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GREAT DANE: How Gram Commercial built a global refrigeration business from the land of Lego

Hoshizaki factory, Denmark 6

Danish refrigeration maker Gram Commercial — now owned by Japanese firm Hoshizaki, of course — has a rich history that epitomises its focused market strategy. Prior to the current restrictions on travel, FEJ paid a visit to its factory to discover how it is using that heritage to inspire the production of environmentally-friendly products for the discerning foodservice user.

Anders Sjøgaard has more of an understanding of the trajectory that Gram Commercial’s UK operation has taken than anyone else. After all, he was there when the Danish refrigeration manufacturer first put down roots in the market, some three decades ago.

“I started working with the UK market back in 1988,” he recalls. “It was the main part of our export sales at the time and we had a branch office in Orpington, Kent, mainly selling industrial products. But Finn Jensen, the director there at the time, thought I should come over and support him and maybe we could get some more commercial products on the road.”

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Today, Sjøgaard (pictured below) is director of sales and marketing at Gram, although his remit is far broader than the title suggests. As one of two senior directors responsible for running the business, he essentially oversees everything but the factory itself. That includes product development, management, testing and customer service.

Its plant in Vojens, southern Denmark, spans 20,000 square metres and encompasses two factory lines. Gram has been building products there for more than a century and these days 125 staff are involved in producing more than 33,000 units a year.

After initially focusing on dairy refrigeration, founder Hans Gram — who by then had recruited his brother Aage to the business — expanded into ice cream machinery, before the post-war years saw it enter the domestic and commercial refrigerator and freezer markets.

Employee numbers peaked at 3,000 as the company mastered large-scale mass production and became a household name in Denmark.

By the 90s, however, market saturation, coupled with competition from powerful white goods producers in the Far East, led to the business being carved up. The commercial division was initially sold to a foundation run by pension fund owners before Japanese giant Hoshizaki came knocking in 2008.

The timing couldn’t have been better given the brand was increasingly finding itself struggling to compete in the commercial market with large brands such as Ali Group and Electrolux, which offer a full range of kitchen equipment and could therefore wrap refrigeration into projects at a more favourable price.

“We were actually in a situation where we were at a high risk of being squeezed, so I would say that becoming part of the Hoshizaki group was really a relief,” admits Sjøgaard. “And there was so much synergy because Hoshizaki didn’t really have a good programme for upright refrigerators in Europe — they had it in other countries, but in Europe they didn’t really succeed with their Asian-style products, even though they were adapted to gastronorm sizes.

It could take a lot of door openings and keep the health inspectors happy. We have been very successful with the Compact line in UK”

“Buying us suddenly gave them access to quite a big part of the northern European market and that was probably a lot of the thinking behind it because two months after buying Gram they listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.”

With the financial stability of Hoshizaki to support it, the business has gone on to develop a fifth generation of products and create one of the most efficient just-in-time manufacturing models in the industry.

A sixth generation isn’t imminent just yet, but Sjøgaard reveals the brand is looking closely at how it can evolve its popular Compact line. “We have some good ideas and a new generation of compressors, and we will improve it,” he promises.

The UK played a starring role in the development of that particular product range, way back in 1985. “It was actually designed for British pubs,” discloses Sjøgaard. “You know what a kitchen environment in an old pub is like, especially a heritage pub. It was actually built to replace domestic cabinets, but it was like a wolf because it was so much stronger refrigeration-wise and capacity-wise; it could take a lot of door openings and keep the health inspectors happy. We have been very successful with the Compact line in the UK.”

Arguably, the most significant product development in Gram Commercial’s history — and one that continues to underpin its strategy today — was its decision to phase out CFC and HCFC gases in pursuit of a greener result. Its decision to pioneer the use of HC as the “standard” for all its products was a major turning point for the company.

“Today we are 94% HC,” says Sjøgaard, adding that it remains fiercely proud of the fact that its Superior Plus K72G was named the most energy efficient product in the vertical chilled storage cabinet category by the EU three years ago.

“We have a mission to support the efforts of professional users and develop their workflow efficiently and effectively by utilising environmentally-friendly products.”

As Gram continues to develop its sustainable refrigeration product line, it will do so in the knowledge that the Hoshizaki group is gaining scale in Europe. In November last year it acquired nearly 29% of Turkish manufacturer Ozti’s shares, rising to 51% over the next three years.

Buying us suddenly gave them access to quite a big part of the northern European market and that was probably a lot of the thinking behind it”

Both parties already knew each other well before the agreement as Ozti manufactures Gram’s entry-level Snowflake range, which comprises seven main refrigeration products with multiple configurations.

Sjøgaard was heavily involved in executing the acquisition and has visited the Ozti plant on more than 15 occasions over the past two years.

He says it will allow the firm to remain competitive at the price-sensitive end of the market.

“In order to go into that market further, we have actually been reshaping the factory [in Turkey] to suit the demands of our customers and it made sense just to go into it financially to control [the business].

“Our team has been down there and restructured the whole production, together with Ozti, creating SOPs [standard operation procedures] and quality tests. We stand behind their quality — they have improved tremendously,” he says.

Ozti will operate as a group company within Hoshizaki but when it comes to technical matters Gram Commercial has full responsibility for developments. However, there are currently no plans to rebrand the business, insists Sjøgaard.

“We know they are in the market together with us — competing with us actually at this point — and we see no reason to change that. They make a specific line for us and that is where we are focusing, to keep that high quality. They do other things which we haven’t been involved in so far but I am sure we will.

“Ozti is a really well-known company, it has a huge production operation that is very wide-ranging; they are probably the biggest gastropan producer in Europe. They are in a situation where they also need to have a new plant built and we will be part of that. This [acquisition] is a long-term move.”

For Hoshizaki, playing the long game comes naturally.

Hoshizaki unveils “next step” in sustainable refrigeration programme

Hoshizaki has unveiled the “next step” in its sustainable refrigeration programme with the launch of a fifth generation of Gram fridges.

The units utilise CO2, a natural refrigerant which has zero ozone depletion potential and a positive environmental impact. It gives customers a viable alternative to HFC models and ensures they are perfectly placed to be compliant with the latest EU F-Gas regulations.

Stuart Kayes, technical manager at Hoshizaki UK, says: “CO2 (R744) is a climate-friendly natural refrigerant that plays an important role in many natural and industrial processes. In fact, CO2 is so sustainable that it has a Global Warming Potential of up to 4,000 times lower than HFCs such as R404a — an environmentally damaging refrigerant which has now been banned from use in new commercial equipment models.

“By integrating CO2 into Gram’s award-winning refrigeration line-up, Hoshizaki is now able to offer a range of refrigerators that boast a positive environmental impact.”

Kaye says that he is aware there are long-engrained, negative perceptions in the market about CO2 refrigerants, especially as restaurants operators have been told for so long that CO2 emissions contribute to global warming.

“The first step to answering this question comes through clarifying that Global Warming Potential (GWP) is a relative measure of heat-trapping impact. For example, Greenpeace states that the commonly used HFC R134a has a 20-year GWP of 3,830; thus one kilogram of R134a is as harmful to the environment as 3,830 kilograms of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) over a 20-year period.

“Thus, when you do the maths and break down the facts, it’s clear to see that CO2 is the superior, more sustainable option,” insists Kaye. “Offering excellent thermophysical and heat transfer properties, CO2 is also one of the safest refrigerants available to the industry.”

Tags : GramHoshizakiin-depthRefrigeration
Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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