Roy Cokayne

A fire at the East London plant of First National Battery has caused damage estimated at between R15 million and R20m.

First National Battery, a leading manufacturer and distributor of lead acid batteries in South Africa, is part of listed automotive component manufacturer Metair and a supplier to all the locally based vehicle manufacturers.

Russell Bezuidenhout, the managing director of First National Battery, said yesterday that the fire had destroyed the entire battery formation facility at the plant and the damage estimate excluded the cost of any disruption to its business.

Bezuidenhout said the fire had occurred on May 1 but the firm was back at full production within four working days and avoided any disruption in supplies to its customers.

He said the company had other battery formation facilities in its plant in Benoni and a second plant in East London.

Bezuidenhout said the company could only speculate about the cause of the fire but suspected it was the result of a short circuit in one of the batteries or a spark from a damaged connecter line.

A firefighter was injured when he was splashed in the face with acid while dousing the flames. The firefighter did not suffer serious injuries but was taken to hospital and later released, Bezuidenhout said.

No one else was injured.

This is the second fire to disrupt production at a First National Battery plant in the past few years.

A fire swept through its Benoni plant in April 2011, destroying about half the battery formation facility there. This prompted First National Battery to centralise most of its battery production operations in East London.

Bezuidenhout said the facility where the fire broke out this month used an older-style formation that required large extraction units to remove gases – something that the new facilities did not have.

The fire would provide the company with the opportunity to upgrade the battery formation facility in the plant.

Parent company Metair has plans to establish a manufacturing footprint in Africa and transform itself into a global manufacturer.

Last year Metair acquired Mutlu Aku, the leading lead acid battery business in Turkey, for R2.7 billion to transform the group into the third-biggest lead acid battery player in the Europe, Middle East, and Africa region and biggest in Turkey, a position it also held in South Africa and Romania.

The Mutlu Aku acquisition was finalised only 18 months after it had acquired Rombat, the leading lead acid battery business in Romania.

Part of Metair’s strategy is to balance its revenue equally between original equipment manufacturers and the aftermarket and to ensure that batteries make up half its revenue.