When brand names make history
The history of Electrolux Zanussi started way back in 1858 with the Becchi brand name (red terracotta heaters), before eventually converging with the name of a European giant in the household appliances sector.
The cooking appliance factory in Forlì is one of Italy's largest enamel factories. According to Mario Grillo, the manager for Southern Europe of Electrolux Home Products Europe, enamel is important in supporting the current growth in the coockers sector. However, enamel and system manufacturers must continue to seek sufficient supports, a wider variety of colours and faster process times. Triplex, Zoppas and Zanussi are all brand names which marked the development of household appliances over the decades of the economic boom and the improvement in living standards which characterised the post-war years, from the 1960s onwards. They have all appeared, on more than one occasion, on the shirts of sports' teams world-wide. I discovered that they now all form part of the same family, the Swedish group, Electrolux, a colossal multinational in the household appliances sector. After many years, I also heard the name Becchi again, the legendary brand name which graced those huge, terracotta heaters, an unforgettable part of schooldays to anyone over the age of forty.
We are in Susegana, near Treviso, just a few kilometres from Conegliano Veneto, at the Electrolux Zanussi "cold" plant, formerly Zoppas. It is a grey, foggy day, but the ideas and the concepts explained to me by Mario Grillo are simple and clear, as efficient as they should be for someone responsible for supervising a vast area, with thousands of employees and various factories located in regions with diverse characteristics.
Mario Grillo, 49, is Vice President of European Flow Management Southern Region. With 22 production units throughout Europe, Electrolux is the leader in the household appliances sector. It has around a dozen units manufacturing cooking appliances and holds a 25% share of the European market.
The Forlì factory is the most important of the Electrolux Group plants in Europe in the manufacturing of household cooking appliances. Its history dates back to 1858 and Becchi, which had moved on from manufacturing of the famous terracotta heaters to stoves, boilers and gas heaters. In 1967, it was bought by Zanussi Elettrodomestici, which started a process of specialisation in production which would continue until 1974, when it was decided to concentrate solely on the manufacturing of cooking appliances. In 1985, Zanussi was bought by the Swedish group, Electrolux, which started the period of growth continuing today. This is clearly demonstrated by production data: 1,338,000 appliances were manufactured in 1999, with a workforce of around 1,000, and the target of one and a half million will be reached in 2001.
"The Forlì factory," says Mr. Grillo, "manufactures solely cooking appliances: all the different kinds of built-in ovens (electric, gas, steam, multi-function), built-in hobs of all sizes (gas, electric, combined, ceramic hobs and "gas on glass") and free-standing cookers, also of all sizes and types.
We have 2,000 product variants under thirteen different brand names ... with the spread of built-in cookers, colours and sizes which follow fashions and combined power supply, it doesn't take long to reach a large number of variants. And life is complicated even further," adds Mr. Grillo, "by the fact that we also have two colours for the interiors ... but, after all, production flexibility is one of our strong points."
The Forlì plant is one of the largest enamel factories in Italy. It has a wet application line for applying enamel on the muffles of built-in and free-standing cookers, two lines for application of enamel powder for the black and grey components, a wet application line for applying enamel on burner caps, a pad printing system and a silk-screen printing system, plus two lines for wet application of enamel which will shortly be replaced (following an investment of Lire 6 billion) with two new lines for the application of enamel using the "two coats/one fire" process, with powder on a wet base for the white components and wet on wet for the coloured components. We have a "palette" of around twenty colours...".
Q: We express the surprise of non-experts, who expect less flexibility in product types from the large factory of a major European group.
"Our philosophy," explains Mr. Grillo, "is short lines, and lots of them, in order to allow rapid colour changes. For certain products, we even have a production run of just twelve or thirteen articles at a time. In a certain sense, we have no choice, because it is difficult to achieve market growth if you do not have this kind of flexibility. We also plan to continue with this positive development in our activities in the future, by supplying increasingly interesting and competitive products in terms of the price/value and price/characteristics ratio, with a wider variety of colours, shapes and features. The higher the customer
flies, the greater the desire for customisation."
Q: And has Electrolux equipped itself for this?
"As far as the production process is concerned, we have increased flexibility, taking into consideration what the latest technology has to offer. However, we never neglect the environmental impact and when we reorganised the Forlì factory, we invested heavily in changing to the "two coats/one fire" system, which requires only one degreasing and eliminates the use of nickel and sulphuric acid."
Q: We ask Mr. Grillo what role enamel could play in Electrolux strategies?
"Enamel seemed to be losing ground over the years, as attention shifted to steel. However, there has been a decided reverse in this trend, particularly for hobs in both the built-in and free standing sectors. Enamel does not show fingerprints, it is easy to clean and there are also a large number of attractive types available, allowing unusual and less uniform colours. This is where the future trends lie. The colour of the muffles is less important (one or two colours are sufficient). Development of enamel for cookers is based on easy cleaning and on the catalytic and pyrolitic function, which is increasingly in demand, following the example of France."
Q: What does Electrolux expect of the system and enamel manufacturers?
"Up until the 1980s, there were a great number of improvements in enamel, followed by a gap and a fall-off. The desire to innovate seems to have returned now, as manufacturers seek the increasingly "advanced" characteristics of appearance and quality which are needed now.
We have been working jointly with great success with several system and enamel manufacturers, As far as the part having an impact on production processes is concerned, it is necessary to reduce costs and increase flexibility. A wider base of standardised sheet steels appropriate for enamel is needed, in order always to have supports available and thereby diversify purchases and reduce costs. The enamelling process times must also be reduced, since they are still too long. Studies and research have been carried out into reducing the length of the "two coats-one fire" process and temperatures must also be lowered further. Electrolux is aware that innovation must always be uppermost in a company's mind and we have worked jointly with Ericsson to create "E2", for the development of "home systems", with the application of electronics in household appliances. Electronics have not really been incorporated into household appliances over the last few decades, but companies are making up for lost time in no small way now, particularly as far as concerns the ability to control consumption (water, light, gas) and reduce costs."
Q: What are the possible scenarios for the future?
"Rather than imagining scenarios, we tend to look at trends. And trends are telling us that the kitchen is becoming increasingly important. In the 1970s, it had become a "kitchenette", to be concealed from guests. Nowadays, the kitchen is part of the decor, it is trendy and the attractiveness of the household appliances is fundamental. However, they must combine design with functional technologies, automatic management of cycles and easy use."
Q: What about enamel?
"Enamel is easy to clean, easily adapted to particular shapes and is now available in a wide range of colours, so it has become more important as well. And it could become even more so, if the enamelling process times are reduced, as I said before. I think there is still some way to go yet, but I am firmly convinced that we cannot do without enamel. It won't be just a "commodity", as long as there is anyone capable of innovating, moving forward and dragging everyone else with them."
Q: What about the future within the context of globalisation?
"We are undoubtedly going through a period of great change. Breaking down of the barriers with Eastern Europe will force us to review the current industrial set-up. The value per volume of our products is low, so a household appliance manufacturer needs the production units as close as possible to the market. The Far East is too far away for us. The lion's share of our market is in Europe and Europe is moving eastwards. Large populations will be introduced to a new standard of living and they will want "performing" products with basic characteristics, at low cost. But there will also be heavy demand for built-in and value products. New manufacturers will appear and some of the "old" ones will leave the market. Poland and the Czech Republic are showing interesting growth at the moment, as is Russia (although with the usual reservations). We already have a cooker factory in Rumania, a refrigerator factory in Hungary and a washer/dryer factory in Poland. We re-import a part of these "low-range" products.
The scenario is changing, Europe is changing with it and Mario Grillo must keep pace, in order to fulfil his task of managing the Southern corner of the vast, Electrolux chessboard, incorporating Italy, France and Spain. We would like to thank him for sparing the time to talk to us.
On the long, damp and foggy journey home, there is time to reflect on the shift from the red Becchi heaters to today's electronic, enamel cookers. Forty years or more of our lives represented perfectly in brand names - some still with us, some long gone - which have now converged into one multinational brand name, each testimony to the characteristics of its era.
Since 1985, Electrolux Zanussi Spa has formed part of the Swedish group, Electrolux, which numbers 22 production units in Europe in various sectors and holds a 25% share of the European household appliances market.
The Forlì plant is the most important Electrolux Zanussi factory in Europe for the production of cooking appliances, including built-in cookers and hobs of various sizes and types (electric, gas, steam, multi-function, ceramic hobs, "gas on glass"), as well as free standing cookers of various sizes and types.
In 1967, Zanussi Elettrodomestici purchased Becchi (founded in 1858), which started with the manufacture of terracotta heaters, before moving on to the production of stoves, boilers and gas heaters. Zanussi started a radical process of reorganisation and, from 1974 onwards, concentrated solely on the manufacture of cookers. Upon purchase by the Electrolux group in 1985, the company started a further phase of development, which continues today: in 1990, with a workforce of around eight hundred, 650,000 appliances per annum were produced; by 1999, with a workforce of one thousand, 1,338,000 were produced and the target for 2001 is one and a half million, with around 2,000 finished product variants and 13 different brand names.
70% of production is destined for export within Europe (particularly Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Eastern Europe), but also to non-European countries (Asia, Australia, Argentina and Brazil).