Over the last decade, Brazil’s Biancogres has carved out a profitable niche by producing top-of-the-line ceramic tiles. But as Michael Sommers discovered in an interview with General Sales Manager Fábio Moraes, in the high-end tile trade, in order to thrive it’s not enough to follow new trends – you have to create them.
In Brazil’s hot and humid tropical climate, ceramic tiling has historically been a practical and popular choice, not only for flooring, but for walls as well. Traditionally, however, the majority of homeowners and businesses had relied upon simple tiles composed of a base made from two types of clay that were subsequently covered in a decorative layer of enamel. The results were inexpensive and functional, but were often lacking in durability not to mention attractiveness. Then, in 1999, along came Biancogres. Rather than focus on affordability, from the outset, this ceramic tile manufacturer – whose 920,000-square-foot facility is located in Serra, Espírito Santo – targeted an upscale clientele that demanded sophisticated products with staying power.
ALWAYS ABOUT THE TECHNOLOGY
Asked, on the occasion of his company’s 10-year anniversary, to define Biancogres’ vision in a nutshell, Fábio Moraes doesn’t miss a beat: “Our mission has always been to adopt all the technological innovations available and translate them into products of the highest quality at a price that is fair.” While Moraes points out that Biancorges’ prices are competitive, he is also quick to acknowledge that they’ve never been the main focus of the company’s business strategy. Instead, it’s always been about the technology.
“When we first went into business, we knew we wanted to make the best tiles possible,” recalls Moraes. “Instead of only using two types of clay, we incorporated nine different primary materials into the preparation of our base. The result was a product whose composition was superior to the mass of simpler products on the market.”
Soon after, the company made the first of many major technological investments, which allowed it to begin producing porcelanato, which are porcelain floor tiles renowned for their exceptionally high resistance and impermeability. The production technology – including specialized chemical components and powerful presses – is such that there are manufacturers in Brazil that are incapable of producing porcelanato. For Biancogres, however, porcelanato allowed the company to appeal to high-end residential and commercial clients that demanded both beauty and durability, and weren’t averse to paying for it.
“The difference in price, between ordinary tiling and porcelanato, represents a lot of added value,” explains Moraes. Aside from the aesthetic factor, the added value is derived from the product’s great resistance, which makes porcelanato ideal for high-traffic areas such as shopping malls and restaurants. For the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, the company supplied porcelanato tiles for the new subway station that was constructed next to João Havelange Stadium. “During the games, over one million people used the station,” recalls Moraes, “and at the end of the games, the tiles were immaculate.”
Creating more added value as well as more products at a lower cost were the driving factors behind the cutting-edge energy cogeneration project that the company adopted in 2008. In search of an economic and environmental edge, Biancogres invested close to $11 million in a Swiss-manufactured turbine that not only meets all of the factory’s electricity needs, but leaves enough for the company to sell to local energy companies. This turbine also injects all the gases from its exhaust into an enormous cylindrical-shaped atomizer drier, whose height is the equivalent of an 11-story building. Once inside the atomizer, a blast of hot (1,112 degrees Fahrenheit) air vaporizes the water contained in the paste-like ceramic mix.
As Moraes points out, the benefits are multiple. “Today, we burn gas with much more efficiency,” he points out. “We take advantage of 95 percent of the energy released by the gas we use. In return, we generate a series of financial and ecological savings.” Indeed, the installation of the atomizer allowed the company to increase the quantity of material it vaporizes from 9,000 liters (2,378 gallons) per hour to a total of 23,000 liters (6,077 gallons) per hour. Spurred on by its increased production capacity – in 2005, the company also invested in a state-of-the-art Italian-made kiln that resulted in an immediate increase in output of 120 percent – Biancogres is now preparing to launch a new product. Beginning in April 2009, the company will produce its line of monoporous ceramic wall tiles. One of the industry’s up-and-coming trends, monoporous tiles possess a shiny, smooth, reflective surface that are ideally suited for decorative purpose.
“There is a large fashion factor in this sector,” notes Moraes. “Every year we launch new decorative lines based on the latest tendencies. Right now, for instance, wall tiles that imitate the textures of fabric are very popular. For floors, textures and patterns are fashionable as are tiles that imitate natural stone.” Indeed, the company recently invested in digital technology from Italy that not only enables it to make stone-like tiles of various shapes and sizes, but to imitate nature to the extent that each “stone” is different from those surrounding it. Another piece of new technology that the company recently invested in – and that, until now, had never been used in Brazil – is “artificial vision” equipment that digitally scans all products. Aside from automatically creating statistics and classifying each product according to characteristics such as tonality, this equipment checks for any defects, which can then be corrected. Unlike human operators, the digital eyes never so much as blink, ensuring that quality is flawless. Furthermore, production costs are reduced since, following the tiles’ removal from the kilns, no human intervention is necessary.
QUALITY COMES FIRST
Even prior to its digitalization, Biancogres never had a problem with quality control. Only a year after its founding, the company was the first Brazilian firm in the ceramic industry to be awarded the ISO: 9001:2000. And early on, in an attempt to maximize the quality of its services and logistics, the company adopted a market strategy that focused much more on the resale segment and large home centers as clients than on construction companies. In fact, the former account for 85 percent of Biancogres’ business, which in 2008 surpassed 100 million reais (US$40 million), with floor tiles representing 70 percent of sales while products for walls accounted for 30 percent. Explains Moraes: “Even though it takes longer for our product to reach the consumer, we’ve really focused on the resale segment because this allows us to concentrate our strategies, investments, and personnel – spending more, for example, on sales promotions and displays in one high-traffic location as opposed to pulverizing our efforts among many smaller outlets. As a consequence of this approach, we emerge as a much stronger presence throughout the marketplace.”
Indeed, despite its young age, Biancogres is certainly not lacking in presence. Currently, its products are available throughout Brazil; nationwide distribution has allowed the company to enjoy average annual growth rates of 15 percent a year (in terms of sales) while carving out a market share of 9 percent. Bigger still is its reputation. For the best score based on clients’ ratings of factors such as quality, price, sales reps, technical assistance, and return rates accomplished in a research conducted by ANAMACO (the National Association of the Construction Materials Industry), Biancogres was awarded with the “Medal of Merit” in the segment.
“Although we’re a young company, we’re already recognized in Brazil as having the best quality in the industry” says Moraes proudly. “After all, how many companies can point to a customer satisfaction rate of 99.99 percent?”