Tried and trusted

From the January 2018 issue.

Complementing Northern European stoicism with a deep understanding of market dynamics and constant drive to innovate, German tanker specialist, FFB, is bridging the gap between traditional craftsmanship and the digital age.

Much like the world-renowned Mercedes-Benz badge, the bright-orange rhomb representing northern Germany’s Firmengruppe Feldbinder Beckmann (FFB, often referred to as Feldbinder only) is part of an exclusive club of brand marks that embody German craftsmanship and serve as a universal ‘seal of quality’ in the automotive world.
Unlike Mercedes-Benz, however, Feldbinder, one of Europe’s leading tanker manufacturers, is still very much a custom workshop – at least if you believe the company’s co-founders, Otto Feldbinder and Jan-Dirk Beckmann. Despite the brand’s global renown, or maybe because of it, they treat every single assignment is as a one-off project that has to deliver on one central premise – adding value to the future owner’s business. 

Unlike Mercedes-Benz, however, Feldbinder, one of Europe’s leading tanker manufacturers, is still very much a custom workshop – at least if you believe the company’s co-founders, Otto Feldbinder and Jan-Dirk Beckmann. Despite the brand’s global renown, or maybe because of it, they treat every single assignment is as a one-off project that has to deliver on one central premise – adding value to the future owner’s business. 

While every build is based on scalable core processes, Jan-Dirk Beckmann explains, there is something about a Feldbinder vehicle that “cannot be industrialised,” as he puts it. “Every Feldbinder unit is made with a specific application in mind – it’s a specialist tool for a specialist job that we design and build in-house from the ground up. It’s the only way we can ensure that every unit delivers on the quality promise that comes with our famous orange logo.”

At 71 years of age, Beckmann unashamedly refers to the company’s two manufacturing sites south of Hamburg as “workshops” and prefers talking about “the craft” of trailer building instead of soulless manufacturing processes, saying the 600+ man hours that go into every project make them “deeply personal” – not least because most of the parts on a modern tanker still have to be made by hand due to their size and low quantity.
“We will produce around 2,300 vehicles in 2017, which is not too much when you compare us to the automotive industry. And yet to most people in the transport space, the Feldbinder name is synonymous with modern tanker design,” he explains. “That’s because we take personal ownership of the product – from the two founders all the way through to our workshop personnel.

“We still take orders with a quantity of one – who does that these days? In the age of mass production, that kind of commitment is becoming a real asset for us as a business, and people are often surprised to see that we still physically manufacture so much here in Germany.”

Unfortunately, Beckmann adds, such dedication to detail comes at a price. The current waiting period for a Feldbinder vehicle is around 15 months, he says. “Our customers’ pain point is often around the six-month-mark, so having to disappoint them like that is almost unbearable. But we simply can’t find the people to scale up the way we’d want to.”
According to Beckmann, recruiting new staff – especially apprentices – has become a challenge in modern-day Germany. “In a market with almost zero unemployment (Germany’s unemployment rate is 3.6 per cent, with 4-6 per cent considered “full employment” in macroeconomics, ed.) it’s hard work getting young people excited about a career in manufacturing,” he shares – revealing that attracting new talent is till occupying much of the leadership team’s time. “Even though we use the latest technologies and work with the best schools, the lack of talent is a central reason why FFB isn’t growing as fast as it potentially could.”

At the moment, the company has just over 1,000 employees, he adds, about 10 per cent of them apprentices. “Those who do join quickly realise how much we reinvest in the individual,” he says. “Once they complete our three-year program, every Feldbinder apprentice will be able to build an entire trailer from scratch – ensuring they understand the product on a granular level and empowering them to help improve it.”
According to Beckmann, it’s ironic that Feldbinder’s “sore spot” is also its unique sales proposition. “People are the very core of our business, there’s no doubting that,” he says. “It all goes back to the way we started out in 1975. We had three people on the workshop floor and zero orders when we opened for business – and by 1980, we manufactured 120 units annually.”

Just like it is today, the company’s success back then was closely tied to the team behind it, he reveals. With Otto Feldbinder coming from a vehicle engineering background and Beckmann, an ex-army officer, having learned the ropes in a bulk transport business, the two were acutely aware of the industry’s shortcomings at the time – and knew how to stamp them out.

Long before ‘payload’ became a buzzword, they committed to producing the lightest-possible equipment so their customers would be able to transport more cargo with every run. To do so, they experimented with aluminium instead of steel, the common tank vessel material at the time.

“We knew the industry and the shortfalls that came with using heavy, standardised equipment, so we wanted to do something drastic to disrupt the market,” Beckmann explains. “And what’s more drastic than changing the very material people were used to and individualising the design process by tying in our customers’ unique business models?

“Of course everyone was reserved in the beginning – simply because aluminium was still so new – but they quickly realised that even though it can be more expensive at the start, it will pay off in the long run. Once people did the math and looked at total cost of ownership instead of purchasing price, it clicked.”

To win over the market, Beckmann adds, it was important to meet or exceed existing quality standards – German engineering had already rose to global fame at the time – and not just “play the shiny and new card”, as he explains. “Disruption, as Otto and myself understand it, has to bridge the gap between established best practice and the unknown. We value where we come from and owe a lot to the German manufacturing tradition, but we also want to keep open for innovation, so mixing the two has been written into our DNA from day one.”

Unsurprisingly, Feldbinder has kept innovating since those early days and is now renowned for producing some of the lightest tankers on the market – many of them with self-supporting vessels that don’t require a traditional chassis anymore. “Every year we find a new opportunity to save weight – you’d be surprised how much thought cause into a tanker these days. It’s got nothing to do with the equipment anymore that we built in the beginning.”

According to Karsten Bergmann, head of Feldbinder’s export business, it’s the balance between traditional craftsmanship and new technology that makes the €170 million business so special in the eyes of the world. “While we keep optimising the product and expanding our range, transport businesses value the sense of consistency we convey – they know whatever we do, our commitment to quality and making our customers’ businesses more profitable doesn’t change. It’s a bit like the ‘made in Germany’ label itself.”

According to Bergmann, that “faith” in the brand is especially strong in the UK and Spain and  Eastern Europe  quickly has become an interesting export market, too. “The Feldbinder brand has become a global phenomenon,” he says. “65 per cent of our production is currently being exported – i.e. we have  been selling to Japan, Australia and New Zealand quite successfully for almost 20 years. We don’t have any global data, but in we know we’re in the top five for liquid tankers in Europe and the number one brand in the European silo tanker market.”

According to Jan-Dirk Beckmann, however, the Feldbinder brand is only ever as good as the next vehicle leaving the gate, which is why the combination of German craftsmanship with high technology will continue to be at the very core of the business. “Back in the day, when we had a great idea, we’d get it patented and make a big deal about it,” he says. “These days we’re pushing the bar so much that we don’t even bother protecting our IP anymore, it’s all about speed to market. Once an innovation is out there bearing our famous logo, people know it’s a Feldbinder idea, and we’re happy for them to copy us. By the time they have figured it out, we’ll be working on the next big thing anyway.”

Fast Fact
While Feldbinder is best known for the design and manufacture of high-pressure silo tanks, the company is also active in the stainless steel liquid tanker market, which it joined in 1993. Since 1996, Feldbinder vehicles are also used in the rail sector. The company’s head office and main production site is located in Winsen, south of Hamburg, with a second factory in Wittenberg, some 100km south of Berlin.

Fast Fact
According to co-founder, Jan-Dirk Beckmann, the transport equipment market has changed dramatically since FFB was first established in 1975. “Price was an important factor back then, next to technical details such as the braking system,” he says. “That’s because we dealt with a lot of owner-drivers who were still using the vehicle themselves every day and understood the mechanics behind it. Today, our clientele is much more focused on the big picture and important aspects like sustainability and safety. And, they’re willing to pay extra for a solution they can rely on.” 

Fast Fact
In 2008, prior to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), FFB set a company sales record with more than 3,000 units sold – including rail wagons. In 2017, the company will manufacture 2,300 units, 65 per cent of them for international markets.

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