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INSULATION LEADER
Libbie Hammond speaks to Brian Roberts, the UK MD of the multi-million pound company Rockwool, about working in Europe.

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index.jpg The Rockwool Group was founded in 1909. Today, the Group has a turnover of DKK 7.9 billion and more than 7000 employees. The Rockwool Group operates 22 factories in 14 countries in Europe, North America and Asia and has a world-wide network of sales offices, distributors and partners. The Rockwool Group is the world's leading producer of stone wool insulation. Brian Roberts, the managing director of Rockwool UK, began by explaining about the company’s products. “It’s all in the name,” he said. “We make insulation wool from rock, it is as simple as that. We describe it as almost like a candy floss process, where we melt volcanic rock, spin off the fibres, collect them, cool them and cut them into virtually any size, shape or density that anyone could ask for.”

Rockwool stone wool is mostly used for insulation, but as Brian pointed out, there are other uses for the product. “We also make a very high density decorative board, a plant growing compound, fire resistant products and acoustic products as well.”

With its raw material being stone, Rockwool can source its materials from most places around the globe, but Brian pointed out the company is very specific in its demands. “We can use just about any stone but we tend to go for volcanic rock as we like to have a consistent chemical composition,” he said. “The UK facility is currently sourcing it from Northern Ireland, but previous sources include Shropshire and Scotland. It is purely for economic reasons that we source the rock from Great Britain, because it is less expensive to transport to our UK facility if we bring it from somewhere closer.”

With a background in finance, Brian joined Rockwool as chief accountant. He explained how he moved through the company. “My next move made me finance director and then I became managing director of Rockwool in Poland. I was in Poland for three years, where we set up the second Rockwool factory.

“I think the amazing thing about Poland was its vibrant workforce,” he continued. “They had been under communist control for such a long time once they were given freedom, their attitude was ‘anything is possible’ - they had a tremendous can-do approach. I discovered early on that you could not brainstorm, as someone would just go off and immediately implement what was suggested. They have embraced management initiative and change and are much more open to changing ways of working.” Brian moved back to the UK five years ago and has been MD of Rockwool in the UK since then.

With over 22 factories worldwide, Brian explained that although they all use the same basic processes, the technology is continually evolving so they are all at slightly different levels. “It is almost a case of playing constant catch-up with each other, but most of the factories look fairly similar, the scale and ambience might be different but the basic process and the layout is usually consistent,” he said.

“They are all supplying primarily into the construction industry and we also supply the marine and offshore industry but there isn’t as much of that as there used to be. We also supply petrochemical plants, power generation, oil refineries and lots of heavy industry but again that side of the business has been decreasing as most of that sort of work has moved or is moving out of Europe.”

Dramatic Growth
With the trend for many manufacturers to move operations into the former Eastern Bloc countries, these areas are seeing dramatic growth and Rockwool’s products are in demand. As Brian explained, the company has decided to invest in a new factory in Croatia because it is a growth area, and the Croatia factory development is part of a much larger European expansion plan for Rockwool. Brian commented: “This year the Group will complete a second factory in Russia, which will be up near St Petersburg, and recently we opened a new facility in Spain. The Group has been expanding pretty steadily across Europe and we think the new EPBD is going to keep that going. The EPBD is the Energy Performance Building Directive, which is going to push up the demand for energy efficiency in buildings.”

He continued: “The EPBD is a start towards harmonising the energy requirements of construction across Europe. Up until now, we have compared the thickness of insulation required in different markets and it varies quite dramatically. The EPBD is putting that on a more scientific and comparable basis, by identifying the energy efficiency requirements of a house or a building, which I think will be then rated, like a washing machine or fridge. The methodology will be the same across Europe and make the area more standardised.”

Brian sees the new legislation as both an opportunity and a threat. “We are now going to be in competition with people like ventilation system manufacturers and solar heating systems, whereas previously we have competed with other insulation material manufacturers. If you want to make your building more energy efficient you will need the best possible boiler, you will need to minimise the amount of air movement around the building, subject to not killing anyone, and you will need the best insulation and draught proofing, and you will have to make your windows low E Glass. All the elements of a building go into the EPBD and undoubtedly it will stimulate the market but does mean we have to look in a few different directions.”

A part of this change of focus has been the spin-out from Rockwool of its Build Desk division. Brian commented: “The Group is looking for Build Desk to promote energy efficiency and energy efficiency tools in terms of calculation, advice and consultancy. It is intended as neutral advice so it is not directly linked to Rockwool. “Build Desk might sell you the software or the consultancy and that might end up with spin-off sales of our stone wool but it is not pre-ordained and they will also incorporate other materials in their packages.”

This spin-off is one of the steps planned by Rockwool along a path towards developing into an energy efficiency company, as Brian explained. “Being purely an insulation manufacturer will no longer be our prime directive, as we aim to become an energy efficiency company that happens to make insulation.”

Brian pointed out that the products might change slightly, but Rockwool will be looking at total energy efficiency. “We are certainly going to have to continue to develop products and systems because now architects are going to look at the whole building and if they want a particular design of wall that hasn’t got room for insulation they are going to compensate somewhere else. But they are still going to have constraints on total energy consumption and come at the problem from different ways and we want to be able to address those issues.”

Rockwool can draw on experience gained from work on many prestigious projects around the UK when it comes to finding new innovative energy solutions. Brian spoke about two of the most recognisable projects currently underway in the UK at the moment. “Over the last 12 months the two biggest ones we have been working on are Terminal 5 at Heathrow and Wembley Stadium. The way that modern buildings are constructed means that the roof is installed first, so we provided the insulation for the roof through a specialist roofing contractor who fabricated it off site. The roof also embodies the acoustic systems so we have provided all the roofing insulation and that was in conjunction with the architects, designers and engineers and we are currently working on the air conditioning, heating, cooling and pipework, with another contractor. It is a fascinating process to watch as the building progresses through the various construction stages and we find different departments beginning to get involved.

“Wembley Stadium was very much similar to that, where we have supplied roof insulation, fire protection and acoustic products. A lot of work has gone into these two projects and I think the lessons and strategies employed at T5 will be carried into future projects.

“We were involved quite early on and BAA has paid a great deal of attention to detail and it is just perfect planning. I think the most important lesson is that instead of a combative culture between contractors, subcontractors and suppliers, it has made it much more seamless. I would say that T5 is the most significant building construction in the UK at the moment, and just as that finishes, then the Olympics will be in the planning stages and they will take over from it.”

Alongside any discussion of the London 2012 Olympics has to come the issue of recruitment in construction, so I asked Brian about the recruitment and training at Rockwool. “First of all we have a very high retention level of employees and that is down to our management and our conditions. We recruit specifically as we need, although we don’t run a general graduate training scheme, we do take people on apprenticeship in the factory for electrical and mechanical craftsmen, which I think is important, as that had almost died out. It is something that is very easy to cut out of the cost budget every year but we are determined to keep that as it gives us a good source of people who are trained in our ways. We are seeing changes in construction methods, and some of these are being dictated by the shortage of skilled labour.

“On building sites we are also seeing large numbers of foreign labour, which is a trend we are also seeing within Rockwool. Now that some of our engineering work has been centralised we are utilising the Eastern European engineering facilities much more, so when we make a major investment here we always will have a group of Polish engineers working on the installation. They provide a great deal of resource for the Group now.”

Sharing Resources
The Rockwool Group often shares resources, as Brian explained. “We always shuffle people and ideas and we are encouraged to go and visit other factories and see if they have got an idea which no-one has thought of passing on. We have certainly picked up a few ideas like that and people have done it from us too. I have been to Germany, Holland, France, Czech, Poland and Denmark - I have a soft spot for the Polish facilities and one of the German factories is in Bavaria, which is a nice location and it is a very clean factory and it sets an example of what can be done in that area.”

Brian concluded with thoughts on the future for construction. “I wish people would think longer term instead of shorter term. It is quite incredible when people try to cut corners to try and save very small amounts of money.

“I believe that the concept of the whole life cost of the building - which includes running and maintaining it - isn’t always taken into account and people will always try and not spend money at the construction phase. But that means people are going to have to do more maintenance or spend more money on heating and cooling the building in the future. There is a concept that looks at the whole life cost of the building, which I know a few large building owners are interested in and this is the sort of area Rockwool will want to be looking at in the future.”  CT-E

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