George Utz Ltd is the UK manufacturing operation of the Swiss-owned Utz Group, with subsidiaries in Germany, France, Poland, USA and China. George Utz has been well known here for many years as a high quality manufacturer of returnable materials handling solutions, in use across many sectors including automotive, retail, postal services and distribution. Its bestselling products include containers and inserts, pallets, dollies and pallet boxes, many of which will be exhibited at IMHX in November.
Despite our current tough economic conditions, George Utz Ltd continues to grow both in revenue and employee numbers, and its production site at Alfreton has been working 24/7 for over 18 months. Investment for future growth includes new in-mould labelling technology (IML) and four new raw material silos, bringing total storage capacity to over 1,200 tonnes.
George Utz takes its environmental responsibilities very seriously. Where possible it uses high-grade recycled materials, and has the technology on site to offer this economically viable and environmentally friendly service to its customers. Indeed the UK operation is currently applying for ISO14001 (Environmental Management Systems) accreditation.
Carsten Diekmann, General Manager of George Utz UK, spoke to Warehouse & Logistics News.
Warehouse & Logistics News – Carsten, what does your role as General Manager of George Utz UK involve?
I’m responsible for all aspects of our business in the UK. Together with my fantastic Management Team, Barbara Kapoor – Head of Finance and Graham Wordsworth – Production Manager, we are running a highly efficient factory, the finance department, the logistics centre and our sales teams. George Utz UK is a limited company in its own right under the umbrella of the Georg Utz Holding AG in Switzerland. I and other senior staff are also members of different working groups within the international Utz Group.
WLN – How long have you been in your present job?
I am originally from Germany, but I’ve been here in the UK for nearly three years. My family moved here to join me last year and are already very settled in this lovely country. So far I have had lots of very good encounters with customers, the people I meet in the business and in the different organisations in which we are active. My background includes various management positions in sales and marketing, and also product and project management in the materials handling/packaging industry. Prior to joining George Utz, I worked with Linpac Allibert in Europe.
WLN – Are you personally involved with NPD or with major clients?
I’m always involved in major projects and key customers, especially where we are offering a bespoke solution. I always try to see both a customer perspective and an internal view to understand exactly what is possible to produce to meet our customers’ needs. At the end of the day it is my responsibility that our customers are happy and delighted.
I believe the main reason for our success is that we’re a full service provider, with product development, project management and production carried out locally in Alfreton in Derbyshire. Some 75-80% of the products we sell in the UK are actually manufactured here, the rest at our factories elsewhere in Europe. Our strategy is to be close to our customers and the market as possible: the fact that we manufacture here is a big driver for winning business. We find our customers like to have production as close to their operations as possible.
WLN – Can you outline the different types of readymade materials handling solutions you supply, and what they are used for?
Our main product families are containers, inserts, pallets, dollies and pallet boxes. Our stack/nest containers are used in retail outlets and distribution centres, and are ideal as they save space when empty and nested. Our stackable containers with vacuum-formed inserts are used in the automotive industry and through first and second tier suppliers. Retail distribution centres (DCs) pick and place their goods in our plastic containers, dollies and pallet boxes and send them direct to their stores. Our dollies are for example, 800 x 600mm, plastic with high quality casters: our material handling products for the retail market offer store friendly packaging and eliminate manual, labour-intensive repacking and cardboard waste during the last 50 metres in the retail stores to the point of sale (POS).
Our newest development in Europe is the foldable pallet box (KLAPA), which is a 1200 x 1000 x 975mm box based on the new automotive VDA recommendation (VDA 4520) – the new standard for Europe in this market segment.
WLN – How are your sales doing in the different industry sectors you supply?
Our strongest UK sector is retail with approx 60%, then automotive with 20%. The rest is made up of general industry and resellers/distributors.
WLN – In which sectors are your sales growing fastest?
Retail is definitely growing fastest: in the wake of the financial crisis the major high street retailers are taking the opportunity to invest in new modern logistical processes and upgrading their distribution centres, ready for sales growth in the next year or two. The medium sized retailers and companies are having more of a struggle and we are finding only a few are able to invest in large projects for growth at the moment.
WLN – How compatible are your products with conveyors and other current materials handling equipment?
We manufacture storage and materials handling products in the standard European modular sizes, namely 800 x 600mm, 600 x 400mm, 400 x 300mm and 300 x 200mm. All our products are compatible with current conveyors, forklifts and material handling automation. They have strong bases with minimum deflection under load and, if required, have double sandwich base construction, ideal for use in automated high-speed mini-load systems. We pride ourselves on our customer focused and solution driven attitude. We can design, develop and produce the right products for our customers and systems integrators, which are 100% compatible with any existing or new equipment. Anything is possible…
WLN – How reusable are your products?
With normal use, a 10-year lifespan isn’t unreasonable. We give a three-year project warranty as standard, but our experience shows that as our products are so strong and solid, it is unusual for a product to fail within this period. Handled properly, there is no reason why they would not last forever! The main material we use is polypropylene, which has good stability and high impact strength. As an economic alternative we also offer our customers industrial compounds in many different colours.
WLN – How recyclable are your products at the end of their lives?
We guarantee to our customers that we will take back our products and recycle them. We will reuse 100% of the high quality material again for products with lower technical requirements, where appropriate and agreed. We have successful cases where we have produced new containers or pallets from recycled materials of pre-used crates and boxes, and the quality was of a very similar spec to the old ones. We give customers a clear product warranty when we use recycled materials, and we always ensure we know the source of the recycled plastic: you can’t turn a poor performer into a good one!
WLN – Do you sell to end users direct or through distributors, or both?
We do both. We supply higher volume orders to end users direct, and transfer lower volume customers to our existing distributors in the UK. We work together with well-respected partners, to provide a seamless service across the UK. For UK companies requiring international service, our production plants and sales organisations across Continental Europe, in the USA and China can get involved where required. Our strategy is very clear – we want to offer local service to our local customers.
WLN – Do you supply your returnable products to pool providers and third party logistics companies?
Yes, we do this direct: we supply products to the major pool providers and also to 3PLs here and in Europe. I often mention customer names because our business is built on trust and discretion. However you can easily identify an Utz product, as they are all branded with our logo, which stands for exceptional quality and value.
WLN – Do you supply your products to materials handling integrators, to use with their conveyor systems etc?
We have good relationships with many of the larger systems integrators and work with them on turnkey projects providing packaging, containers, pallets or bespoke solutions. Often the systems integrator will test one of our standard products to ensure compatibility, or we develop a bespoke solution together. They then specify and recommend our products to their customers.
WLN – How are you set up to sell your standardised products to UK customers?
We have a clear structure with a field sales team and Key Account Managers for the each of the sectors in which we operate. We have market specialists with experience in each sector, who have a deep understanding of the customer’s specific issues and their supply chain processes.
WLN – Can end users buy standard products from you on-line?
Yes, end users can buy our products on-line from our distributors and catalogue companies.
WLN – How quickly can you deliver orders?
Our UK-based standard products are generally available at just 24 hours lead-time. Any orders placed with us or our distributors will generally be dispatched directly from our site at Alfreton.
WLN – Which of your standard products are the biggest sellers? What are your newest standard products?
Our biggest selling products are our stack/nest containers, European-sized containers and plastic pallets. We’re not in the low-priced, one-way plastic pallet business: all our products offer strong performance, with low deflection and a long life time.
Our newest products are our double-welded base stack/nest containers, which can take up to 50kg in a mini load automated system and have a base deflection of less than 5mm, due to their patented sandwich construction. They originated as a UK-specific design for a well-known department store retailer, but they were so successful we now also sell them to other customers.
WLN – Do you produce a catalogue of your standard products?
Yes, we do. George Utz’s new 200-page product and solution catalogue for 2010/2011 is available in printed form from our customer service team in Alfreton (01773 543170) or in digital form from the Utz Home page (www.georgutz.com)
WLN – What proportion of your UK business is tailor made solutions for specific customers?
Two thirds of our business is tailor made. The key is, we develop solutions to help project customers, which often then become standard products. We have a project team, supported by our design department to deliver a tailor made solution for our UK based customers.
WLN – Is there a dedicated team working on your project business?
Yes, there is. Our project sales team brings in the order to our in-house designers, and then our project manager takes over and pulls it through the system, in line with the agreed spec and lead-time. We keep the customer updated with weekly progress schedules and if required with 24/7 web cam access into our production lines in Alfreton.
WLN – To what extent can you supply solutions tailored to specific customers’ needs?
We can supply products in either Polypropylene (PP) or Polyethylene (HDPE), and a very wide range of colours. We can offer solutions with built-in RFID tags: we introduce these transponders during production, and can fit them to pallet containers, boxes and plastic pallets. We are quality mass producers, but we’re not a mass-market supplier, forced to offer low quality at low prices in order to compete against other trade moulders.
WLN – What’s the minimum order for tailored solutions?
Our project customers, as we call them, usually order upwards of 20,000 units. If it needs a new injection moulding tool, production can take three to four months for a new unique high quality tool.
WLN – Do you produce case studies about large clients you have worked for?
We have case studies of a number of recent major projects, which we use during the tender process. They include well known retail and automotive customers.
WLN – When was The Utz Group set up?
Georg Utz, a toolmaker, set up his business to produce injection moulding tools in 1947, just outside Zurich in Switzerland. The company is still mainly privately owned and is free from any external debt, which is a clear advantage. It means the decision making process in our business is quick and easy, and we can be flexible to win large projects.
WLN – Where is your HQ? Where do you develop your technology?
Our headquarters is in Bremgarten, near Zurich in Switzerland. Our strategy is to develop products locally for our customers in each country, but we also share concepts, developments and new ideas in our various working groups. This sharing of best practice with our sister companies around the world ensures we are always ahead of the game and can develop new innovations and technologies.
WLN – How big is The Utz Group worldwide in turnover and staff? How many countries do you trade in?
We have a turnover of £160m, and invest the equivalent of 10% every year in technology and production resources. We have approximately 700 staff worldwide and seven production plants, including China and America. We have agency agreements with 40 local partners around the world and our products are on sale in over 100 countries.
WLN – How important is the UK for the Utz Group as a market?
We have a clear commitment to the UK. It offers major potential for further growth, especially in the retail sector and warehouse automation in distribution centres.
WLN – How does the UK differ from other countries where you operate?
One big difference is that in the UK, investment decisions regarding return on investment (ROI) are often made with a short or medium term view. In Europe people tend to take a medium to longer term view. People here think three to five years ahead, versus five to ten years on the Continent. One big advantage is that customers here really appreciate customer service, value for money and quality, rather than just looking for the lowest available price. At the end of the day, my experience wherever you are is that people buy from people. A fair and honest relationship with their suppliers is of paramount importance. The mentality in Europe in the materials handling market is slightly different in specific areas, but the ground rules and principles are very similar.
WLN – When did you start operations here?
We started George Utz Ltd, the UK company, in 1990 and opened the Alfreton factory in 2002 with lots of space to expand the building and the business.
WLN – I understand the Alfreton plant has been working 24/7 for over 18 months. That’s very good, given the recession. What effect has the recession had on your business?
Many small to mid size companies are struggling, but thankfully the recession isn’t having too much of an effect on us. We’re involved in a lot of project business for large retail and automotive customers, who have been able to continue to invest substantially in their businesses throughout the recession.
WLN – Do you think the recession is over?
I don’t think the recession is really over yet – the unclear financial debt situation here in the UK, coupled with growing uncertainty throughout Europe, means that investors are nervous about making major decisions and committing themselves for the next five to ten years. The key is restoring political and financial stability, not only for global investors, but also for SMEs here in the UK.
WLN – You’ve recently invested in new in-mould labelling technology and four new raw material silos at Alfreton, bringing total storage capacity to over 1,200 tonnes. What difference will these developments make to the business?
In-mould labelling is a major innovation in our industry. It allows us to offer higher specification, reliable barcodes and labels and products with customer logos in line with their CI. Increasing our storage capacity means that even with raw material prices currently going through the roof and a scarcity of raw materials on the market, we can agree a fixed price for a project, buy and store the materials on site for our project customers in the UK.
WLN – How much capacity do you have for further growth?
We have land available at Alfreton to build more storage silos and double our production capacity when the time comes, which we’re confident it will!
WLN – You’re currently applying for ISO14001 accreditation. What changes will that mean to the business?
ISO14001 will really set us apart from other suppliers. More and more customers are asking suppliers if they have specific audited processes: with ISO14001, we will be able to provide evidence that our processes are environmentally managed.
WLN – Have you won any awards for innovation?
The Utz Group has won various Worldstar Packaging Awards from the World Packaging Organisation (WPO). The prizewinning products include a letter tray for the postal industry, special packaging for bearings for the automotive industry, CD despatch boxes and combined transport and display cases for bananas.
WLN – Which solutions will you be exhibiting at IMHX?
We’ll be showing all our standard solutions and our project-related solutions for a variety of our retailers’ distribution centres and automotive customers. We will also be launching a new attached lid container with IML (in-mould label) barcoding at the event.
WLN – Where do you see George Utz Ltd going from here?
We will continue to deliver products for the UK markets and implement projects with blue chip customers, leading to major new customers every year.
As already described, we will also implement in-mould labelling (IML) as a standard feature. We will continue to grow as a business: last year we were on the East Midlands Development Agency’s High Growth Programme. They have assessed our growth potential and are providing us with mentors for support in specific areas, which is proving very valuable. We will also see a strengthening of our ‘green’ credentials, arising from our ISO14001 accreditation.
WLN – What do you see as your biggest challenges?
Our biggest challenge has to be what’s happening with the financial markets throughout Europe. The market here for our products will continue to develop and grow: even in a crisis, people continue to eat and drink and buy things for their homes – all of which still need to be delivered to where the consumers are. Home shopping and web portals also require clever Supply Chain solutions supported through new Distribution Centres. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. The technology of “teleporting” products is still not invented, but perhaps one day for our great grand children! In the meantime, we still have to transport goods from A to B and for that, our customers still need reliable returnable packaging from the Utz Group.
George Utz Ltd Tel: 01773 543170 www.georgutz.com