Milling's future

by Stormy Wylie
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A change in leadership at one of the largest companies in any given industry deserves and demands attention. In the flour milling industry, specifically in engineering and manufacturing, they don't come much bigger — or more influential — than Buhler Ltd., Uzwil, Switzerland. So, when it was announced in January that Martin Schlauri had been named vice-president and general manager of Buhler's worldwide flour milling activities, we wanted to know more about the man who will lead this important business unit.

In an exclusive interview with World Grain, Mr. Schlauri recently discussed the experience he brings to his new role, his views on the state of the global milling industry and Buhler's role in the industry.

WORLD GRAIN: Prior to your promotion earlier this year, you were director of marketing for the flour milling business unit. As a Buhler employee for more than 20 years, you also have been responsible for Buhler's flour milling business in various countries; have experience in plant commissioning and process development; and are, by training, a milling technologist.

How will these previous experiences influence your role in overseeing the company's worldwide flour milling activities? What impact have these experiences had on how you perceive the global milling business?

MR. SCHLAURI: The experience I gained in these roles has clearly shown me that the key to plant efficiency is not a single machine but the entire process technology and engineering applied in a plant. To achieve the goal of ultimate efficiency, the milling process must be one completely harmonious design to ensure that the plant is easy to operate.

At the same time, customer- and country-specific requirements are important and must be included in the plant design. The type of raw materials used, the variety of finished products produced and the market environment have to be equally taken into account.

WG: How important is your milling technology background to this position?

MR. SCHLAURI: My background gives me an overview of all processes and equally on the requirements of the individual machines. Therefore, I can assist my colleagues in research and development tasks and target specifications.

Technology is a key point and is decisive for a miller for his enterprise to be successful in business. I have witnessed enormous changes in the marketplace, which have resulted in much higher demand in the milling industry for finished products.

Some time ago, many millers were producing only a few basic flours. Today, market success and profitability largely depend on the ability of our customers to respond to the various, diversified product demands. The profitability of many flour millers today depends on the production of a consistent, "tailor-made" flour quality as well as value-added products.

WG: In an interview two years ago with Morton Sosland, Urs Buhler acknowledged the booming investment in flour milling worldwide, and the effect that growth was having on Buhler's flour milling business. What is the current state of the global flour milling industry, and where is it heading?

MR. SCHLAURI: The flour milling industry has a vital role in providing basic food for the world population. The growth in the world population as well as changes in eating habits has resulted in a steady rise in flour demand.

The trend in the fast food and convenience food sector as well as the pasta industry will provide further growth. At the same time, the development of larger trade blocks gives millers opportunities to be active on an international level.

Flour is a healthy, affordable and safe raw material, and is one of the main components in the supply of carbohydrates in our daily diet. Of course, milling capacity requirements in individual countries does not grow linear and will therefore always face differences in the market development from year to year.

WG: Are there differences in terms of wheat milling and other grains?

MR. SCHLAURI: Today, wheat and rice are the cereals consumed in the largest quantities for human consumption. However, we detect a tendency of changing eating habits and see more growth in wheat milling. Other cereals such as maize, rye, oats, barley, millet, etc., are important in local or specialty markets. Their total quantity is always limited, but because of changing consumer markets may be regarded as further opportunities for millers.

WG: Are milling capital expenditures still growing worldwide or have they leveled off?

MR. SCHLAURI: Approximately half of the worldwide investment in the milling industry focuses on modernization, efficiency increases and adaptation to new market requirements of existing milling plants. The other half is invested to increase production capacities. Capacity increases will continue to grow worldwide at similar levels even though year-to-year investment will fluctuate in individual countries according to their economic environment.

WG: Which regions hold the most opportunity for growth and why?

MR. SCHLAURI: Countries in Africa, Asia and South America with a high population growth and substantial changes in eating habits will certainly provide opportunities for expansion in the milling industry. In many so-called saturated markets, the flour milling industry will invest considerably to adapt its processes to efficient technologies and to new market requirements.

WG: How will biotechnology and the controversy over genetically modified food affect the milling industry?

MR. SCHLAURI: Biotechnology is mainly focusing on the development of new high-yield varieties that are less sensitive to disease and environmental influences. Gene-modified products face a hurdle in terms of acceptance by consumers, which still demands some time. In general, I expect more changes to the milling process through different market requirements in respect to end products (flours) than from biotechnology.

WG: What specific goals do you have for Buhler's worldwide flour milling business, and what direction do you see the flour milling business unit taking in 2000 and beyond?

MR. SCHLAURI: We want to be a full-service supplier for our customers. This includes more than just building plants. It is important that we know the markets our customers operate in and help them adapt their facilities to market changes. We also know the importance of after-sales service and the training of personnel, to which we contribute today and will continue to do in the future.

WG: Explain the structure of Buhler's worldwide flour milling activities.

MR. SCHLAURI: As already mentioned, the know-how of the specific market requirements for our customers is important to us to provide professional support. For this reason, we have and will continue to have milling experts stationed in most countries around the globe. These experts are continuously trained and made aware of developments elsewhere to ensure an equal level of know-how throughout our organization.

However, in view of decision-making, we work very decentralized, as we want to be fast and market-oriented. Depending on specific demands, we certainly support our local experts with team members from the head office.

WG: Buhler recently added the slogan, "Your performance in mind," to all of its corporate advertising and marketing materials. Please elaborate on the significance of this slogan to the corporation and its image.

MR. SCHLAURI: The aim is that our customers feel that we have their performance in mind. Our customers' success is the only justification of our existence.

WG: We're interested in your views about new technology, and about Buhler's commitment to research and development.

MR. SCHLAURI: We are committed to the continuous evolution of the milling process. This is why we have always invested substantially in research and development and will do so in the future.

Our goal is to develop processes and, thereafter, the ideally matching machines. A single machine adds to the efficiency of the plant only if it perfectly fulfills its duty within the process. At the same time, specific aspects on hygiene, product safety, efficiency, maintainability, etc., are our clear R.&.D. targets.

WG: What new products can we expect from Buhler's milling division?

MR. SCHLAURI: As the profitability of our customers is the target, we are focusing on the development of equipment and technology solutions as well as new processes for value-added products and opportunities for new markets. Such developments demand new machines with higher flexibility and which are easy to operate. Specific customer requirements such as shorter maintenance stops and longer production time are fueling equipment developments as well. Our team is working on many ideas, and new products will be released into the market each time a true advantage is proven.

WG: Buhler recently expanded its training center in Uzwil, and announced it would house the practical training for the Swiss Milling School. Your "comprehensive knowledge" was cited as being at the heart of its success. How have you been involved in the training center and how important is such a facility to the industry and to Buhler?

MR. SCHLAURI: Thank you for the compliment, but most of them I have to transfer to my colleagues, who managed the training center before and after me, as well as to the tutors who are fully committed to their mission.

There is a shortage of milling professionals today and this will not change in the future. Through our training center, we can offer to our customers target-oriented practical courses for mill operators and maintenance personnel as well as milling executives. We regard this as an important service to ensure continuous efficiency of our plants, and we will certainly maintain and even expand these training opportunities in the future.

We are also very proud of the Swiss School of Milling, which has a fixed syllabus that includes a sound base of theoretical know-how in flour milling technology as well as scientific subjects like chemistry, cereal science and quality control, complemented by practical training and leading to a diploma for milling technologists. Therefore, the two training facilities complement each other and offer together a comprehensive training for future professionals for the milling industry.