Nuqul moves ahead at impressive pace

Not far from the ancient Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, the Nuqul Group has built a world-class tissue mill. The group’s next machine is already advancing in Jordan and it is clear that the company is firmly intent on becoming a true Pan-Arab player.

Hugh O’Brian

The Great Pyramid of Khufu, located in Giza just 30 minutes south of Cairo, Egypt, is generally acknowledged to be the greatest of all the Pyramids. Constructed under the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu around 2560 BC, this Pyramid also commonly tops the list of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World.

When it was built, it measured nearly 150 meters in height, making it the tallest building on earth for more than 43 centuries! That’s 4,300 years. Not until the 1800s, less than 200 years ago, did any other manmade structure rise higher. Talk about world records!

OK, let’s fast-forward to the present. We are meant to be covering tissue here, not Ancient Wonders of the World.

One can’t pretend that the new PM 3 project at Al Sindian Paper Mill in 6th October City(1), just 10 km from the Pyramids, is anything much in comparison but as far as tissue machines go it is truly impressive.

Built at a cost of $80 million, the Al Sindian project is the latest step in the expansion plans of the Amman, Jordan, based Nuqul Group. The startup in January 2005 of the 54,000 ton per year 5.5 m wide PM 3 has brought Nuqul’s tissue production capacity up to nearly 100,000 tons from three machines, making it the largest tissue supplier in the Middle East/North Africa region. But it certainly isn’t stopping there. The group is already fully at work on its next machine, PM 4, a similar 5.5 m wide tissue unit which will be installed next to its Al Keena mill in Amman, Jordan, with startup planned for late 2007.

STARTED WITH CONSUMER PRODUCTS IN JORDAN. The Nuqul Group was founded by Elia Nuqul who, along with his brothers, established Nuqul Brothers Company Ltd. in 1952 with the main emphasis originally being the food trading business. Alongside several fast moving consumer goods such as sugar, grains, rice, meats and canned foods, the group was also dealing in tissue products, which at that time was a very small business in Jordan.

Eventually, in 1958, Nuqul decided that the business had grown big enough to warrant the installation of a tissue converting line.

It was at this time that the FINE brand name was launched, which is to this day the leading brand from the group and has in several Middle East countries become a generic term for facial tissue. Today the Nuqul Group has eight tissue converting plants in six countries: Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (Dubai), Lebanon and Sudan.

6th October City is a municipality in Egypt in Al Jizah Governorate, some 20 Km southwest of Cairo. The city has an airport, a private university and an industrial park. Population is estimated about 43,000.

A primary source of tonnage for these operations are the three paper mills of the group, Al Keena in Jordan and Al Bardi and Al Sindian in Egypt. For legal reasons, each mill is a totally separate company, with for example, the Al Bardi mill in October City located right next to the Al Sindian mill. The new paper machine PM 4, being built in Jordan, is called the Al Snobar mill, and will be located at what the company calls its Industrial Complex just outside Amman not far from the airport.

While tissue and hygiene products today account for 65% of the Nuqul Group’s turnover, it has a wide variety of other businesses in numerous countries. These include non-woven fabrics, processed meats, structural steel, aluminum profiles, ready-mix concrete, synthetic sponge/foam, plastic pipes, stationery, and printed packaging materials.

EGYPT OPERATION STARTED IN SAND FIELD. Magdi George Soussou is the Chief Area Officer for Nuqul’s Africa operations which today include plants in Egypt and Sudan but is expanding its sales and distribution to all Maghreb countries. He has been with the company since the start of its operations in Egypt in 1985.

At the time the plant site was not even a greenfield but instead a sand field, with essentials such as power lines not yet available. Starting in 1990 with converting, the first paper machine was installed on the site a year later. Then several years ago, the group decided that it needed much more paper capacity to allow it to grow at a very rapid pace.

“As our tonnage was growing rapidly,” says Magdi, “we decided that we needed a new machine but we were not sure where to put it. We looked at lots of options and in the end there were many factors that favored the site here in October City. Our experience in dealing with the legal, official, economic and social entities in Egypt positioned us well to benefit from certain advantages the country offers. Abundant natural gas in Egypt makes energy costs very low. In addition labor costs are very competitive. These facts coupled with the space we had on the site and the access to water, made 6th October City the best location.”

NOW A WORLD CLASS OPERATION. Al Sindian is truly a state-of-the-art tissue making plant, incorporating some of the very latest technologies and solutions for cost-effective, high-quality tissue production. The centerpiece of the operation is of course the Metso paper machine, including new developments such as Metso’s first shoe press for tissue, as well as the air cap drying hood with automatic roof cleaning, and an advanced wet dust system for entrapment of dust at its source.

Plant manager Waheed Al-Qannas says that the machine has been running very well, with the startup curve “very steep”. Speeds have been above 1,800 mpm and the team is on track to reach its target of 2,000 mpm. Bulk is up through the use of the shoe press though optimization work in this area is not over yet.

Runnability of the shoe press has been excellent, says Waheed. “As far as we know, we have set records for shoe press runnability on tissue. We have run the belt for 112 days at a speed of around 1750 mpm, and have had felt life of 92 days at the longest. Thus we are very happy with the operation and runnability of the shoe press.”

For fiber raw material, the mill uses purchased hardwood and softwood market pulp which is fed to the pulpers by a SICMA automatic feeding system. Stock preparation is done in Andritz refiners and then fed to the two-layer headbox with dilution profiling. The forming section is a crescent former, leading the sheet to the shoe press, over the Yankee and to the reel. Basis weight at the reel is in the range of 12-30 gsm, depending on the grade.

The complete automation system for QCS and DCS is handled by an ABB Profibus system that has full control of the operation, even including aspects such as chemical dosing.

The mill has the option to slit the sheet in half at the pope reel, thus making two 2.7 m wide jumbo rolls that can then be sent either directly to converting or to wrapping for export. This may be to other Nuqul converting plants or to external companies. Nuqul sells quite a bit of tonnage as jumbo rolls, with some going to companies as far away as the UK. The four station A.Celli winder can slit rolls and combine from 1 ply to 4 plies to any sister company requirements or for export to third parties.

DYNAMIC, GROWING AND CONFIDENT. Elie Wanna is deputy general manager of the mills in Egypt. Originally from Lebanon, he earned an engineering degree in the USA before returning to the Middle East where he worked for Kimberly-Clark, Saudi Paper and, since 2004, Al Sindian in Egypt. He is clearly pleased with the success of PM 3.

“The PM 3 project and startup have gone so extremely well that it has given us the confidence to go straight into the PM 4 project. PM 3 was the result of lots of improvements since the last machine, PM 2 in 1996. PM 4 will be very similar to PM 3 as we feel there is very little to fine tune.”

Jaakko Poyry’s Karlstad office, which is the firm’s tissue technology center, handled basic and detailed engineering as well as site services. Elie says that the team deserves much credit for the excellent assistance it provided to keep the project on time and budget.

The project also included the installation of a 13 MW gas cogeneration plant from Turbomach that is supplying all the power and steam needs for both paper machines on the site as well as the converting lines. It is an extremely flexible arrangement, allowing the mill to run on its own or off the grid, or any combination of the two. In addition the machine hood can run on its own gas burners or on the gas turbine blow through, which is of course most cost effective.

FROM FAMILY MANAGED TO FAMILY OWNED. In recent years, the owners in the Nuqul family have started the transition from a family-owned and managed company, to one that is still family owned but has added a professional management team to run the day to day operations. Thus in 2004 the company named two CEOs: Nidal Eses and Salim Karadsheh to share the responsibility and put the organization in place to allow a rapid expansion, especially in the hygiene sector which includes tissue and absorbent products.

A ten-year plan was established in 2003 to triple turnover at the Nuqul Group. The target is for sales to reach USD 1 billion in 2012, of which 75% would be from hygiene, up from 65% today. So far, says Salim, the progress has been excellent with 2005 hygiene sales surpassing the mid point. Of the tissue and absorbent products, each make up about half the group’s turnover.

A maintenance engineer originally, Salim is an impressive, swift talker with ideas and strategies coming in rapid succession. “We are undertaking a big change and are approaching it in a very professional manner. It is a difficult transition but we feel it is best for the future that we put some structure in what has been a business structured around the owners. We want to avoid building a bureaucracy, while at the same time we need systems for control of this rapidly growing company.”

“Each year we have a different part of the company where we focus on improvement. For example in 2005 it was cost control. In 2006 we are working on development of human resources. These two areas are essential prerequisites to be able to claim in 2007 being a world-class customer-focused organisation. This makes sense as we feel you can’t really serve the customer if the costs are wrong or people are not fully motivated and capable to support our vision. We wanted to get those two areas optimized first.”

PLAY ON THE STRENGTHS, WORK WITH THE BEST. As far as competing with the big multinational giants, Salim is realistic about Nuqul’s strengths and weaknesses, but is doing the best to play on the strengths. “We can’t copy what global companies spend on R&D and communication, but we feel that we can do certain things much better than the giants and that will make us successful.”

Another key member of the management team is Hani Nuqul, a distant second cousin of the founder Elia Nuqul.

Educated in the USA with a degree in paper engineering from Wisconsin, he is general manager of the Al Keena mill in Jordan and has been deeply involved in the construction of each of the three PMs. He will serve as project co-champion for PM 4.

He has also been very active in forging good relationships with world class companies such as Fabio Perini SpA, Metso, Andritz, Albany, Hercules, Jaakko Poyry, Voith, A.Celli and ABB to name a few. “We firmly believe that it is best to go with the world-leading companies. Maybe we do need to spend a bit more initially but we feel it is worth it. The smooth startup and operation of PM 3 is clearly proof of the value of working with leading companies.”

With ambitious growth targets, and a highly professional management team, PM 5 can’t be far behind for this fast moving group. Nuqul has successfully gone from small national producer to a big regional player and clearly has expansion plans for other countries. It remains to be seen if the structural changes that are being implemented will allow the growth to continue at the same pace. All indications at this time seem to point in that direction. Enjoy the ride! •

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