Battered But Not Broken, Johnson Matthey Revises Strategy Under New CEO

Johnson Matthey Plc will return to its precious metal and catalyst roots to capture opportunities in syngas and hydrogen following an expensive and ultimately flawed attempt to enter the battery materials space.

The focus will be narrowed to catalysts, hydrogen technology, and precious metals-based cocktails for auto catalytic converters. Recycling and supplying platinum group metals, the “beating heart” of the group, will underpin the group, Liam Condon, JMAT’s recently installed CEO, said in a presentation in London today. Non-core business will be sold in the coming years, potentially unlocking additional capital for investing in growth.

“The ugly truth, in essence, is that we have not created value in the last years,” Condon said. “This is something we absolutely need to address with our revised strategy.”

Condon faced a skeptical crowd, a room of analysts scarred by JMAT’s enduring knack for failing to convert its technology into hard sales and a lack of strategy that culminated into the dramatic end to its EV battery adventure. After booking millions in impairments, JMAT completed the sale of its eLNO cathode business today, and Condon and CFO Stephen Oxley couldn’t hide their relief to be shot of it.

The former head of Bayer AG’s Crop Science pledged to introduce more commercial nouse and strip back layers of complexity. Alongside the good stuff (technology, a 1,200-strong bench of scientists), Condon found a lack of accountability around decision making and is rebranding what was internally seen as a rubber-stamping “Group Management Committee” with a revolving door. Enter the more decisive sounding “Leadership Team.”

You could say JMAT is fighting for its life. No doubt there are parties casting an eye over the different assets in the portfolio, and Standard Industries, the owner of catalyst rival WR Grace, has just acquired a 5% stake. It could be the US industrial investor is along for the ride but it could equally signal a first step. It’s worth noting that Standard Industries hired ex-LyondellBasell CEO Bob Patel to run Grace with a mandate to create something akin to the iconic Rohm and Haas.

Condon didn’t look like someone who had just swapped GMO crops and pesticides for fuel cell membranes just 87 days ago. He has introduced a number of leadership changes already, having “learnt to quickly figure out who you need on your team and to act quickly.” Anne Chassagnette has been brought in from Engie as chief sustainability officer.

Despite the demise of the internal combustion engine, JMAT’s Clean Air automotive catalysts business has the potential to deliver £4 billion in cash by fiscal year 2031, regardless of what happens with EVs. Heavy duty trucks will be hard to phase out. In catalysts, Syngas is seen as a huge opportunity. Demand is increasing in markets like sustainable aviation fuels, blue hydrogen and low-carbon solutions.

Perhaps hoping to be the next Ballard of the proton exchange membrane world, Condon said JMAT won’t make the same mistakes it did with battery materials. With these catalyst coated membranes used in fuel cells, capacity can be built up gradually, rather than the all or nothing approach of cathodes where you needed to build large facilities from the outset. For years, JMAT hemmed and hawwed over making big investments to scale up its eLNO cathode, only deciding to take the plunge when it was too late.

JMAT is actually re-purposing part of a Clean Air auto catalyst site in Royston, U.K. to a 3gw site for Hydrogen Technologies. Sales are expected to rise to more than £200 million by the end of fiscal year 2025, from just £25 million last year.

In membranes, “we have real customers,” Condon said. “We never had a customer for our battery materials.”

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