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Fulfilling Europe’s gas needs

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Westfalen AG is active in three fields in its domestic market. In terms of filling stations, the company owns 280 in the 250 km around Münster and is thus one of the biggest independent players in gasoline, LPG and diesel. The parent company is also active as an energy provider with natural gas, electricity and propane. The third field is industrial gas and cooling gas, which is the focus of the subsidiaries, as well. Westfalen supplies oxygen, hydrogen, helium, argon and gas blends. The cooling gas it supplies is used in small quantities in refrigerators and in large quantities for entire temperature-controlled cooling facilities.

“At our administration and storage facilities in Aalst, we store gas bottles and exchange empty bottles for filled ones,” says Luc Smits, Westfalen’s director of Belgium and Luxembourg. “Logistics is a highly complex part of our business, and our logistics centers in Roeselaere, Houthalen and March-en-Famenne form an extensive network for Belgium and Luxembourg.” Westfalen BVBA-SPRL also employs a network of 80 local points where it can stock gas bottles. “We own the stock, do the distribution and exchange stocks ourselves,” Mr. Smits continues. “Clients can trade in their empty bottles for full ones at these locations.”

Safety and environment regulations are very complicated with countless specifications, labels and additional documentation – all of which Westfalen takes very seriously. “Once a gas bottle is on a truck, there are very stringent ADR regulations,” the director explains. “That means ADR trucks, ADR-approved loading and unloading, and ADR certification for the driver, as well. We make sure we comply with the legislation at all times.”

Westfalen concentrates on six primary target groups and has specialists for each one of them. The metalprocessing industry uses gases for cutting sheets, welding, plasma and laser cutting and welding, and coating. The company offers customized production for the food industry in MAP (modified atmosphere packaging) and IQF (individually quick frozen). “Here, we offer cooling gases in a contained system,” Mr. Smits notes. “We deliver the new gas, and for 15 years, we have taken back the used gas for disposal.”

Laboratory and gauging gases are provided for electronic analyses, for instance. On-site technology is the sector for heavy users, where gases are made or blended on-site to avoid complicated transport. The medical industry is Mr. Smits’ area of expertise. “A lot of gases are used here, such as oxygen for patients,” he says. “Oxygen and nitrous oxide are actually declared medications that are available only with a prescription.”

Westfalen AG was founded in Münster, Germany, in 1923 as a plant for oxygen. Until the 1980s, the company was only active within Germany. It later opened a subsidiary in the Netherlands, followed by locations in France and Belgium. In the new millennium, sites were added in Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland. Today Westfalen is a European player in the gas markets in Germany and its neighbouring countries, apart from Denmark. Total annual turnover amounts to two billion EUR, and 1,750 people work for the company. The Belgian location is home to 26 employees. In just 15 years, Westfalen has earned its share of the market. “Our competitors are huge companies with several times our group turnover,” Mr. Smits points out.

“Because we are smaller, we have the advantage of being closer to our clients. Our competitors are slower, do not speak the clients’ language or are so big that they leave after-sales to local resellers who are not experts.” Building on this, the outlook for the next few years is quite positive. Westfalen has qualified staff and pays attention to safety. “Our challenge will be to keep providing our high-standard service even when our turnover expands,” the director says. “Our market is growing fairly stably. After all, gas is needed everywhere.”

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