness to markets, says Mr. Tsatsos, whose family started the company in 1911 and still holds majority ownership.

Heracles's ultramodern offices near Athens include facilities for designing and making computers for its own use. And to cut energy bills, the company has begun to build a coal import terminal, the larget in the eastern Mediterranean.

Greece's $250 million cement export industry -- second in exports to textiles -- is an oligopoly. Four companies control the market, producing over 12 million tons of cement with half going for export. Heracles and Titan Cement Company compete for the top spot. Both of them are world leaders in bulk distribution, but Heracles's fleet of 30 ships is larger than Titan's, giving it 60 percent of the export market.

"Titan is a low-profile company," says Yannis Costopoulos, the Credit Bank's managing director. "It doesn't even invite its own bankers to the opening of a major plant. Heracles is more open, and as a result comes under more public attack."

Part of the reason for the sudden rise of Greek cement exports is its quality. for Heracles, the secret is the volcanic ash from the island of Santorini, which exploded over 3,000 years ago and supposedly destroyed the Minoan empire and makes it more resistant to erosion. Some contractors, however , lament its long setting time.

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