WEPA France is investing while some competitors are selling or restructuring. Country Manager Christophe Dorin spoke to TWM Senior Editor Helen Morris.

It has taken a series of significant acquisitions and tissue machine start-ups during the course of the last few years to enable the family-owned German tissue manufacturer WEPA Group to claim the third position in the European tissue market.

European expansion: WEPA Group’s Troyes site was purchased from Lucart in 2015 to reinforce the company’s presence across the continent

This has included the takeover of all shares of the UK-based joint venture
Northwood & WEPA in July 2018, the acquisition of Netherlands-based Van Houtum Group in 2017, the start-up of a PM in Piechowice, Poland, in 2017, and the start-up of what was at the time in 2016 the largest TT SYD ever installed in Europe: a Toscotec-supplied TT SYD-18FT at its Cassino mill in Italy. WEPA Lille also began production on an AHEAD-2.0 Crescent Former tissue machine in August 2015 and an AHEAD-2.0S TM was started-up in Giershagen, Germany, in October 2015.

Crucial to its progress was strengthening its presence in the French tissue market and the company significantly increased its capacity there when it acquired the site in Troyes in 2015, based next to a beautiful medieval town based in the Grand Est region of north eastern France. The area is known for its narrow cobbled streets, colourful timbered 16th century houses, gothic churches, and champagne.

Christophe Dorin, country manager, WEPA France, joined WEPA in 2016 and, speaking in excellent English, says the purchase of Troyes was to reinforce the company’s presence in the country: “The location here and production … it was a substantial step and the position for WEPA became much stronger because of it. We are located centrally in France, so we have a large customer base on our doorstep in both the centre and south. The WEPA Lille site is servicing northern France and Belgium with these two sites it means we have a very strong geographical footprint, and optimised logistical costs.”

Troyes has one tissue machine producing 32,000tpy of consumer tissue products and there are four converting lines for toilet paper and two for facial tissue at the 250-staffed site. Products are mainly sold to the consumer sector, predominantly as private labels to European retailers.

“The French tissue market is still brand driven with strong national brands,” Dorin says. “While countries such as Germany have a very high level of private label products, it’s not quite at that level here yet
… it’s about 70% private label here and the market value is also lower.”

He adds that it is also necessary to produce a full range of products for
French customers: “We need to adapt and be flexible so we can accommodate this demand. The competition has done a good job in marketing their brands for decades but WEPA does have some competitive
advantages. Our business strategy has an overall sustainable orientation and the focus lies on alternative products that can bring value to our customers. The Hybrid Fair Fibre concept, for example, is a combination of recycled fibre and pure pulp from responsible sources. It’s a sustainable but resilient product range made with 30% recycled fibre improving the environmental footprint by 20%.”

Dorin says environmental issues are getting more important for French
consumers, but that it’s not yet at the level of importance as seen in the German and Scandinavian countries: “Environmentally friendly products continue to be a strong opportunity for WEPA France to push in that direction. We are producing Eco friendly products at Troyes and we also
have a range of environmental certifications including the EU Ecolabel, ISO 14001 and ISO 50001. We’re really seeing the benefits of using hybrid fibres and of our logistics optimisation. It gives us a competitive advantage in the French market.”

The French tissue market has not seen a lot of new capacity come on stream in the past few years. Instead, Dorin says there have been some closures: “One of the challenges is the increasing number of tissue products coming across the border from Spain. However, with our two sites we are well positioned in the market and produce close to our customers. This has not only a positive effect on our logistics but also makes sense from an ecological point of view.”

The country’s tissue market remains flat, with growth at just 1% increase year-on-year. “Our sector is not impacted by any changes in the economy,” Dorin adds.

“But this year and last have been very challenging with the pulp price increases. As a result, we are seeing very different behaviour from competitors. Some are trying to sell their business or announcing
restructuring measures.”

“We always prioritise attracting staff to work for us, as well as working partnerships, to build strong business relationships. And we are looking for opportunities for further investments,” he adds.

The group has spent €50m in its sites in France over the past few years, including a new converting line at the Troyes site: “Capacity-wise, we are well positioned to supply the big players. Any further investment would be for the productivity side where we continuously look for improvement.”

Product variety: each customer in the French market has a specific range of demands, which means the site needs to adapt and be flexible in order to accommodate a full range of products