Saft completes its lithium-ion battery plant in Jacksonville, Florida

The French battery champion is in the process of finalizing a third production line at its lithium-ion site in Jacksonville, in northern Florida. With a production capacity of 2 million cells per year, or 6 times that of its “mother” factory in Nersac (Charente), “it is the largest factory in the group, and the most automated”, appreciates Bruno Dathis, CFO of the group and interim chairman of the management board since the sudden death at the end of September of the previous boss, John Searle.

With this new line, Saft fulfills its obligations to the Department of Energy (DOE). The Frenchman received $ 95.5 million in subsidies from the United States government, almost half of the investment required for the construction of the site started in early 2010 and whose first batteries were released in January 2012. Saft was one of the nine companies to have benefited from the 1.2 billion dollars in subsidies devoted to the battery sector as part of President Obama’s “American recovery reinvestment act” (a plan to revive the economy launched in February 2009).

BEYOND THE FACTORY, THE PRODUCTS

“The DOE is quite happy with us”, slips Frank Cecchi, head of the group’s lithium-ion activity. Conversely, other “Obama factories” like that of the American A123 have not given satisfaction. This start-up in the sector had sparked controversy in 2012: its workers played video games for lack of orders to fulfill. It was then bought by the Chinese Wanxiang. “It’s not all to have a factory and to manufacture parts, you have to have products!” Bruno Dathis points out. For this, it is necessary to master on the one hand the electronics and the software which are necessary for the control of the delicate chemistry of lithium-ion and, on the other hand, to have worked upstream with the customers to meet their needs with this recent technology.

Saft has been working on this technique for almost twenty years and has been mass-producing batteries of this type since 2009. Collaboration with its customers on high added value solutions is written in its DNA. Result, “lithium-ion accelerates the group’s growth, which stood at 12.8% (excluding currency effects) over the first 9 months of the year, after organic growth of 7.5% in 2013“, welcomes Bruno Dathis. The manager expects a turnover of between 660 and 680 million euros in 2014 and an Ebitda of between 102 and 105 million euros (about 15.5% margin).

NICHES STRATEGY

Saft has successfully taken the lithium-ion shift “, congratulates Franck Cecchi. “And we are only at the beginning”. This technology only represents 18% of the group’s sales. While Saft’s more traditional markets (nickel batteries and primary lithium batteries, non-rechargeable) have good growth prospects, it is the lithium-ion market that should grow the fastest, believes the firm. Saft fully intends to take advantage of this by not changing the strategy that has been successful so far: targeting high added value niches.

The French wants to develop lithium-ion applications in aeronautics (emergency power), rail (traction power), electric or hybrid industrial vehicles (buses and forklifts), back-up power for stations telecoms in emerging countries. Lastly, and not least, those for the storage of energy from the electricity grid to support the development of renewable energies. It is out of the question for this mid-sized company to face the Japanese and Korean lithium-ion giants in their field: mass markets such as consumer electronics and, tomorrow, the electric car. In lithium-ion, Saft is more than a French champion: it is the champion of the West against Asia.

From Jacksonville, Manuel Moragues