Richard Fechner and Robert Fechner, Managing Directors of Weerulin GmbH
The brothers Richard and Robert Fechner are the owners and Managing Directors of the Weerulin Group. Robert is metallurgical engineer and, as Magaging Director, responsible for technology, sales and international development. Richard, a lawyer, is responsible for Finance, Human Resources and Purchase.
Refwin: Dear Mr. Richard Fechner, would you please share the company’s history of Weerulin GmbH?
Mr. Richard Fechner: Weerulin is a 100% family owned business that was founded by our grandparents right after the war, when the steel industry was the basis for the German “Wirtschaftswunder” (economic miracle) of the 50ies. Today my brother and I manage this small international group of mid-sized refractory companies, including Sievering, Süperref, Weerulin do Brazil and Nova plate. Together we produce approximately 60.000 tons of monolithic refractories per year in our three mixing plants in Germany, Turkey and Brazil, with more than 150 employees. From the beginning, our company focus was to develop high quality products customized on our customer´s needs. “One size fits all” and “cheap cheap” was never our approach. Our customers appreciate that our products are custom-made specifically for them. We have the intellectual property to continually develop and enhance our processes based on the increasing demands of the steelmaking process.
Refwin: What has supported Weerulin’s development over the past decades?
Mr. Robert Fechner: The fact we are a family business is certainly our greatest asset. Families set their goals for generations rather than aiming for short term profitability or simply satisfying shareholder expectations. We don’t change our strategy as often as someone changes their shirt. There are examples of big players suddenly going into a market or a new product type, gaining shares with dumping prices and retreating after a year or two when the market is squeezed, explaining that the margins are too low for their shareholders expectations. I believe our long term reliability and our strategy focusing on quality is very much appreciated by our customers.
In addition, our global footprint of our companies and our team are of enormous value. With subsidiaries in Turkey, Brazil and soon to be in India, we unite leading steel and refractory nations. Our great team members, whether in management or in the lab, do a fantastic job. The constant exchange of ideas and creative approach is what differentiates us and contributes to Weerulin’s development.
Refwin: What do you think is the biggest challenge for the Europe refractory industry currently?
Mr. Richard Fechner: We are all experiencing extremely challenging supply chain logistics. Prices have exploded and the ability to deliver on time is an even bigger issue. Securing supply on time, with the right means of transport is extremely important. Many who relied on a single supplier are suffering delivery delays or even having to stop their production. In these times, it is a great asset that we have the flexibility to meet our customers' requirements with our mixing plants across three continents.
The biggest challenge of all will certainly be the transformation from “black” to “green” steel. I am convinced that this target can only be achieved in Europe with a strong financial support by the EU and its member states. If the steel industry is left alone in this process, many sites in Europe are in danger. As a supplier, we need to contribute to such an important process. Since 2018, our mixing plant in Germany runs exclusively on certified green electricity. For many years we have been promoting the use of European olivine as an alternative to Chinese magnesite in our products for environmental reasons, as it is not calcined and does not have to be shipped halfway around the world.
Refwin: Facing the increasing raw materials cost against pandemics, how do you keep your company with development momentum?
Mr. Robert Fechner: For me, times with rising prices are better than times with falling prices. That is always a clear sign of industrial recovery and growth. Every crisis, even such a terrible pandemic as Covid-19, holds potential and opportunity for new development. Today we have four or five international meetings a day, thanks to the video apps of the internet. In the past, we were all on the road for a whole week for a few meetings in another country. Now our development teams in Germany, Turkey and Brazil are in constant contact and share their latest findings and ideas for product development. We can accomplish so much more with these tools.
During the pandemic, we founded Weebotec as the newest member of the group, which is focused on the development and production of highly efficient well fillers for steel ladles. And our next project is also already in the starting blocks: A joint venture with Dalmia OCL for the production of basic refractory mixes in India.
Refwin: What will be the future development trend of steel refractories industry? What has Weerulin done for this?
Mr. Richard Fechner: At Raw Material Congress in Bilbao in 2019, the clear majority of participants answered this question in one word: Recycling. Together with our partners, Weerulin recycles several thousand tons of Magnesite every year. At our Brazilian plant, we use up to 65% recycled Aluminas in many of our pre-shapes, which we recover from recycling our own products that we first deliver to the steel mill and then take back after use.
A second important trend is higher efficiency by reducing consumption. 50 years ago, the consumption of refractories, per ton of steel, was twice as high as it is today. This improvement will continue. A few years ago, Weerulin started to use much lighter raw materials to reduce the consumption of dry-vibes in the steel tundish. For one big customer we achieved 25% reduction which resulted in several thousand tons of magnesite saved per year. Today these tenders are held in price per cubic meter—a clear sign to our customers that price per ton is not everything.
The fully automated mixing plant in Mülheim/Germany
Refwin: You are launching a new production line. Would you please introduce this new production line and what role it plays in your future development?
Mr. Robert Fechner: Our group and its range of products is constantly growing. We founded a new company, Weebotec GmbH in Germany, which specializes on high tech ladle well fillers. We have started this product line years ago in Brazil on a small level but recently landed a leading international expert to further develop that technology. Marc André Bombeck is our partner and managing director of Weebotec. With this new company we develop and produce high tech well fillers in order to reach the maximum opening rates for our customers. Our approach, combined with his, perfectly align three decisive influencing factors: Product, People & Process--the 3 P's. We look very closely at the production processes in each plant and propose a suitable dosing technology. We really want to get the last percent out of the opening rate. You have to imagine that with only 3% non-free opening, about 50 million tons of steel have to be free-burned worldwide every year, with consequential costs of devaluation and risks to occupational safety. The worldwide accidents during free burning alone make it worthwhile to deal intensively with the improvement of the opening rate.
Refwin: Do you think online trading (procurement and sales) for refractories will be an emerging trend in coming years? What’s your opinion about it?
Mr. Richard Fechner: The share of online trade will certainly increase in the refractory sector as well. For some years now, many of our customers have been already buying our products with e-tenders. This can be a good solution for commodities in order to achieve quick purchasing success. But the problem arises when the quality is not right, parameters were not specified correctly in the tender or are misinterpreted by the participant. As an outsider, we recently observed problems and witnessed high sums paid to compensate for the technical defects of such a tender. As far as our own purchasing is concerned, we prefer the classic method of dealmaking to the electronic transaction. The information a good trader can give you about the market is often more important than a dollar saving per ton.
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