Brazil’s Bombas Leão is the leading manufacturer of submerged pumps in South America. However, as Administrative Director Vladimir Plaza confesses to Michael Sommers, the company doesn’t view itself as a producer of pumps, but as a purveyor of the earth’s most precious resource.
Bombas Leão has much in common with the element around which its business revolves – water. That the company has remained afloat for 45 years has much to do with its ability to ride the tides of new tendencies while adhering to a corporate philosophy that emphasizes fluidity and constantly moving forward.
From the company’s humble beginnings, the members of the Plaza family that own and operate Leão have had a knack for scanning the horizon for new opportunities and implementing them before their competitors. Indeed, the company’s inception, in 1964, was driven by the absence of firms, in Brazil, capable of performing maintenance on submerged pumps. At the time, there weren’t even any domestic manufacturers of submerged pumps and motors. Complicating matters further, by the end of the 1960s, the Brazilian military government had virtually closed the country’s borders to foreign imports. As a result, by 1970, the Plaza’s small factory in the town of Monte Azul Paulista, São Paulo, was not only repairing pumps and motors, but was making them as well. “When we began, we only had 18 employees working for us, and we produced a total of 60 pumps and motors in our first year of operation,” recalls Leão’s administrative director, Vladimir Plaza. “Today, our team has grown to more than 300 and our output has increased to more than 24,000 units.”
The first key moment in the company’s expansion came about in 1983 when the Plazas decided to purchase a 54,000-square-foot plant, situated in a newly created industrial zone outside of Monte Azul Paulista. “This marked the first time that Leão’s future was conceived of in visionary terms,” explains Plaza. “For us, this investment was all about long-term growth. At the time, we didn’t need all of that space, but we were already looking into the future.” Indeed, today Leão is finally using all of the original area and has expanded even further, with the addition of an extra 11,000 square feet of constructed area. To keep up with increased demand, multiple production shifts have been implemented.
The move to the new location coincided with a major restructuring, in which the firm became a private capital corporation, and underwent a name change, from Indústria de Bombas Submersas Monte Azul Limitada to Bombas Leão S.A. “Being a family-owned enterprise is a big advantage,” declares Plaza. “It gives us an enormous amount of flexibility in how the company is managed. There is a lot of agility involved in the way we make decisions and our internal management is very streamlined. Unlike many multinationals who need to clear all decisions with central headquarters, we can meet local clients’ expectations with speed and efficiency. Moreover, due to our longevity and experience, not to mention our culture, we understand better than most what the Brazilian market wants.”
This combination of corporate substance and style has a lot to do with why, in a field in which all its major rivals are large multinationals, Leão is undisputed leader of the pack with more than 40 percent of the Brazilian market. That growth hasn’t been higher is due to the fact that, in recent years, the segment itself has experienced only modest expansion. And yet, according to Plaza, the Brazilian market has lots of potential, particularly in the Northeast of Brazil, a region whose interior is very arid, but whose economy has been growing in leaps and bounds. As a result of these promising factors, in 2003, the company opened up a Northeastern branch in Teresina, capital of the state of Piauí. “Because of the consistent lack of rain and frequent droughts, the Northeast is an important market for water,” says Plaza. “Right now, many of our competitors are trying to get a foothold in the area, but we were one of the first companies to set up shop in the region with a 14,000-square-foot plant.”
TRENDS AND TECHNOLOGIES
Leão is also committed to being first in terms of new trends and technologies. “Submerged pumps are part of the public dominion, which means you can’t really differentiate yourself in terms of the product itself,” says Plaza. “So what we try to do is to make our equipment more efficient than those of our competitors. For instance, recently we started making larger motors with up to 200hp. We’re also constantly experimenting with alternative materials, such as bronze for example, which we are now using to make pumps. Ultimately, we’re always looking for ways to make our equipment operate better and last longer. That our technology is 100 percent national also helps since it appeals to the domestic market.”
An initial catalyst for Leão’s commitment to cutting-edge technology was the company’s pursuit of ISO: 9000 certification in 1999. In order to meet the required standards, the company embarked upon major transformations that led to a systematization of quality control and the launch of new products such as plastic pumps; a novelty at the time for a Brazilian company. Shortly after, under the helm of a new generation of Plazas, including Vladimir, the company inaugurated a new projects department dedicated specifically to staying on top of – and ahead of – industry trends. At the moment, Leão is focusing particularly upon creating equipment that combines lower costs and new materials with a wider diversity and complexity of applications.
“Right now, we’ve just finished developing a completely original and quite sophisticated product for Petrobras (Brazil’s national oil giant); a pump that will be used on an offshore platform. The application is very difficult because you’re dealing with salt water, which is very corrosive,” explains Plaza. “We’re also working on a booster system in which a series of parallel pumps are used to simultaneously carry out multiple applications.”
While products evolve over time, one aspect of the business that has remained constant since day one has been Leão’s focus on service. “From our earliest days, we always made technical assistance to our clients a priority,” says Plaza. “Back then, we didn’t have authorized representatives. Our technicians responded to all calls from our plant right here in Monte Azul Paulista, not only during the day but at night and on weekends as well.” At the time, this service ethic was unheard of. Of course, today things are different. Now the company boasts more than 90 authorized technicians working throughout Brazil, comprising one of the largest service teams in the industry.
This stress on service is reflected in Leão’s underlying corporate philosophy, which all boils down to water. “Today, businesses and industries need to have the utmost care in the way they treat water. In order to prevent contamination and pollution, the highest standards of quality and security must be met,” says Plaza. “In the end, consciousness of water’s essential role effects everything we do. For this reason, we don’t see our mission as manufacturing pumps. Our real business is water.”