A VIEW FROM ABOVE
SSI Schaefer, a family-owned and operated company, was founded in Germany over 60 years ago. Through the years, the company’s business has evolved from light metal fabrication to the production of steel storage containers to completely automated warehousing systems.
Today, Schaefer encompasses 12 manufacturing plants in steel and plastics, subsidiaries in 50 countries around the globe and more than 8,000 employees. Food Logistics recently spoke with Harrie Swinkels, SSI Schaefer’s CEO, to find out what’s new at an old company.
Schaefer has been around for more than 60 years. To what do you attribute this longevity?
Swinkels: The main reason that we have been around so long is that we are good, solid family business that is committed to this industry. Over the years, step by step, the business evolved and we consistently grew with it. We’ve produced a wide portfolio of innovations in both conventional warehousing and automation over the years. We’re also spread all over the globe, so we face less risk of a local market due to our extensive product portfolio.
How has the company changed along with the industry?
Swinkels: Forty years ago, the material handling industry was comprised of mainly storage systems, but over time it grew into automation and supply chain, and where the industry went Schaefer followed. We as a company are driven by our customers—in the past, they bought shelving and bins from us and now they’re buying order picking and automated storage systems—that’s a major driver. We’re now in the business of automation as much as we are in the traditional storage business.
We’re in every industry from manufacturing to store delivery systems, bulk handling and warehousing, piece picking and case handling, e-commerce, etc. But the majority of our business is in food retail distribution—half of our revenue is in food retail and we continue to focus on it because that market is very dynamic now. Food retailing is also the one market that is driving innovations—what it has taken other industries to do in 10 years, food retail has done in five.
Two years ago, Salomon Automation became a subsidiary of Schaefer. What brought about this relationship?
Swinkels: Salomon Automation has its roots in food retailing. Its customers are predominantly European food retailers and its product, WAMAS, is the leading logistics software solution in Europe. In fact, you won’t find a food retailer in Europe that doesn’t have a link to WAMAS—there are more than 300 retailers using the system.
The strategic alliance came about for two reasons—Salomon was looking for a partner with equipment in its portfolio to give it further backing for a global roll out because its customer base was growing. At Schaefer, we already had an IT product but we wanted to expand our capabilities. With the addition of Salomon, adding the total number of IT people to about 500 employees, we could grow faster than we could have on our own.
How do you differentiate yourselves from your competitors?
Swinkels: What sets us apart is our vertically-integrated portfolio—we can do the mechanics and automation as well as information technology. But at the same time, we can support our customers horizontally—as the building contractor and in start-up, service, training and maintenance.
We have introduced a variety of products in recent years which have been well received, like the mobile work stations and the goods-to-man concept. We have designed an automated case picking station which has been installed in C&S Wholesale in York, PA. Due to the fact that we are a substantial player in the market with financial stability, we have the ability to make things happen and we have an organization which is decentralized that allows us to be very close to the customer—we know our customers—and that combination is unique.
As a family-run business, we have an open communication structure and we position ourselves as partners to our customers—we’re in it for the long run. We see a lot of repeat business. And we’re cost competitive as well.
What are the next steps?
Swinkels: We’re planning to roll WAMAS out in the U.S.—we have the first customer interested. And we will continue to focus in food retail, especially in the ambient case picking, chilled and frozen areas. We have an interesting solution for the frozen environment, which we believe will be of great interest to food companies.
We’re seeing a growing need for the element of speed—for faster, smaller orders. Speed is the key word and that leads to different approaches, systems and processes. There’s also a bigger focus on IT resources. Sustainability is another important issue—whether it’s green logistics, ergonomics or environmental issues. We also see a shift of companies going into more urban areas, so they need to look at the different kinds of systems that are smaller and more flexible, but heavily automated.