The impressive factory building at Kolpintie 1276 – an industrial estate on the edge of Kolppi, a solid five-hour drive north of Helsinki – is almost new, but the main gate is locked. It is a cold Friday afternoon in January, and we have an appointment to meet Ekeri CEO, Mikael Eklund. But our host doesn’t seem to be around.
After a short phone call, Eklund finally appears in the doorway of an old structure opposite the shiny factory, laughing. The new building, he explains, is for paying customers only, management is still residing in the old head office nearby. The situation is somewhat typical of the way Eklund is leading the Ekeri business – modest and unassuming, operating below the corporate radar.
Specialised in the manufacture of semi-trailers with rigid side-doors, Ekeri doesn’t want to be involved in the rat race, as Eklund puts it. “We see ourselves as a modest, down-to-earth business,” he says. “Growth has always been organic, and it will remain organic going forward.”
Established by Eklund’s grandfather, the Ekeri business started off as a small carpenter’s workshop before it moved to caravan production when the Finnish population re-discovered the joy of travelling in post-war Europe. The company slowly expanded its range and gradually evolved into a full-scale OEM – specialising in a niche product that is widely known to be somewhat pricey, yet indestructible.
Still based in Kolppi – many of the Swedish-speaking inhabitants call it Kallby instead – Ekeri now is a household name in Scandinavia and can boast an estimated annual production of about 700 highly specialised units – including both rigid bodies and articulated trailers.
“Today, we only build truck bodies and trailers with solid walls and side doors,” says Eklund. “They work almost like a curtain-sider, but they are based on solid panels all round. We have accumulated a lot of know-how on this kind of design over the years, so we know exactly how to build them to ensure they are as robust and sturdy as possible.”
Eklund says it makes no difference for Ekeri’s engineering team whether a standard European 40 or 44-tonne semi is required or a Northern European heavyweight with a GVM of 70 tonnes or more. In fact, there is no off-the-shelf stock available at all. Since the very beginning, every Ekeri build is a one-off.
That high degree of specialisation is exactly what Mikael Eklund likes most about the family business – he knows that the mass-producing European competition would not be able, or at least willing, to copy the concept.
“Our niche is customisation. The more extreme a request, the more comfortable we feel realising it. So if you want a refrigerated semi that can be fully opened like a curtain-sider and can be lifted by a crane for intermodal use, Ekeri is the right company to turn to.
“For instance, we are currently working on an intermodal multi-temperature van with mezzanine decks, and we could easily add steerable axles or something like that too. Flexibility is standard at Ekeri,” says Eklund.
But why is it that rigid side-doors are in such high demand? According to Ekeri, return loads are extremely hard to come by in Finland and Scandinavia. Those who connect the sparsely populated north with the bustling south need to be flexible enough to transport a wide spectrum of freight – any load is a good load. As large-scale manufacturing plants are a rare find in most of northern Europe, there is not as much standardised or palletised freight to be shipped as in mainland Europe, making the job even more challenging.
As a result, it is not uncommon for a transport business to carry timber up north and bring Bacalao, salted down cod, back on the way south – organising the transhipment at the back of a remote fish farm. Loading docks are almost non-existent up there, so flexibility is key.
According to Eklund, Ekeri once built a trailer for a company that carts steel from Sweden to France and wine on the return journey. The trailer can boast rigid side-walls and a sliding roof so it can be loaded from above, directly at the steel mill, before being craned onto a train that will bring it to France. The final mile to the client will be covered on the road. Once unloaded, it will be loaded with rare French wine and goes back to Sweden. As the return freight is valuable, the semi is also equipped with a central locking system – a standard feature at Ekeri. The opening side-walls, meanwhile, allow for easy unloading back in Sweden, even if loading docks are far and few between.
Juha Ristimaa, a long-standing client of the Eklund family, can arguably boast the most spectacular Ekeri equipment on Scandinavia’s roads – not so much because of the specification, but more so because of a passion for styling. His customised truck collection is known to be one of the most pristine in Europe, but as beauty alone doesn’t always pay off, the vehicles have to perform out in the field as well – predominantly between Finland and Sweden. One day his freight will be fresh produce, the next it could be a soft drink or paper reels.
According to Ristimaa, Ekeri equipment is ideal for that kind of work – he estimates the side-doors have to be opened up to three out of four times per trip. In addition, he is a “professed fan” of smart ideas like the EKEguard, a phone-sized device that can remotely control the locking system and inform him via SMS if someone tries to get access. The system can also inform the driver about the weight aboard and can be used for GPS tracking or as a torch.
Every new item on Ekeri’s vast feature list is about adding flexibility, says Eklund. To him, a trailer has to cater to every load, whatever the shape. “Never go empty,” he says – revealing a mentality unique to post-GFC Scandinavia.
Unlike central Europe, Finland still hasn’t managed to leave the economic crisis behind. One reason for the delayed slump is the lack of manufacturing power and natural resources in northern Europe. It may be hard to believe, but the Finnish economy has become vastly dependent on one large company, Nokia. Since the technology giant began to struggle, the country’s economy began to decrease dramatically.
Ekeri, for instance, lost some 50 per cent of revenue within a year, and it was only due to Eklund’s cautiousness that the company was able to bounce back surprisingly fast. Although Finland itself is still struggling, the company’s client base is growing again. “In fact, we are now stronger in Finland than we were before the GFC,” says Eklund.
At the moment, the order books may not be full to bursting, but production is running at full capacity at least. According to Eklund, the average lead-time per order is about 10 weeks – with the majority of that time used to plan the design and source componentry. The build itself will take about two weeks, sometimes less.
Fourteen new jobs are entering production per week, two thirds of which are dry vans, the rest refrigerated equipment.
Although the Ekeri brand is going strong at the moment, Mikael Eklund is still chasing one dream. “I want everyone in the commercial road transport world to think of Ekeri when they hear the word side-doors,” he says. Due to economic prudence and a very special self-conception, he has almost reached that goal since the last recession – at least in Finland, Sweden and Norway.