by Liz White, editor
Norwegian slabstock machinery maker Laader Berg has a business approach that seems hard to beat: it invented the Maxfoam concept for making slabstock polyurethane foam and still focuses solely on developing the machines to their utmost potential, said Ragnar Kaland, the firm’s marketing director.
Over the years, the family-owned firm has resisted the temptation to diversify. It has simply focused on refining and developing the Maxfoam machinery — to give customers equipment which does just what it is supposed to do — supremely well, Kaland said, in a 22 Sept telephone interview.
Evidence that this is a successful approach lies in the company’s “very loyal customers all over the world,” indicated Kaland, pointing out that Laader Berg has “almost a 100 percent repurchase rate.” However, with its original patents now expired, competitive pressures are rising, particularly in Eastern Europe and, of course, Asia.
In a sense the company’s situation epitomises the issues faced by most western equipment makers. As manufacture of foam moves to lower cost regions, machinery makers increasingly find themselves competing with companies in those regions who copy equipment, and sell it at low prices.
Nevertheless, in the 50 years Laader Berg has been in business, it has sold close to 500 machines. “Some of these machines are more than 35 years old,” Kaland emphasised.
The long-lasting equipment is extremely reliable, needs very little maintenance, and is simple to operate. Maxfoam machines “live forever,” he added.
Laader Berg, which is exhibiting on stand 13A58 at the K2010 event this year, claims that Maxfoam’s unique steep fall-plate gives foams with highly uniform cell structure.
“We have been very close to the market,” through loyal customers, who invariably return to Laader Berg when their business expands and they need new machines, he added. And the Ålesund, Norway-based company is “also expanding into new [geographic] markets with new customers,” Kaland added.
As a family-owned concern, Laader Berg has been able to reinvest profits back into the business, to further develop the technology, and keep improving the systems, so that customers can make even better foam.
Laader Berg also works with the chemical suppliers. “It is extremely important for us to have updated information on materials, so we can use this data in our work and future planning,” said Kaland.
Geographically diverse Laader Berg’s geographic market now extends to Africa, the Middle East, South America and the EU. It is also fighting for more market share in India and China, where Kaland said Laader Berg has been very strong from the beginning.
In Africa, Laader Berg has been strong for more 30 years, and is still growing across the continent – western, north and South Africa; “We are producing three machines at the moment for Africa,” he said.
But it’s a long time since Laader Berg sold machines in the US: Kaland feels that in that market, “you have to have your own people there.” Laader Berg is “quite strong, and increasing our share,” in South America, he said.
Discussing how production of foam, especially for furniture and car seats, has moved to low-cost production countries, in Eastern Europe, and in Asia, Kaland said: “Here you have a challenge ...
because in some of these areas you will find copiers that produce cheaper equipment.” Kaland also noted that, “from European producers we have met harder competition,” recently.
“We know we have better quality machines, we know we are producing machines that are more cost-efficient, but we know that this competition will increase. That is why we are putting so much energy into the relationship with our customers,” Kaland said, Despite the move of some foam production to lower-cost regions, Kaland said, “the most demanding high-quality customers ... you still find them in Europe.” A flexible approach Laader Berg’s customers definitely have an increasing focus on higher quality foam, and Kaland said they are also becoming more demanding in cost-efficiency.
“We have to focus on the things we are good at,” and this now includes more flexibility in the systems, he explained.
As a result, customers, “don’t have to invest a lot of money at the beginning,” they “can gradually improve,” the equipment as their needs change.
Retrofitting is an area where Laader Berg will put more emphasis in future, “much more focus than we have done previously,” Kaland said.
At Ålesund, the philosophy is that it is “supposed to be fun work here,” he said. “That is something you will feel immediately when you walk through the door.” Kaland said that being located in Norway has allowed Laader Berg to employ “very skilled people,” who tend to stay with the company all their working life.
2010: BEST YEAR EVER
Laader Berg’s business has “been growing steadily,” despite the recession. Its earnings have kept increasing: “2010 will be the best year ever for Laader Berg,” Kaland said.
Laader Berg’s results for the last few years confirm this. In 2007 turnover was $6 million, in 2008 it rose to $7.5 million. For 2010, “I think you can add 20 percent,” Kaland said.
The company also has very good forward orders for 2011: that sort of order book, “gives us the opportunity to put additional efforts and focus on R&D for new machine features.
Although the recession had little effect on the business, Kaland said for a Norwegian firm, currency effects have been a big problem.
Kaland thinks Laader Berg’s business has been so steady because the buying process for such machines has such long lead times.
Also, Laader Berg has many projects going on all the time, and is involved many markets, he said.
“That means when one region is down, another is up. That is extremely important.”
A unique aspect of Maxfoam, according to Laader Berg, is that it gives highly uniform cell structure.
The principle is simple: take advantage of gravity.
Cell formation takes place downwards over a steeply inclined fall-plate. Meanwhile the slab surface follows a near horizontal line of the side paper, to create a flat-topped block.
With the inclined laydown system, foam cells can expand in all directions, upwards and downwards. This creates an even, consistent foam, with no waste of raw materials.
Users can adjust the fall-plate parameters so that foam reaches the horizontal conveyor as “an even and fully expanded slab,” says Laader Berg.
Correctly configured Maxfoam machines, plus the latest chemical technologies, “allow you to create square blocks which produce less waste, higher yield and increased savings,” says the company.
Other foam production systems create uneven cell distribution and density: cells low in the block cannot expand as well as cells at the top.