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Why Concrete’s Future Looks Green

Concrete Credentials, a podcast hosted by NRMCA Executive Vice President Gregg Lewis, AIA, LEED AP, covers experts from the design, development, construction, and other industries who understand the many benefits of using concrete. Whether it’s concrete’s strength, durability and resilience, its aesthetic quality, its unrivaled sustainability and performance benefits, its ease of use, or cost-effectiveness– the pros agree: concrete is the material of choice for buildings, paving, and infrastructure.

This episode features Jamie Gentoso, CEO– US Cement at LafargeHolcim. Jamie is a registered professional engineer who received her degree in Civil Engineering and an MBA from the University of Michigan. She has worked in a variety of capacities for the concrete and cement industries and in this episode she discusses how the concrete industry is working towards a greener future.

You can listen to it here. This excellent episode covers a wide range of topics having to do with the future of concrete. Since it is not always possible to take notes, here is a transcript of the entire podcast.

Jamie Gentoso, CEO-- US Cement at LafargeHolcim

Jamie Gentoso, CEO– US Cement at LafargeHolcim joins NRMCA Executive Vice President Gregg Lewis, AIA, LEED AP, on Concrete Credentials

Gregg Lewis:
Welcome everyone to the fourth episode of Concrete Credentials. This is Gregg Lewis, executive vice president with the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association. On today’s podcast, we have a unique and I think really exciting opportunity to hear from one of the leaders and innovators within the concrete, cement industries. Jamie Gentoso is the chief executive officer for Lafarge Holcim, the U.S. Cement division. She’s a registered professional engineer, having received her degree in civil engineering from the University of Michigan. She also received her MBA in Michigan. Jamie has worked in a variety of capacities for the concrete and cement industries and her perspective, I’m sure will be both insightful and extremely valuable to those listening to today’s episode. We couldn’t be happier to have the chance to welcome Jamie to Concrete Credentials. So glad you could make the time to join us.

Jamie Gentoso:
Oh, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to be here and seek out some exciting topics.

Greg Lewis:
So, I’d like to start our conversation with this, the cement and concrete industry has literally provided the foundation for the growth of the global and U.S. economy and modern civilization. Our products, as you well know, have dramatically improved public health and safety, providing infrastructure that we rely on every day, from water systems and other critical infrastructure, to safe high performance buildings. So we can talk about all the ways that our industries continue to deliver a substantial improvement to the quality of life of people around the world. Obviously, this is no small thing. You have worked in a variety of capacities in the concrete and cement industries, Jamie. In fact, from my perspective, if we use the words, concrete and credentials in the same sentence, it would seem appropriate that your name should be in that sentence, as well.

If you could tell your listeners a bit about your background and career path and how you found yourself leading one of the industry’s top producing companies.

Jamie Gentoso:
Yeah, I’d be happy to. The concrete industry is one that I absolutely love and I actually somewhat fell into it by chance. Because to start from the beginning, in high school, I took some architecture courses and I really liked it. And I had a counselor that said to me, “If you like architecture, you might really like civil engineering. You’re really good at math and science and maybe something to try out.” So, looked into it and the University of Michigan had a great program and I ended up in a civil engineering program there. I enjoyed the classes, but I started to think to myself, is this a career I really want, sitting behind a desk, doing engineering? Seems boring. And I ended up getting an internship in the construction industry, where I was actually out on site. I was working for a company called the Christman company in Michigan, and got the opportunity to work on several different projects and fell in love with construction.

Watching a building come up from out of the ground and such. And so, I worked there for two and a half years during college, working part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer. And then when I was graduating, I thought, I should probably see what’s out there. And went to one of the career fairs at University of Michigan. And one of my former students at U of M worked for Holcim. And he had said to me, “You should check out Holcim.”

And I said, “Huh, okay. Yeah, big company, Maybe some opportunity.” And when I interviewed with them, I thought, what a great opportunity to work for a large international company, maybe move around the U.S. and such. And so I took a job with Holcim as a tech service engineer. So, actually my first job out of college was at Holcim and really, I loved it. I started as a tech service representative, eventually became a tech service engineer within the first year. I had a great boss who really gave me the opportunity to learn a lot. At one point a couple of years later, the opportunity to move to the East Coast came up for St. Lawrence Cement who was so wholly owned by Holcim. And, St. Lawrence had just started a slag facility in Camden, New Jersey. So, slag wasn’t new to the market, but it was a growing part of the market.

And it’s really interesting to look back then, I guess 20 years ago now, and to think that we’re somewhat in the same spot as an industry, I’ll come back to that, I guess. But my main role at that time was to really push slag with architects and engineers and it was really where I kind of grew along and had an understanding for where we are as an industry, from a CO2 perspective. So really trying to talk to them about lead and how slag can help them green their building. And at that time actually, gain a couple of credit truly, but it again, grew my love for sustainability and what we can do as an industry to really help green buildings and that kind of thing. From there, I had the opportunity to work for BASF, so that mixtures there, and then eventually went on to Sika.

Sika had several different positions and eventually was responsible for the concrete admixture division there. So, that was a great ride and learned a lot about customers and P & L experience and stuff like that. But at one point, in I guess 2017, a recruiter called me and had an opportunity for me and it was actually outside of the concrete industry. So I left Sika and left the industry. Probably one of the hardest decisions I ever made, but probably one of the best decisions I ever made, because it really made me realize that business is business and that it really takes understanding the fundamentals of business and you can run a business and you can help transform a business if you understand that. So I spent a short time outside of the industry, actually only about eight, nine months. And then the opportunity with LafargeHolcim came along.

So, most of the career in the concrete industry, about eight months outside and that was with an architectural product company. So not far outside construction, but yeah, it’s been a great ride. And I always say, in this industry, nothing changes but the business cards. And I’m also very passionate about the concrete industry management program. I think that’s one of the greatest things that the industry has done for itself. I’ve been very active in it, not as active as I’d like to be now, but to me, we need to grow people’s love for the concrete industry from a very young age. And I think once you get in, you never get out.

Gregg Lewis:
It’s such a cool story. I think probably for most of our listeners, Jamie, they obviously don’t have that background. There are a lot of things that you mentioned that I wasn’t aware of either and clearly, your passion for the industry and for innovations around sustainability seem to be very much front of mind, which I think is fantastic. So I did a little digging before we had you on here and looked at the company website and all that good stuff. And clearly LafargeHolcim is a global leader in the building materials industry. It says in there, in your current role, you are personally responsible for over 2000 employees, 13 cementing grinding plants, and more than 100 cement terminals across the U.S. And I’m sure that, with that kind of responsibility comes immense challenges and unrivaled opportunities. Can you tell us, where have you and the other industry leaders been putting your focus in the industry today?

Jamie Gentoso:
Well, I would say first and foremost, keeping people healthy right now, the coronavirus has been a huge… I mean, from our perspective, we’ve continued to work all the way through it. So, we are an industry that, we’ve been allowed to work and we’ve been a necessary product through it. So we’ve had to find ways to keep our people healthy. And I’m happy to say, we really have, we’ve been able to operate through the whole coronavirus. It’s really been uncharted waters for us, but I have to say, I think it challenged us in a way that we’ve never been challenged before and we’ve been able to make it through. We were able to produce through all of it. We had no spreads as a virus, within any of our facilities. So, we were extremely happy to say that. So we’re now kind of in this new normal, it’s been an interesting way to work.

We made it through a very hot summer, people wearing masks and that kind of thing. So, very happy about that. So it’s been a little bit of a distraction from what I think is probably the industry’s toughest challenge and things that we’ve been focused on more recently, in 2019, probably really brought to the forefront. And you might remember, The Guardian put out a week long series on the impact of the cement industry on the environment.

Gregg Lewis:

Jamie Gentoso:
And it was probably a turning point, I think, for the industry. And it really made us take a look and say, you know what? You mentioned, all those great things at the beginning, how concrete is the foundation of society, societies don’t progress without concrete. You can’t imagine a world without concrete and we’ve never done the job as an industry. People really, truly understand that we are necessary products and that you can’t live without it. But at the same time, because the demand is so high, the fact that we are the second most consumed product in the world next to water, we are going to create a lot of CO2, right?

So, we are responsible for 78% of the world’s CO2, but in the end, the industry has done a really good job at recognizing that and doing its best to try to reduce the CO2 footprint, without even being asked. So again, 20 years ago, working for St. Lawrence Cement, we were pushing slag and fly ash and those types of products to try to green our industry. So that to me, it was a little bit of a turning point from the industry as a whole, to really get out there like, hey, the cement industry understands that we’ve got an issue and a problem, but we are doing our best to work, to move forward. So the other piece that I’ve really been involved in and along the same lines is the CEO Climate Dialogue. This is a group of CEOs and NGOs that have come together to push Congress, to put a price on carbon.

And that may sound really funny, coming from the CEO of a cement manufacturer, but we think it’s important. And we think that we need to decrease our CO2 footprint. So this group of CEOs… So, Ford is a part of it. Dow is a part of it. And BASF. They’re all partied along with LafargeHolcim. Last fall, we got the chance to sit with a bipartisan group of senators and talk to them about why we think it’s necessary. But the whole idea behind it is that, we’ve got to seek the table. As they establish any sort of laws are any guidelines, so that they’ll be durable and responsible, right? So in the end, the cement industry has an energy intensive, trade exposed industry. So we need to make sure that as any sort of law or statutes put in place, it’s those things are kept in mind.

Gregg Lewis:
It’s phenomenal to think about the track record, not only of the industry and rarely does a day go by that I don’t see something in the news that doesn’t touch on some of the innovation and some of the really excellent work that’s being done to innovate around some of these topics. So it’s great to hear your experience on this. And I also didn’t realize, Jamie, that you started off your education looking at architecture, which is where I landed. And so for us, many in the architecture and engineering community, sustainability is, today, I think more than ever, arguably the most important topic in the building industry. It is certainly a major focus of many architects and engineers who are in the process of selecting building materials and structural systems for their next projects. And the American Institute of Architects and other prominent organizations have called to accelerate the entire building sector towards zero CO2 emissions by 2050. I’m curious how you see the concrete and cement industries addressing the issue of climate change and reducing CO2 emissions.

Jamie Gentoso:
Yeah. So for us, part of it is being a part of the CEO Climate Dialogue, like I talked about. I think some of it is also telling the story and getting people to understand where the CO2 emissions come from and then starting to make good decision about products and such. But as a company, we start from the very beginning of our process to try to limit our CO2 footprint. So, we look at our raw materials that we’re utilizing and we try to find opportunities for products that would have otherwise been landfill. So, for example, we use recycled wallboard as a source for gypsum, in some places. We’ve actually come across where we can use eggshells. So in the Lehigh Valley, for example, there are a lot of vaccines that are made. And so there are eggshells leftover, so eggshells are a sole source of calcium.

So we can use those leftover eggshells and actually can get truckloads and truckloads of eggshells in order to meet our needs. So we try to find things like that. That means that we are not actually digging raw material out of the earth, right? So any sort of virgin raw material that we’re not actually using, I think is a good thing, also. We also can use bottom ashes and such for a source of [aluma 00:12:48]. So you have a lot of ponds that are getting cleaned up and we find those opportunities and we can use them to manufacture cement. Then we look at our process and how we can be more efficient. So in the last six, eight years, we’ve invested almost a billion dollars in our Ada Hagerstown and Ravina plants. Upgrading them, so that they’re more energy efficient. We also utilize alternative fuels. So right now I’m happy to say, but not satisfied, but about 20% of our fuel comes from alternative materials.

So typically, we use coal and petcoke, which obviously release a lot of CO2, but we can use things like tires and plastics and things like that, to help reduce our CO2 footprint. We also look for renewable energy. In fact, we just commissioned wind turbines at our Paulding plant and a solar field that is about to be commissioned at our Hagerstown plant. And we’ve got about five other projects in process. So, many things that we can do within our process and such that… Anything that we can do to reduce our CO2 footprint. And then we look at our products. So our main goal is to lower our clinker factor. In the United States here, we have a clinker factor on average, probably 90 to 92%. So every ton of clinker we produce is producing…

And this is a bad rule of thumb, but I’ll call it a kind of CO2. So lowering our clinker factor, the lower our CO2 footprint will be. Europe is somewhere around 70% clinker factor, just to give you an example. So we have a line of products called Envirocore. These are blended performance cement. They need ASTM C 595, and they perform just like your T150 cement. So, getting architects and engineers to recognize that those products can be used in place, is one of the ultimate goals. And again, one of the things I was looking to do 20 years ago, and we’re still trying to do now, and then we partner with organizations outside of our company for innovative cement. So we have a cement that’s called Solidia, that actually uses CO2 in the process of curing.

So kind of exciting from that perspective. And we’ve actually commercialized it now. And we have a customer in New Jersey called VP Henry. That’s actually producing these pavers out of Solidia cement. So, super exciting. And I think in the end, the other piece that we’re looking at is carbon capture. So we’ve gotten very large projects going at our plant in Florence, Colorado that will capture 6,000 tons a day of CO2. So, a lot of neat things going on from our company perspective. When I think that all cement manufacturers are doing, I’d like to think we are unique, but I think the industry and architects and engineers need to know that the cement industry is very active and we believe in a zero carbon future too.

Gregg Lewis:
Yeah. It’s phenomenal stuff, Jamie. I think hearing all of the disparate pieces that you all have brought in under the industry’s umbrella, in terms of addressing these issues, shows really passionate effort, I think. Not just the concept of day in and day out, plotting along, but truly driven by leaders, such as yourself who want to see this happen. It’s very encouraging. And I think architects and engineers maybe don’t quite have as clear an understanding what that as maybe they should or could. And so, I want to look forward a little bit and you talked a little bit about some of the challenges, but as our industry ultimately moves toward de-carbonization and the zero CO2 emissions, obviously there are going to be challenges. And I’m curious from your perspective, what you see as some of those challenges being as we move our sector more in that direction.

Jamie Gentoso:
Yeah. I would say, the road to full de-carbonization is a little bit hindered by the fact that carbon capture and sequestration isn’t where it needs to be right now. Right? So both 60% of our CO2 that we produce is from what we call our process emissions. Right? So it’s fundamental, because we take limestone and we put it through our [inaudible 00:16:32] at high temperatures, CACO3, it drives off the CO2. So, in the manufactured cement, you will always have, either the way we currently manufacturers cement, you will always have CO2. So the other 40% is from what I talked about before, fuels and that kind of thing. And so, we can work actively to take care of that, but that 60% gets really hard. So, part of the issue with carbon capture and sequestration or utilization at this point is, is that it’s still quite expensive.

So from our perspective, as we lobby Congress to put in place any sort of price on CO2, we want the proceeds of that to go into more research and development on carbon capture and sequestration, right? So, right now the 45Q is out there to help and provide a tax incentive in order to go down that path. But in the end, what we don’t want is it to create a barrier for us in our… I guess the industry as a whole because of the cost of doing it. Right? So, that to me is probably the number one, when we look towards full de-carbonization. But the other barrier that I see, is the lack of demand for low carbon products, amongst our customers and our customer’s customer. So, there’s the demand that you get because you have architects and engineers that are interested in building low carbon, utilizing low carbon products.

So you have them specified in such, but that’s only 30% of the business, right? So, we have infrastructure and we have residential, where these places where a lot of choices are made by our customer and our customer’s customer, about what type of concrete they’ll use. So, to me, we need it to be driven from all aspects of the industry. And, we’re challenged there because you have a lot of people… Change comes slow. I think I’ve already mentioned, we’re doing a lot of the same things we were doing 20 years ago and trying to push the industry towards use of blended products and blended cement and things like slag and fly ssh and stuff. So, that to me is probably the biggest challenge or the two biggest challenges that I see.

Gregg Lewis:
So you mentioned demand or demand drivers. I’m curious, maybe I don’t want to jump ahead here, but I’m curious about how that factors in, from your perspective, on how you might think it will… Well, what ultimately do you think it will take for the value chain to truly embrace low carbon solutions?

Jamie Gentoso:
So I think it will have to be driven from… Right now, it is being driven from the top. And in some of the owners, you have a lot of large corporations who have these goals and objectives in mind and are not compromising in a lot of cases, on building green or building net zero. So I think it will take that, but I think we need… And this is, as I talk to our members of Congress and such, they are our biggest procurers of cement, right? So 40% of cement goes into infrastructure. So they have an ability to sell, to really demand the use of lower carbon products. So again, as I talked to them as a procurer, I say, you must demand that either these mixes must be low carbon or they’re using a low carbon cement moving forward.

And I think our industry will get there, right? We’ve got a lot of smart people in it. And, I think that the industry is in a place right now where, as I mentioned, what happened with The Guardian being that first narrative that got out there about how bad the industry was, and I’m very proud of what I do every day and I’m sure, and I know we have a lot of customers that are very proud of what they do. I mean, again, our products, shelter, they connect, they provide drinking water, clean drinking water. And so, as we’re attacked from the outside, I think maybe this will stimulate some of our customers and our customer’s customer to say, “Hey, we’re doing the right thing for the earth.” And we are lowering our impact and doing everything that we can to be better citizens and to provide better products and long lasting products.

Gregg Lewis:
It’s so exciting to me to hear you talk in the ways that you talk about this and I share your enthusiasm, and frankly, I’m proud of our industry as well. I think there are all kinds of ways that innovation is being brought to bear. And part of the reason that I wanted to have us put together a podcast and ultimately to have you on this podcast, was because I think that there are folks that are outside the industry that simply don’t have the good fortunate of understanding the amount of leadership and desire and passion there is for driving us toward a better future.

And obviously LafargeHolcim is a member of the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association. You guys support the Build With Strength Program, as that program moves forward, building awareness around the benefits of using concrete, not in infrastructure really, but for those who are planning and designing building projects, what would you say to them? Right. If we’ve got an audience today, listening, who are architects and engineers outside of the concrete and cement industries, what message would you share with them about how they can work more closely with us to move…

Jamie Gentoso:
Well, I guess first of all, I would know the whole commercial for concrete. It’s the best building material out there. It’s the most durable. It is the most resilient, should be included in every project that you have. And of course, it is for sure you can’t get away without using it. Whether it should be the main building material. So, my commercial for concrete, how great it is. But if I were speaking to architects and engineers, I think again, the most recent news about the industry is that we are polluters, we are the bad guy here. But I will tell you that early in my career, starting in 2000 for Holcim, right out of college, we were very cognizant of our carbon footprint and were working at that time, to decrease it and we continue to work at it, but some of the barriers are truly, I don’t want to call them the barrier, but the specifications truly is to embrace new products, right?

And I get it. It’s tough. These products hold up buildings and you need to be sure that they’re durable and they’re going to last a long time. But I think it needs to be the trust in the industry, that the products that we are now able to build are now not able to make… Will be durable. And in utilizing blended cements and new products that come out, they need to be open to it. And that’s the only way we will ever get to a zero carbon future, is if we are open to these new type of products and not the old things that we’ve been using all along and need to step into a new realm, I guess.

Gregg Lewis:
So you talk about blended cement, obviously Portland-Limestone Cement is a good part of the overall theories of innovations and options available to specifiers to include in their mix designs. What are the innovations happening, other innovations happening that you see that are part of where we’re going as we’ve worked even today?

Jamie Gentoso:
Yeah. So, I mean, I guess the various other innovations. So I mentioned Solidia, that is a completely outside the box cement, right? Cures with CO2 and that kind of thing. And, we continue to come up with products, but they don’t necessarily meet the ASTM T150 or C 595. We’re headed more toward, as we look at innovative products to C 1157 cement. So, more performance based type cements where we’re not prescribed exactly what is in it, but we have performance criteria around it.

So in the end from an architect or an engineer’s perspective, really all they care about, not the plastic properties of the concrete, but it’s really those hardened properties and it’s durability characteristics and such, that they’re really worried about. So, from their perspective, it should really be, looking at how the concrete performs in the end and not worry about essentially, if it’s meeting a prescriptive type specification like ASTM T150 and C 595 is somewhat prescriptive and in some senses, but really the 1157 or the performance cements, are where I think the industry needs to hang, right.

So little less prescriptive. And in the end, showing that the concrete performance is really what is necessary. But I guess I would also add, on the plant side and the industry as you know, I think what we’re seeing is digitalization is really starting to hit our industry, our plant side. What’s super exciting is we collect a ton of data and we’re starting to utilize this data to make our processes and our products much, much better, also to allow our plants to get much more efficient. So, super exciting things happening on the digitalization end, from our perspective, too, in our plants and in our facilities.

Gregg Lewis:
Jamie, you’ve taken on a critically important leadership role in our industry. And my guess is that you will be helping to shape the future of our industry for many years to come. Personally, I think that is a very good thing, both for our industry and for those we serve, the communities across the U.S. But I’m curious, what excites you as you look forward to the future of the industry?

So I do think that we are kind of on the edge of change right now, but I mentioned it before I mentioned again, I think we’re an industry that has in the past been slow to change. I think as we start to look at what’s happening from a climate perspective, and no matter if you believe in climate change or not, we are impacting the Earth, right? So, the Earth’s resources are finite. We need to be able to continue to take good care of the Earth. And I think that we’re at a point where, as an industry, if we don’t change, we will be replaced.

And I think we’re headed in that direction. I think we’re getting it. And I’m excited to see, not only will we be… Are we the best building material? But we will be seen as the most carbon friendly material, right? And having the least impact on the environment. I truly believe that we can have a zero carbon future, from this perspective. I think if you look at where the power industry has gone. So no one would ever have imagined that the power industry, which was the biggest producer of CO2 in the nineties, would now be far behind buildings and vehicles. Right? So, I think we can get there and that didn’t take that long.

So I’m excited where we’re going, because I think we’ve got a long future ahead, as being the best building material out there.

Gregg Lewis:
Yeah. Outstanding stuff. I agree with you completely. When we close these sessions out in the past and I’d like to do the same with you, if you’re willing to help us with this. The question that I like to close the sessions with, often targets what the key takeaway should be for our listeners. So if you could leave them with just one key message, Jamie, what would that be?

Jamie Gentoso:
I think for me, I think a zero carbon future when it comes to concrete is possible. I think we need the help from the full industry and the full value chain in order to get there. So that means adopting and accepting new, innovative products and knowing that they will be durable for the future.

Gregg Lewis:
Jamie, this has been great. I’m sure that many of our listeners will appreciate your important perspective and your message of optimism around our industry’s future. Want to thank you for taking the time to sit down with us today and hopefully we can convince you when you have time, to come back and join us again in the future.

Jamie Gentoso:
Absolutely. I thank you. And I thank everybody for listening. Really enjoyed being a part of this today.

Gregg Lewis:
Finally, today, we’d like to thank our listeners. If you haven’t already done so, we hope you will subscribe to Concrete Credentials. Available wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks. We’ll see you in a couple of weeks.