We embark on a voyage of discovery of all the secrets of hot water, with Sanicell of Caorso (near Piacenza), a member of the Hepworth Heating-Vaillant Group that produces quality boilers. Our guide is the company’s managing director Giovanni Foppiani:
“Would you rather drink out of glass or steel?” is the leading question he asks when promoting the qualities of vitreous enamel.
Caorso is a village with a population of a few thousand nestling up against the raised banks of the River Po, some fifteen kilometres downstream of Piacenza, whose name immediately reminds Italians of the nuclear power station situated there that was once in the spotlight of national news.
Caorso is not an industrial district: its most typical product is blades for cutting through cement. A little further on, flanking the motorway from Piacenza to Cremona and straddling the border between Emilia and Lombardy, are the area’s two leading factories, Unical and Sanicell, two firms that have shared much of their history and that still stand one next to the other, although their respective corporate histories ended up following completely different paths. The man who summarises the story of both of these firms is Giovanni Foppiani, managing director of Sanicell, a member of the Hepworth Heating-Vaillant Group, one of Europe’s leading boilermakers.
Giovanni Foppiani started his career in the water heater and boiler industry in 1958, when he enrolled as an apprentice plumber. From 1965 to 1988, he was production and technical manager with Guival, one of Italy’s most dynamic boiler and water heater manufacturers in the eighties. In 1988, Unical AG of Castel d’Ario, near Mantua, appointed him to create a collection of gas boilers and the plant to produce them in Caorso, near Piacenza, after which he was also appointed director of the plant. In 1996, he embarked on an investment project to create Sanicell as a manufacturer of boilers enamelled with an innovative cycle, including sanding and powder enamelling. Foppiani was director of the plants in Caorso, Castel d’Ario and Carbonara Po (near Mantua) and managing director of Sanicell until 1997, when he left after a disagreement with the Unical Board. In February 2002, the two firms were divided and the entire Sanicell share package was bought by the Hepworth Heating-Vaillant Group. Giovanni Foppiani has been managing director of Sanicell since March 2002.
Foppiani started out in 1958 as an apprentice plumber and has since made his successful personal way up the industry’s entire technical and managerial ladder: production manager, plant director, managing director… In 1988, he started up the plant in Caorso for Unical, from Castel d’Ario near Mantua, before setting up the neighbouring Sanicell plant in 1996 to produce boilers enamelled with an innovative cycle that involves sanding and powder enamelling. In addition to directing the Unical plants in Castel d’Ario, Caorso and Carbonara Po, Foppiani also served as managing director of Sanicell until 1997, when he left as a result of the sort of internal upheavals that sometimes afflict the inner workings of a company. But when Unical sold the entire share package of Sanicell off in 2002 to the Hepworth Heating-Vaillant group, the colossus of the European boiler market that accounts for 27% of it on its own, Foppiani agreed to go back and take up the reins of the company he had created once more.
The impact the visitor has with the interior of Sanicell’s crisp white block confirms the external impression it gives of tidy efficiency, a good balance between the model of Lombardy and that of Emilia. The impression grows stronger if you are treated to a brief walk through the tidy workshops, where the noise level is so low that you can be forgiven for thinking you have taken a wrong turn and are not in a factory where steel is sanded and shaped, enamelled, fired and assembled to make glistening boilers. On more than one occasion, Foppiani invited me to put my hand inside a boiler and feel for myself how smooth it was, compactly enamelled and brilliant, without even the slightest bump or cavity. Next we pass on to the light-flooded design office, where the technicians design, test and simulate every conceivable development and innovation on the computer.
“This is one of Europe’s most modern plants”, Foppiani tells me with conviction. “It was built in 1996, dealing with all the basic problems together with the enamellers, so that we would be able to cater for the need to have quality products to insert in the group’s boiler range and for any external customers. Sanicell now has 51 employees and a turnover of seven million Euros, 60% of which is exported. Boilers that are built into tanks with capacities from four to 150 litres account for 80% of our production, while the remaining 20% comprises boilers for tanks from 75 to 250 litres. In future, we will be targeting a significant market share for boilers to accompany tanks and for solar panels from 75 to 250 litres.”
Q: What sort of prospects do you think the solar energy market can offer?
“Although solar panels do not bring any significant savings in money terms, they do save energy. The whole area could become very interesting if the installation of solar panels becomes obligatory, as is now happening in countries like France and Spain. In any case, though, the question is only relevant for medium to large capacity boilers.”
Q: What is the outlook for the boiler market today?
“There is already an increasing demand for boilers and it looks likely to continue, because consumers want the extra comfort that they can get from a reserve of hot water which can be tapped simultaneously by all the outlets. Usually it is not the plumber who decides any more, but the technician, the designer. Many manufacturers of instant water heaters also combine a four to fifty litre reserve tank. The percentage of wall-mounted boilers with a tank added – from the small 4 litre variety to the larger 50 litres – is growing all the time and now accounts for about 30%. Instant water heaters are not enough for medium sized systems any more: they all want boilers with 100 to 200 litre tanks, to cater for the needs of more than one bathroom and also a Jacuzzi. In the years to come, consistent increases can be expected in many markets: Poland (23%), Great Britain (20%), Austria (17%), France (15%), Germany (12%), Spain (5.4%) and also Italy (4%). Exports are also expected to do well. Two years ago, Sanicell exported 40% of its production; that percentage has now risen to 60% and is expected to reach 80% in 2004.”
Q: Tell us about Sanicell’s products
“I can say without hesitation that our production process is certainly one of the best there is. We are one of the few manufacturers that only used Email 300 certified sheeting. An innovative flanging system with built-in attachments enables us to minimise the attachments made to our boilers, totally avoiding all the critical points for enamelling. Our products come with a ten-year guarantee and can last for ever if they are used properly and well monitored.”
Q: Have you succeeded in communicating this message?
“It is still difficult to get the message across to the consumer and the installer that there is a world of difference between a boiler manufactured with a highly reliable standard process and one put together haphazardly, using any old metal sheeting and outsourcing the enamelling to generalists who have no idea of the previous phases in the process, so that the boiler ends up losing its enamel. The result is bound to be a poor quality product that will damage the whole industry’s image and market.”
Q: What impetus can boilers give to finding new market shares for enamel?
“Beating stainless steel for small boilers will be more and more difficult, for reasons of weight and the negligible difference in price between the two products. For tanks containing more than 120 litres, enamel will have a more competitive price, coming in at up to 30% cheaper, but the quality will have to be very high. The market for boilers is expanding vigorously, both in the case of the models designed to be built into storage tanks, where consumers want more comfort, as I already mentioned, and because of the comeback of solar energy in medium and large capacity tanks.”
Q: What relations do you have with plant and enamel producers?
“Very good ones, especially with our enamel suppliers, who give us a very important technical support that helps us keep improving our quality. Together with them, we have developed enamels and enamelling operations whose results are very satisfying.”
Q: And what about CISP?
“In my opinion, the Association’s function is to provide support for manufacturers of quality products and also to get the message across to the market that enamel means quality, for example by upgrading its estimation by means of information campaigns in the specialised press. A good enamelled boiler is far better than a mediocre stainless steel model and is equal, probably always better, than a good stainless steel. Our special vitreous enamel guarantees that the hot water heated in it is perfectly hygienic. And if you ask a consumer whether he would rather drink out of glass or steel, the answer will certainly be glass.”
This is a message that Giovanni Foppiani often inserts in his communications, because he finds it a short, effective way of getting the principle across.
Q: What do you expect as a result of the globalisation of world markets?
“I do not think that the boiler market will suffer unduly, because there is always more demand for products that guarantee greater comfort and whose quality is demonstrable. The days when you could pass a patched-up product off as a quality boiler are over: those who did so in the past caused untold damage to the image of our boilers on foreign markets. Nowadays, Eastern Europe and the new economies in other parts of the world are also insisting on quality. We have no quibbles with that: we are equipped to deal with it and certified from beginning to end.”.
Sanicell was established in Caorso in 1997 by Giovanni Foppiani on behalf of Unical AG, a boilermaker with plants in Castel d’Ario, Carbonara Po, Zerbio di Caorso, Orgiano and, from 1991 onwards, Caorso. From the 3,000 gas boilers it originally produced, Unical had progressed to 80,000 pieces by 1996, increasing its turnover by 264% and the number of its employees by 142% in the period from 1992 to 1997, so that Unical was ranked thirteenth among the 53 Italian firms listed in Europe 500, the association of the 500 European SMEs that have grown most over a period of five years.
In 2002, Sanicell split away from Unical AG and was taken over entirely by the Hepworth Heating-Vaillant Group, which accounts for a 27% share of the European water heater and boiler market. Sanicell now has 51 employees who generate a turnover of seven million Euros, 60% of which comes from export (growing all the time and expected to reach 80% in 2004).
The production plant is organised in three well integrated departments: welding, enamelling and skimming, using some of the most advanced technologies and equipment in a production cycle that starts with the raw materials and ends with the packaged finished product, with a capacity to produce 250 boilers on each of three lines in a single eight hour shift. Sanicell’s product range comprises boilers from four to 150 litres designed to be built into hot water tanks and boilers from 75 to 250 litres designed to flank the hot water tank. The products are made of high pressure resistant steel whose hold is guaranteed by automatic arc welding; they are electrostatic powder enamelled to comply with DIN 4753 and have polyurethane foam moulding. Sanicell makes a point of using nothing but certified metal sheeting and products.