Sigma Group: internationalization grows hand in hand with quality

S.I.G.MA. S.r.l. - Italy

Glass Machinery Plants & Accessories recently went to speak to SIGMA to get an update on the company, its growth in turnover and personnel, both with regards to Italy and to its Bulgarian plant, opened in 2014.

SIGMAREF – Bulgaria

Glass Machinery Plants & Accessories (GMP&A): Let’s start with a general overview of SIGMA – here in Italy and in Bulgaria.
SIGMA – Roberto Mari, Owner & Production Supervisor: We started operations in our Bulgarian plant in 2014, five years ago now, with all Italian technology, and with our Italian technicians onsite right from the start, and making regular visits to the factory, giving us the best results.
This, in turn, led us to double production capacity in Bulgaria, also because our Italian production unit does not have the possibility of further expansion after the most recent growth when we acquired surrounding premises in 2015. In this expanded unit, in fact, we now have our commercial department, along with a second pre-assembly area, so we have grown quite a lot here in Italy too.
GMP&A: And in 2018 you opened a second production plant in Bulgaria …
SIGMA – Mari: Yes, our first plant has three furnaces and the second plant will be dedicated to pressed products, with two furnaces. The first of these two furnaces is already in operation, while the second is under construction in this period.
GMP&A: How did your production capacity increase after this investment in 2018?
SIGMA – Luigi Mandelli, Sales Director: We have increased our production capacity from 13,200 ton to 17,100 ton. This investment of EUR 4 million also involved investments carried out in Italy. We created more space in the original factory, installing a fourth press and a second batch house, which means that we are now able to produce two different types of product in four different formats at the same time. This also means that we have increased our flexibility considerably.
SIGMA – Mari: Flexibility is a fundamental if not essential characteristic that you must have to work well in the glass industry.
SIGMA – Mandelli: And flexibility is one of our strong points. Increasing our flexibility means that we can also meet the requests of those clients who always wait right until the last minute because they are waiting to see the market situation before ordering.
GMP&A: So important competitors do not have this type of speed and flexibility?
SIGMA: No, and not even smaller-sized competitors either!
SIGMA – Mandelli: As a group we now have over 100 employees but we have maintained the philosophy and mentality of a small company which means that any type of product request, emergency or other can be managed and a response given the following day – all over the world – as far as New Zealand and Australia for example.

GMP&A: What are the forecasts for next year – 2020?
SIGMA – Mandelli: We expect to exceed 20,000 tons of refractory materials, 14,000 tons pressed and about 7,000 for furnace parts such as forehearth superstructures, expendables, and so on.
SIGMA – Mari: Reaching 7,000 tons of special shapes will probably make us the biggest manufacturer and supplier in Europe.
SIGMA – Mandelli: And these 7,000 tons are for the glass industry alone. We also work for other industrial sectors but glass makes up for about 90 per cent of our turnover.

GMP&A: Let’s go back to Bulgaria. You said that work has already begun on the third unit, with a third furnace for pressed refractories …
SIGMA – Mari: Yes, there will be production lines and driers, and this in turn will lead to a probable investment in another furnace too.

GMP&A: What about the workforce in Bulgaria?
SIGMA – Mari: We did have some problems at the beginning with an incredible turnover of personnel – a normality for that country. But now after five years we have reached a good level of trained personnel. We also have a couple of our skilled operators from SIGMA Italia there more or less on a permanent basis (like myself).
We are now working on training more skilled personnel for important roles there too, such as for the technical department and head of production, but
we already have a Bulgarian head operator for each production step (forming, pressing, and firing).

GMP&A: What kind of developments have been made in your commercial activities?
SIGMA – Mari: Obviously, as for all companies, to receive orders for your products you need to carry out important commercial activities which, for SIGMA, are based mainly in Italy, but are starting to be carried out in Bulgaria too. In fact, we have a commercial office there with two operators who speak Bulgarian-Turkish and Bulgarian-Russian, who work mainly on the Balkan areas and East Europe. This year we also entered new markets such as Belorussia, Ukraine and Russia, with excellent results.
We have received orders for complete plants in Belorussia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria. In Bulgaria, for example, the new furnace for Barbosa Almeida (BA Group) was set up by SIGMA Italy and Bulgaria together. Of course this is also thanks to the expansion we have been and are still carrying out.
Our results here in Italy have also reached an extremely good level, and our plans for the near future – by the end of this year – are for a new furnace to continue to respond to requests from the market and clients.
SIGMA – Mandelli: The Italian market, our longstanding market followed by Alberto Tedeschi, Sales Director, represents an important part of the total turnover, in a range of 20-25 per cent and almost all glass factories in Italy are regular customers.
We have also widened our market in Europe and started to work with the Vetropack Group this year.
At the same time, each year we are contacted by a series of new clients who are, however, further and further from Italy. We are now supplying for example Orora Group in Australia with over EUR 1 million of refractory materials.
We are also active in a number of areas such as South (O-I plants in Peru and Colombia) and Central America (O-I, Vitro and Saverglass Mexico) as well as the Far East – China for example, where we sold products for EUR 1 million in 2018.
In Central America, we are working with Grupo Modelo on a supply for almost USD 2 million.
We have, in fact, been reporting an increase in group turnover in a range of 10-20 per cent per year over the past ten years, which positions us really well as suppliers for large groups worldwide.
What’s more, almost all our products are included in the Global Approved Supplier List of O-I, who have recently approved our high alumina channel blocks – trademark A 95 V.
SIGMA – Mari: … which is the only bonded high-alumina approved by O-I and which is an important strong point to SIGMA.
SIGMA – Mandelli: Last year we supplied high alumina channels for three lines in O-I Brisbane, and we will soon be supplying to O-I Sydney and O-I Rio de Janeiro

GMP&A: How are your sales carried out – with agents or directly?
SIGMA – Mandelli: We do still have some agents, in areas such as China and Latin America, but sales are usually carried out directly by our commercial company REFRATRADE, made up of a series of area managers who each take care of their geographical market sectors.

GMP&A: When you say large groups, do these include important names such as Verallia and Ardagh for example?
SIGMA – Mandelli: Certainly. We have been working constantly with O-I, Verallia, Bormioli, Zignago, Vetrerie Riunite, Saverglass, Stoelzle… for more than 20 years, which has enabled us to gain an important share of the market. We are also growing with regards to Vidrala and Ardagh, even if more slowly, as well as BA, where we have an important advantage thanks to our Bulgarian unit!
The US market, which is one of the most difficult markets for companies that do not have an office or direct contact there, is also opening up for SIGMA, where we are supplying Libbey and Gallo Glass.
SIGMA – Mari: We can certainly say that the market has reacted extremely positive to our growth, especially with regards to the second unit in Bulgaria, which has given us an important boost. We have gone from being a small, family-run Italian company into being an important supplier for the glass sector, also for important international groups.
At the same time, our R&D activities have undergone important investments with the expanding of the lab here in Italy and an increase in the number of employees, and thanks to having a new polarized light microscope that makes us the company with the most well-equipped lab for refractory analyses in the glass sector.
This enables us not only to carry our tests on our raw material, but also to work alongside the big groups we supply to perform these tests together.
Another important step to mention is the generation change in SIGMA – with the son Federico Mari and about ten young employees (all born in the 1990s), giving the company another push towards the future.

GMP&A: Looking at your turnover, which has more than doubled, how has this changed compared to the crisis period of 2008-2009?
SIGMA – Mandelli: SIGMA’s turnover in that period was about EUR 13-14 million. Turnover for the entire 2018 in Italy was about EUR 24 million, while, thanks to the latest investments which the glass market has appreciated, this year, considering orders that we still have to fulfil and those that have already been invoiced in the first 6 months of the year, we have already reached the total turnover of 2018.
Our Bulgarian plant has already been approved as per its structure and products by a number of important clients such as BA, Horn, etc., with audits carried out, which gives us positive results in terms of quality and turnover. This year at the beginning of June 2019, turnover had already reached the total turnover of 2018 (EUR 5 million).
GMP&A: Looking to the future, any ideas about the glass sector – float in particular?
SIGMA – Mari: We are already working in float glass sector. In fact, we have recently supplied over 500 tons of 300mm bottom blocks for Horn in Arzebaijan. Considering this project and the previous one in Turkmenistan, we have sold more than EUR 2.5 million.
In regards to the global glass market, we hope the request will remain the same in the future. In any case SIGMA Group, as it is structured today, is ready to face the next challenges, thus we look to the future with moderate optimism.
Producing refractories is our job and specialization, it’s the thing we know how to do.