Fripa: an eye for the market... and an ear for our customers

A small but fast moving company in the heart of Germany, Fripa has stayed ahead of the competition by investing in ultra modern converting lines and packaging systems to give it extreme flexibility.

Hugh O’Brian

The German tissue producer Fripa is relatively little-known in the global tissue world but it is an important player in the German domestic tissue market. With an annual output of around 90,000 tons of finished product from its ultramodern converting plant at Miltenberg, Fripa serves both the private label consumer market as well as the away-from-home sector using the Fripa brand.

In addition, Fripa has a small but important business making specialty tissue as a component for absorbent hygiene products.

Fripa is actually one of three paper mills owned by the same family and traces its roots back to a paper mill in Berlin which was established in 1911 by Hermann Friedrich. The operations moved to Miltenberg, about 75 km southeast of Frankfurt, in 1948 under the leadership of his son Albert Friedrich. Albert got Fripa into the tissue paper business through the installation of the first crepe paper machine in 1950. Today the company is led by Albert’s daughter Ursula Queck. Ursula, in turn, already works closely together with her daughter Verena Queck-Glimm, a qualified graduate in business economics, who will follow her as a managing partner of the company. Robert Thelen is Chief Executive Officer and Andreas Noack is Vice President of Fripa.

The other two paper mills owned by the Friedrich/Queck family are Papierfabrik Cartaseta-Friedrich + Co (CartaSeta) located in Switzerland and Fabryka Papieru Czerwonak (FPC) in Poland. While the three companies share common ownership, they are totally independent of each other. This article will concern Fripa, which takes its name from Friedrich Papier.

MODERN PLANT AT MILTENBERG. Today Fripa makes all of its tissue products at the Miltenberg plant, which is its only production facility. The company employs about 290 people and is the biggest source of jobs for the town of about 10,000 inhabitants.

Turnover in 2005 was around Euro 110 million with the sales based on three main product lines:

• Private label tissue products for German retailers

• AFH tissue sold under the Fripa brand

• Specialty tissue sold to other converters for use in absorbent hygiene products such as diapers, incontinence and feminine care.

As far as tissue products, the production program covers essentially all grades including toilet rolls, kitchen towels, hand towels and handkerchiefs. Large diameter cleaning rolls for AFH use, as well as medical examination table rolls and napkins, are also included in the assortment.

Although Fripa is small, the efficient and flexible converting plant at Miltenberg is certainly impressive. The extremely clean and fresh facility, with numerous state-of-the-art converting lines and a very high level of automation, is among the most modern in the tissue industry.

AS A MATTER OF HISTORY, FRIPA WAS FABIO PERINI S.P.A.’S FIRST GERMAN CUSTOMER. “In 1976,” says CEO Robert Thelen, “the founder of Fripa, Albert Friedrich, had the confidence and courage to go for a company not yet established in the market, in preference over its then dominant competitor. The relationship has been strong ever since.”

The two paper machines at the site feed the converting lines with much of the tonnage they require. The six rewinders are all Sincros from Fabio Perini S.p.A. linked to packing lines by conveyors that are designed to give extreme flexibility so any product can be sent to any wrapper.

Depending on the end product, the items are either packaged in-line or distributed via a Langhammer transport matrix to different packaging machines. This section is rounded off by automatic palletizing and stretch machines and the automatic transport to different warehouses.

In this manner, the company keeps the machines running, and doesn’t have to keep high levels of stock in a wide variety of formats. Lead times can sometimes be as short as 24 hours notice for delivery to the retailers.

INNOVATION GETS HIGH PRIORITY. “We make Hygiene with Paper,” is Fripa’s official company slogan. However, sales manager Torsten Bahl says that from the marketing and sales point of view, the company has developed a more informal slogan which is “An Eye for the Market... and an Ear for our Customers”.

Clearly Fripa realizes that one of its most important strengths to fight competition is its ability to react quickly to changing market conditions, without the inherent delays and lag-time that are the trademark of larger companies.

“We put a lot of emphasis on product innovation and new developments to stay ahead of the market. We are not really big but we are really fast,” explains Noack. “New products and new innovations are the way for us to survive in the ever-tougher market conditions. In addition the very flat management structure here allows us to move very quickly when we see an opportunity in the market.”

As an example, Bahl and Noack point out the recently launched “Boxless Display Unit” for distribution and display of hankie packs in supermarkets. Packs of pocket hankies are normally shipped to retailers in corrugated boxes, for reasons of stability.

Working with retailers, who clearly saw the advantage offered by a pallet that was fast to open and could eliminate the costly disposal of empty boxes, Fripa set out to find a solution without the box.

A project team made up of several people from various disciplines and departments of the company worked to find a design that was both practical and economic, while at the same time protecting the product during shipping and transport. Eventually, using a new stacking method for hankie packs, which are made up of 30 individual pocket hankie packets, a building block method and format was developed which gave both the required stability and protection.

In the end only small corrugated strips on the corners of the unit were required on the units, which are then wrapped in poly film. At the store, the retailer just removes the poly wrap and the small corrugated strips, allowing customers to help themselves to the product. The geometry of the stacking pattern gives the load stability on the pallet, as well as sharply reducing the time needed to prepare the pallet and the amount of waste wrapping material to be hauled away. This solution was just launched late last year, with Fripa customers reportedly ‘delighted’ with it.

Another example of product innovation, says Noack, is the new SCANPACK for toilet paper. In spring 2005 Fripa “gave a face” to the well-known packing with 10 rolls. In general, up to now the packing was lying on the display pallet and “looked” at the ceiling. Due to an innovative packing now the product “looks” at the customer and has been very successful with retailers.

SPECIAL TISSUE MEANS VERY HIGH QUALITY. As mentioned, one of the company’s product areas is specialty tissue for absorbent hygiene products. While Fripa won’t name the companies that it is supplying, it does say that they are among the best known in the world. They are also very demanding on quality control, a requirement that Fripa says has raised its total quality awareness throughout the company.

“The extremely high quality requirements of the specialty tissue sector, for things such as wet strength, superior formation and precision slitting, have meant that we have raised the quality level of all of our products,” explains Noack. “This has been an important side benefit that we have gained by working in this sector.”

The high level of quality has been confirmed on numerous occasions. Noack points out that Fripa is consistently top ranked as far as quality and paper properties in various customer audits over the years. The consistently superior paper qualities, of course, also help Fripa’s internal converting and packaging operations, since the qualities produced substantially influence the efficiency of these processes.

LATEST INVESTMENT IN V-FOLD TOWELS. In 2004, Fripa decided it needed a new folding machine for V-fold towels for the AFH market, where Fripa has a good and growing business. However, tough competition, especially from Eastern European producers, has led to high price pressure for this segment. To raise production efficiency, while at the same time keeping its costs down, Fripa has recently decided to invest in the interfolded field and the project is currently in the optimization phase. “If you want to produce economically in Germany, modern technology and optimized processes are indispensable,” says Noack.

“The very competitive situation on the German market is a big threat to us, with the low prices squeezing all players. We are very lucky to have an owner with a long-term viewpoint, which is a luxury that many publicly-owned companies don’t have.”

LOYALTY, COMMITMENT AND TEAMWORK. The issues of teamwork and committed ownership are clearly recurring themes at Fripa. “We have a very close-knit team that works together very well,” explains CEO Thelen. “I don’t mean just the management team but the entire company. Everyone’s input is important and we think that everybody, from the operators and technicians on the plant floor to the management board, is extremely important for our continued development.

A key difference to many of our competitors may be the greater identification of staff with our company and the efforts of its owners. Our people know for whom and for what they are working. We can create and develop good ideas that are quickly implemented. Everyone makes a contribution and is appreciated for it.”

Since 90% of its customers are in Germany, Fripa is clear about wanting to produce its large-volume products in the home country as well. At the same time, the company is able to reduce any unnecessary freight volume and the related impact on the environment.

The philosophy is, whenever possible, to keep the production where the market is. This is part of a general philosophy of the company owners to be loyal to the markets and the people who have supported the company from the beginning.

This seems to be a good example of how Fripa combines excellent working conditions and equipment with owners that are personally involved and have a strong sense of commitment. “The principle of conscientious, responsible action based on integrity is a priority in our family,” emphasizes Ursula Queck, who manages the company in its third generation. “Our family has been involved in the paper business since 1911 and we certainly plan to continue to be involved for generations to come.”

The course for this has already been set, as Verena Queck-Glimm, a great granddaughter of the founder, recently become involved in the company management. •

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