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Battery materials

EcoPro BM’s magic to hit $9 bn jackpot after 10-year dark ages

Inks a deal to supply high-nickel cathode materials with SK Innovation in 2024-2026

By Sep 10, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

EcoPro chairman Lee Dong-che (left) and SK Innovation’s battery business president Jee Dong-seob (right) are taking a commemorative picture after signing a deal on high-nickel cathode materials.
EcoPro chairman Lee Dong-che (left) and SK Innovation’s battery business president Jee Dong-seob (right) are taking a commemorative picture after signing a deal on high-nickel cathode materials.

South Korea’s battery materials maker EcoPro BM Co. won a near $9 billion order from SK Innovation Co., an unusually large contract for a medium-sized enterprise. The deal is expected to help the South Korean cathode materials producer to take on the industry leader Japan’s Sumitomo Chemical Co., industry sources said.

EcoPro BM said on Sept. 9 that it signed a 10.1 trillion won ($8.6 billion) deal to supply high-nickel cathode materials for electric vehicle batteries for three years from 2024. After the announcement, its shares surged as much as 18.8% to 400,000 won on the day.

The company is expected to increase capacity since it needs to produce 100,000 tons of high-nickel cathode a year for the deal, the industry sources said. It had been scheduled to secure an annual capacity of 60,000 tons by 2023.

The deal is an important turning point in the company’s 23 year history. EcoPro BM was a small and medium-sized enterprise until 2016 with a revenue of less than 100 billion won.

“The bold entry into a business, which others said was something SMEs should not do, bore fruit today,” said Lee Dong-che, the founder and chairman of EcoPro, the holding company of EcoPro BM, referring to the contract with SK Innovation.

SUCCESS AFTER SERIES OF FAILURE

EcoPro chairman Lee Dong-che
EcoPro chairman Lee Dong-che
Lee had suffered a series of failure before nurturing EcoPro BM to a global battery materials players.

In 1990s, Lee succeeded as an accountant and made considerable fortune. But he was not satisfied and started his own business with an ambition to become an entrepreneur who feeds 10,000 employees. He set up a trading company in 1996, but the firm failed to survive in the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

But he jumped into another challenge after he was happened to read a magazine article on the Kyoto Protocol and greenhouse gas in 1997.

‘The global warming is a problem of the world. Industries related with the issue will be able to see structural growth since the issue will deteriorate further,’ Lee thought.

EcoPro was born on Oct. 22, 1998 in a single 33-square meter office on the fourth floor of a building located in an alley in Seoul. Lee had only one staff, who worked with him at the trading firm. Lee blindly went to Daedeok Innopolis, formerly known as Daedeok Science Town, in Daejeon, the country’s research cluster to find new employees. He started materials business, focusing on environmental materials and chemical filters used for semiconductor production. But those businesses continued to fail. He even lost millions of dollar worth of facilities that he has not used for production.

DARING STEP FOR FUTURE

In 2004, the company participated in a government-led consortium to develop ultra-high capacity lithium secondary batteries. It worked with Cheil Industries, a Samsung Group’s affiliate, on precursor, a raw material for cathode materials.

An opportunity came to Lee in 2006 when Cheil proposed him to take over not only the precursor business but also its cathode technology and business rights. At that time, the outlook for the cathode materials business was bearish given limited demand for batteries that were used only for laptops and tools. The EV market was a far distant future story.

Lee made a daring investment for the future. In 2007, the company completed a facility capable of producing 40 tons of nickel cathode materials as well as precursor, and opened its first cathode materials plant.

But it took long to report profits. Its cathode materials business had been in red for about a decade since 2004.

“The ten years when we had to invest without making profit was like hell,” said EcoPro BM president Kwon Woo-seok in an interview with The Korea Economic Daily.
(Courtesy of EcoPro BM)
(Courtesy of EcoPro BM)

REVENUE TO JUMP BY SEVEN TIMES BY 2025

Such long endurance with bold investment started bearing fruit. The company now makes money whenever it produces the materials.

EcoPro BM’s revenue is forecast to reach about 1.3 trillion won this year, compared to 99.8 billion won in 2016. Its sales are expected to leap to 9 trillion won in 2025, according to analysts.

South Korean brokerage houses raised target prices of its shares. Daeshin Securities and Mirae Asset Securities suggested 500,000 won and 530,000 won, respectively, after EcoPro BM announced the deal with SK innovation.

“It will win a series of major orders,” said Mirae Asset Securities analyst Kim Chul-joong.

The SK Innovation deal is expected to provide another turning point for growth just as it achieved a quantum leap after a supply contract with Sony Corp. in 2014, analysts said.

Write to Yun-Sang Ko at kys@hankyung.com

Jongwoo Cheon edited this article.

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