Founded in 1982, Cogra is the longest-serving European company in the production of wood pellets for heating. As is often the case, its successful business model came about more by chance than design.
“At the time, I owned a lumber mill that was struggling to stay afloat,” says President Bernard Chapon. “One of the problems we faced was disposing of the large amounts of sawdust and wood chippings that were a byproduct of the process of sawing logs into planks. We were not the only wood processing company faced with the problem so we joined forces with a local syndicate of carpenters and foresters to find a solution.”
It only took a glance across the Atlantic to find a suitable answer to the problem. The Americans had already been pressing sawdust into pellets for heating purposes for some time and the idea was ripe for adaptation to European market needs.
“We received a 100,000 FRF local administration subsidy to develop the idea and became a pioneer in the production of wood pellets,” recalls Mr. Chapon. “We joined together with other sawmills in order to produce pellets on the necessary scale.”
Another factor that helped get the fledgling company off to a flying start was a social housing project that was being built in the local area and that was looking for a cheap heating system. “They invested in the project and bought a third of the pellets we produced,” notes Mr. Chapon. “From then on our development remained positive.”
In the beginning the company primarily targeted communal clients with large boilers serving multiple residences. However, the dependence this created on a small group of customers was seen as risky.
“There were also a few kinks in our production process that needed ironing out,” adds Mr. Chapon. However, by the mid-2000s, capacity at its first factory was no longer sufficient to satisfy demand and a second production site was built. “In addition to selling the pellets in bulk we also distributed them in bags for private householders.”
Another key to Cogra’s continued success is its partnership with American stove manufacturer Harman. Its pellet-fired stoves are capable of heating homes of up to 130 m² and are the market leaders in the pellet heating sector.
Cogra distributes Harman stoves and Froling boilers in the European market and also carries out installation and after sales service in its home region.
“What sets Harman stoves apart from others is the fact that they are fed from below rather than from above,” says Mr. Chapon. “This design allows an automatic de-ashing so that the ash drawer only needs to be emptied once every eight weeks of continuous operation instead of twice a week with other stoves.”
In addition, Cogra has developed its own closed ventilation system which draws in external air and heats it before venting it to the exterior. In this way, the system operates virtually smoke-free. It is called an ‘airtight combustion circuit’.
Last but not least, Cogra built a new pellet plant in Severac le Château in 2013 in order to replace the Mende historical plant. Cogra still has plenty of capacity to meet demand from its two pellet production facilities. However, it does not discount opening a third somewhere else.
“We want to site our operations close to our customers,” says Mr. Chapon. “This means that we remain a regional producer with low transportation costs. In the past, demand and prices were low which forced us to work on optimizing efficiency. Now that the market is growing, we can offer housebuilders a number of attractive benefits.”
Thanks to greater environmental awareness and the relatively low cost of pellet heating systems compared to other ecological systems such as heat pumps, demand for wood pellet heating is indeed on the rise.
“Climate change has reduced the need for heating on the one hand but on the other, it is making people more aware of the consequences of their choices,” concludes Mr. Chapon.