Mr. Ulf Frohneberg, Managing Director of STEULER-KCH
Refwin: Mr. Ulf Frohneberg, congratulations to you on becoming Chairman of VDFFI. Could you share some basic information about the refractories industry in Germany?
Mr. Ulf Frohneberg: The refractory industry in Germany is in a quite volatile situation right now. Declining demands, especially from our main user industry, the European steel industry, had even tightened up since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. Although we are experiencing a slight recovery from this with slowly increasing demands, a consolidation of the production capacities within the refractory industry is expected. With this, I expect also a shift in the ratio towards unshaped products in terms of European production. To name actual figures at this moment would have the character of a snapshot, therefore we should carefully regard the development in 2021.
Refwin: As the new Chairman of VDFFI, how will you advance the work of VDFFI in the future? What achievements can we expect?
Mr. Ulf Frohneberg: We are facing a worldwide economic crisis which will lead to an increasingly tough global competition. The setup of the VDFFI is unique in the world, as this association also acts as an umbrella organization for three other associated divisions: The DIFK, an independent, powerful test laboratory, the FGF, a non-profit research organization on the field of refractory science and materials technology and the ECREF, the European Centre For Refractories, covering the field of education. We, the German refractory producers should use this combined force, to strengthen our power of innovation. Being innovative has always kept us at the front end of quality suppliers worldwide. In these times we should focus even more on this capability. One of the major challenges in the next years will be the intended transformation of the steel industry towards carbon-free steel production. This exciting development will of course be escorted by the refractory industry giving back up in the projects and providing flexible tailor-made solutions. Another topic the refractory-industry has to deal with is the digitalization of production which also is a major challenge in a rather conservative environment.
Refwin: Would you please introduce the core business, advantages, and achievements of STEULER-KCH?
Mr. Ulf Frohneberg: Besides being Germany’s biggest ceramic tile producer, Steuler KCH is a world leader in industrial linings, such as acid protection and refractory linings. There is no supplier of which I know, that is able to supply this combination out of one hand. Additionally to that Steuler produces plastic linings, filters, and containers. Another branch of the Steuler Group is Equipment Engineering with worldwide activities in surface technology, regeneration, flue gas treatment and catalyst technology.
The advantages offered by Steuler are the for example the ability to manage complete turn-key projects with a worldwide network of subsidiaries, starting from the engineering through the development of smart materials up to the final installation on site. The installation crew of Steuler consists of more than 800 installers worldwide. It is our task to provide end even improve these competitive advantages in future while remaining innovative at the same time.
Refwin: A new tunnel kiln was put into operation last month in your Höhr-Grenzhausen factory. What is the purpose and background of the project? Can you introduce the project?
Mr. Ulf Frohneberg: With this modern firing aggregate, we have moved to an even more sustainable, energy-saving production of refractories on the one hand. On the other hand, we have increased our capacity to an annual output of 60,000 tons of dense refractory bricks, which will help us to serve our increasing market shares in niche products, such as ingot casting refractories for example. But also this new kiln will give us even more flexibility when it comes to serving big international projects. When big green-field projects are executed it happens, that the procurement of refractories happens rather at the end of the process. We are powerful enough to supply even bigger volumes in a rather short time.
Refwin: How is the COVID-19 affecting your business? What measures have you taken to overcome this difficult period?
Mr. Ulf Frohneberg: Very early after the outbreak of the virus, we have undertaken security measures, such as split operations special hygienic concepts. Up to today, we have only a few cases of infection within our complete staff in Germany, so it seems that we have acted successfully so far. We are still adjusting these measures frequently according to the actual developments, hoping that we all will overcome this outstanding situation in healthy condition. For the sales teams – especially the international ones – these times are difficult with all the traveling limitations. Nevertheless, we have used all available possibilities to keep in close contact with our customers.
Refwin: Overall contracting has become a trend, and large-scale refractories producers play an important role in this process. What do you think of this trend? What measures will Steuler take to adapt to this change and ensure competitiveness?
Mr. Ulf Frohneberg: It is not our aim to adapt to large-scale producers. Instead, we are strengthening our position as a high-quality niche supplier. We will invest even more in the development capacities with the target to remain one of the most innovative players on the market. On top of that we are just upgrading our service units and the benefits we deliver around our products. Together with our refractory bricks, we are for example able to deliver state-of-the-art refractory engineering or provide Finite Element Methods. With our expertise and know-how, it is our claim to steadily improve not only our products but also the processes of our customers. We deliver more than just bricks.
Refwin: STEULER has obvious advantages in terms of service, but its production capacity of 60,000 tons/year is not obvious. Does STEULER have any plans for expansion or acquisition in the future?
Mr. Ulf Frohneberg: Being a 112-year-old family business we are not on an aggressive growth strategy. Much more we focus on being sustainable, innovative, and reliable for our partners. “We sell safety” is one claim in the vision of the Steuler Group. But, yes, if there opens a door for a sensible acquisition within one of our core businesses, we will always have a look at whether it fits in our strategy and time schedule. As we always did in the past.
Refwin: Will the Covid-19 pandemic have a long-term effect on the worldwide economy?
Mr. Ulf Frohneberg: I am sure it will. The global economy and foreign trade have become much more sensitive to a worldwide volatile political environment. Political decisions are not as predictable anymore as they used to be which must lead to more flexibility within the industry. Let’s hope that this pandemic will also lead us to return to values that seem to fade slightly in these times. And it is important to stay confident. Confidence will lead us to new solutions and will open new opportunities. It needs combined efforts to overcome this crisis and maybe the future will look different than predicted today. Under the impression of this pandemic, it is also important not to forget that continuous efforts to confront the environmental challenges are required.
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