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Engineering a family business

Interview with Thomas Wimmer, General Manager at TBP Engineering GmbH

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European Business: Mr. Wimmer, TBP has a long history and has gone through signifcant change over the years. What steps have led to the firm becoming one of the leading industrial plant designers in Europe?

Thomas Wimmer: TBP was established in 1950, under a different name, to offer technical advice and planning for pulp plant construction. From the late 1970s to the mid 1980s, we worked for Voest Alpine Industrieanlagenbau in Linz, a subsidiary of the steel producer Voest Alpine. We were responsible for the technical planning and the implementation of the company’s pulp plants in Africa (Cameroon) and South East Asia (Malaysia and Indonesia).

In the late 1980s, our focus increasingly shifted towards paper. Today, our biggest individual project is a new paper production, Papiermaschine 2, for Hamburger Rieger at their site in Spremberg with an investment volume of more than 300 million EUR. For this company, we already provided the planning of Papiermaschine 1. So back then, we had already diversified to some extent. However, in the wake of the financial crisis, we intensified our efforts to find new markets. We found opportunities in the wood industry, for example for the Egger Group, and in the starch and sugar sector, where we have recently completed our fourth major project. We are now well established in these sectors. We are also active in the industrial energy generation industry, in 2014, we undertook a major project with a value of more than 100 million EUR.

European Business: Entering new markets is not the only focus of change for TBP, is it?

Thomas Wimmer: No, we are also at the forefront of technological change. In the late 1980s, we were one of the first companies in Austria to introduce 3D planning, and in the 1990s, we were among the first to work with 3D laser recording.

European Business: What are the main challenges TBP has faced in respect of diversification?

Thomas Wimmer: Obviously, when we enter new markets, we have to hire suitably qualified and experienced staff, and intense competition for competent employees makes it difficult. We also have to invest heavily in IT. New, state-of-the-art planning tools have been necessary for some customers, which demand hundreds of hours to get them up and running. This time is, of course, unpaid.

European Business: What would you say helps TBP stand out from the competition?

Thomas Wimmer: We are very customer oriented. We help to shape and structure clients’ investments. We have gathered decades of knowhow in handling huge projects and have extensive competence in all the various disciplines, from planning and costing right up to the start of production. We also have a very low turnover of staff, which I believe has contributed to our success. It’s a win-win: We retain our knowledge and experience in-house, and customers like to see the same faces on their projects. We are a family concern; TBP is owned in equal shares by the Wimmer and Füchsel families. Thomas Füchsel and I lead the firm today, and we are both very close to the projects. Customers know they can always contact us directly. This is very important from a sales perspective and opens doors for us too.

European Business: How do you see the development of the industries in which you operate and, therefore, the future for TBP?

Thomas Wimmer: Current developments are very interesting. In the paper sector, there is a heavy focus on producing 100% recycled paper. The issue is that, after seven cycles, the fibers become short, resulting in quality problems. So if sales volumes continue to increase, quality will decrease. Therefore, the paper industry will have to focus on developing new technologies and products or rather undertake investments in terms of appropriate resources. The sugar industry is in a consolidation period, but the starch market is growing, with the introduction of different vegetable starches and new areas of application. There is lots of research going on in this area at the moment, which ultimately will be good news for us. Our goal is to grow, but not excessively. This will probably involve new international markets. Ultimately, we will remain a family firm, where our staff count as friends.