Loulis Mills, which began producing flour in the late 18th century when it opened a water-driven stone mill in the Greek mountain town of Aetorahi, can proudly claim to have served Greece and the Balkans region during that time and believes the best is yet to come.

The Sourpi, Greece-based flour milling company recently expanded its business into neighboring Bulgaria with the purchase and upgrade of a flour mill in the northeastern part of the country through its subsidiary, Loulis Mel-Bulgaria EAD.

Nikos Loulis, chairman of Loulis Group, in a recent interview with World Grain, said the investment focuses on serving the growing demands in the Balkans region, including Bulgaria and Romania.

“In central Bulgaria and southeast Romania there are a lot of well-known food companies that use monthly high quantities of flour,” Nikos Loulis said. “We have been in contact with many of them who have expressed interest in having suppliers that can supply stable and qualitative flour.”

Making the investment even more enticing is that northeast Bulgaria is known as a “breadbasket” for the Balkans region.

“Some of the best wheat varieties grow there, which we can use locally, or we can further ship to our Greek mills through the Black Sea ports,” Nikos Loulis said.

Loulis Mills recently purchased the five-story, 2,500-square-meter mill in General Toshevo, Bulgaria, for €2.5 million and invested €3.5 million to renovate the facility, which was built in 2015. The mill is located along a main road that connects northeast Bulgaria with southeast Romania.

“One thing I’ve learned in milling is that essentially every country is a completely different market when it comes to consumer tastes and layout of the clients,” said Nikos Loulis, who represents the seventh generation of the Loulis family to oversee the business. “For example, in Greece durum flour is a key raw material for every bakery, something that is not true in Bulgaria. Another example is the high consumption of corn flour that you will witness in Romania, something that is different from Bulgaria. The key characteristic of the Bulgarian market is that it is composed of many bread companies that supply bread to supermarkets and that consume mainly wheat flour.”

The renovation included the installation of Henry Simon rollers mills.

Although the daily milling capacity at the General Toshevo plant was expanded from 100 tonnes to 130 tonnes per day during the renovation, Nikos Loulis said it was the enhancements to the facility such as installing a state-of-the-art mixing line and designing a long mill flow that make it unique, allowing for the production of “excellent and stable quality flour.”

The long mill flow allows for maximum extraction at low ash levels, he said, while also maximizing starch damage.

“Due to the flexibility of the flow sheet, we can produce a range from biscuit flours all the way to high protein specialty flours,” he said.

The mill, equipped with three purifiers, can process wheat ranging from soft to hard varieties.

“We source wheat mainly from Bulgaria, but at the same time we have the ability to import high protein wheat from Romania by trucks or from other sources through the Danube River or the Port of Balchik,” Nikos Loulis said. “One of our strategic advantages is that we can also source directly from one of our main shareholders, Al Dahra Agriculture, which through its subsidiary, Agricost, produces more than 80,000 tonnes of wheat per annum on the Island of Braila in Romania.”

Nikos Loulis said many international food companies are serving Bulgaria, and these companies not only sell products in Bulgaria but also export to other countries.

“Most of these industries have high standards when it comes to flour quality, food safety, stability of deliveries and ability to work in tandem with their suppliers on research and development matters,” Nikos Loulis said. “Our mill aims to supply those customers, and hence our state-of-the-art mixing line is designed to support such customers.”

Operational flexibility

Nikos Loulis said the goals of the renovation, which was completed in 2019, were twofold: increase the production capacity by 30% while also provide for operational flexibility that would allow for the production of high quality and stable flour products.

The company worked closely with Alapala, Acmon Systems, Mul Mix silos and SCE Silo Construction during the project. The mill was established as a turnkey project by Alapala in 2015 and was upgraded with the installation of its Henry Simon milling equipment, including roll stands and sifters, last year.

“On the mill side, we replaced six roll stands with brand new fully automated Henry Simon roll stands while we also added some auxiliary equipment that would allow us to achieve our targeted capacity increase,” Nikos Loulis said.

One of the main additions was the installation of a new flour batch mixing line that was designed and installed by Acmon Systems using a Bühler batch mixer and SCE silos. The mixing line is designed to be fully flexible, aiming at high-precision production, he said.

The renovated Loulis Mills plant includes a Buhler batch mixer.

“At the same time, we replaced all of the control systems with brand new ones from Alapala, Acmon Systems and SAP, which coupled with brand new equipment allowing for full automation,” he said. “With this setup we are confident that we will be producing only the best and most stable quality of flour with the lowest cost possible through the automation that we achieved.”

The cutting-edge automation allows Loulis Mills to operate the mill with minimal labor costs.

“We are very proud as this is our first true lights-out mill,” he said. “The mill, along with the cleaning house and mixing line, needs only one person per shift. Thus, to fully run all operations, which includes maintenance, bagging, loading, wheat silo operations and the laboratory, this mill can run with a total of nine people in four shifts. During the night shift, it can run as a lights-out mill.”

Wheat storage capacity was expanded to 12,000 tonnes with the addition of seven 1,000-tonne steel bins, Nikos Loulis said.

Ultra-modern laboratory

Nikos Loulis said the 1,000-square-meter warehouse for bagged products was not expanded and can store up to 700 pallets of bagged flour. However, Loulis Group did expand its bulk flour storage capacity by 200 tonnes. The mill’s distribution network is composed of silo trucks for bulk deliveries and lorry trucks for bagged products.

“We also have five privately owned warehouses from the north of Bulgaria all the way to the south of Greece that support our distribution needs,” Nikos Loulis said.

The General Toshevo mill also features an ultra-modern chemistry laboratory, including an experimental bakery, to carry out advanced flour tests and ensure the highest level in product quality and standardization for Loulis’ customers.

Acmon automated dosing system.

The chemistry lab is equipped with farinographs, extensographs, alveographs, amylographs, NIRs, mixolabs, and many other key equipment for laboratory control, Nikos Loulis said, and the experimental bakery is operated by professional bakers.

“Thus, we conduct practical tests that are based on real field knowledge,” he said. “In our experimental bakeries we are able to simulate real-life bakery conditions and stress our products to the extreme. Therefore, before shipping out any final flour, we are certain that it will perform to its best possible level.”

Loulis Mills has survived and thrived through difficult times

Although it is currently riding a wave of growth, Loulis Mills has endured many difficulties over its two-plus centuries in flour milling, including the Balkan wars of 1912-14, World War I, the Great Depression of the 1930s, World War II, the Greek Civil War of 1945-49, and the global financial crisis of 2008.

Most recently, the Greek financial crisis in the 2010s included a 25% drop in GDP, unemployment rising to 26%, and 35% of the country’s businesses closing their doors.

Nikos Loulis said despite these hardships, the company has never considered shutting down operations.

“We were, of course, affected as well by these adverse conditions, but we decided early on to see the Greek crisis as an opportunity and not as a threat,” he said. “Therefore, during the Greek financial crisis we tried to stay aggressive and thus were able to grow the milling business by 40% while also successfully entering the mixes and ingredients sector.

“We have always tried to make the best out of every situation and we always have understood that adversity is part of the path to success.”

It all began in 1782 when Zois Loulis started producing flour in a water-driven stone mill in the mountains of northern Greece. Nearly 240 years later, Loulis Mills is the leading flour milling company in Greece with an estimated 26% market share, milling 260,000 tonnes of wheat per year at two mills that have their own private port facilities.

“Throughout the centuries, each generation of the Loulis family added value and helped the company expand and grow into being today one of the leading flour milling companies in Europe,” said Nikos Loulis, chairman of Loulis Group. “I am the seventh generation of my family at the helm of the business and I hope that this is only the start.”

In the last 10 years, Loulis Group has increased its share of the Greek flour market by 45% and expanded into the Bulgarian and Romanian markets. It also entered the baking and pastry mixes and ingredients market in 2015 through its subsidiary, KENFOOD, and already has captured 10% of that market.

Loulis Group recently added a bakery school at its facility in Keratsini, Greece, that offers seminars to young and experienced bakers and pastry chefs aiming to further strengthen their theoretical and practical baking skills.

“Our seminars are based in one of our three main education topics: Baking and Pastry, Food Science and Bakery business management,” Nikos Loulis said. “Our vision is to help shape the future of the qualitative and customer-focused baking market in Greece.”

Loulis Group has a flour milling complex in Sourpi, Greece, that includes three wheat mills, one durum mill and one organic mill for a total processing capacity of 1,100 tonnes of wheat per day, and in Kertsini, which has a wheat processing capacity of 300 tonnes per day. The company also has a mixing plant in Thiva, with seven independent mixing units that produce flour mixes, improvers and other baking and pastry ingredients.

“We are the leader when it comes to supplying artisan bakeries in Greece through our own network of 35 salesmen who cover every inch of the Greek market, while also we are the leading supplier for large industrial (bakers) as well,” he said. “Our company also owns the St. George Mills brand, which is the leading consumer brand for flour and bakery mixes in Greece.”

As for the company’s future, Nikos Loulis said he will continue to focus on long-term goals rather than a “quarter-to-quarter” approach that seeks to maximize profit in the short run.