The Brazilian branch of the American-born Mine Safety Appliances Company supplies safety equipment to some of the major players in the gas, petrochemical and mining sectors. Antonio Soares de Mello, MSA’s marketing manager, tells Lee Weingast about how the company has established itself firmly in the Brazilian and international market.
The Mine Safety Appliances Company (MSA), the largest company for personal protection equipment (PPE) came about as the result of tragedy. In the beginning of the 20th century, two American engineers witnessed firsthand the horrors of mining accidents caused by gas lamps in American coal mines. Their concern for the safety of miners led them to found the Mine Safety Appliances Company to manufacture headlamps for miners’ helmets in 1914. Thomas Alva Edison collaborated with the engineers on the design for a battery small enough to power an electric light bulb that would fit onto a helmet. Edison later said that developing a safe light for miners was the greatest humanitarian act of his career.
After a successful half century, MSA was ready to expand. In 1969, the company established a branch in Brazil. Initially it served simply as a distributor but to accommodate rising demand, began to produce gloves and helmets. After some time the glove factory was sold but the company continued to produce hearing protection, masks and other personal protection equipment and nowadays MSA Brazil makes a significant portion of all safety equipment on the market in Brazil including head and hearing protection. The company also sells goggles, respirators and gas detectors imported from another MSA branch in Pittsburgh, Pa. MSA’s arrival in Brazil 40 years ago was the outcome of natural growth. It began as a distributor and expanded to meet demand.
WIDE RANGE OF PRODUCTS
MSA is based in Diadema, in the São Paulo metropolitan area and has regional offices and distributors across Brazil “in order to serve as many clients as possible,” says Antonio Soares de Mello, MSA’s marketing manager who has been with the company for 20 years. He also notes that, although it does not produce gloves and boots, MSA has an extremely extensive line of safety products. Indeed, with over 4,000 items for sale, MSA does have one of the most comprehensive lines of safety products available. He boasts, “We are one of the few companies in the world that both manufactures and sells a wide range of PPE (personal protection equipment). Our line is also one of the most complete, featuring a range of specially-designed products for firefighters. We have a research and development department dedicated to seeking improvements in safety equipment for firefighters.”
The bulk of MSA’s sales comes from clients in three areas. The gas and petrochemical sector accounts for the greatest portion of MSA’s sales. MSA equipment protects the employees of companies such as Esso and Petrobrás, one of MSA’s biggest clients. Mining and steel mill companies like Vale do Rio Doce and Usiminas make up the second-largest block of clients and firefighters and food service is the third largest client category. MSA also serves the construction field and the Brazilian military police and army purchase some equipment from MSA. The company’s sales are not limited to clients in Brazil. With branches in Chile, Argentina, Colombia and Peru, 80 percent of export sales are to South America. Some goods are also sold to clients in the Middle East and Africa and a selection of items, notably disposable masks, are exported to the MSA American headquarters.
COST EFFICIENCY PHILOSOPHY
De Mello reports that about four years ago the company underwent a restructuring with the aim of replacing a traditional pyramid administration hierarchy in which each country was somewhat independent with a more global, process-based philosophy. De Mello explains, “We try to view every step of a process as it relates to all departments in an integrated way. This gives us a clear, complete vision of the final goal.” The company has also instituted demand-flow technology (DFT), a system of manufacturing that facilitates increased efficiency, in terms of both space and production, with lowest possible costs. He adds that these methods ensure quality products at fair prices, which is what consumers want.
The company’s approaches have shown excellent results; in fact De Mello affirms that 2008, with 20 percent growth, was one of the best years in the company’s history for sales volume, earnings and profit. De Mello attributes the record year, with increased sales of all products, in part to MSA’s excellent reputation. In order to meet the growth in demand, MSA expanded and modernized both factory and office spaces in 2008. The public certainly has taken notice of the safety products designed and manufactured by MSA and the company has earned the “Top of Mind” award for 13 years running. Having the best known products is directly linked to a healthy market share.
MSA’s engineers are always seeking innovation to improve existing products and expand the number of items produced by the company. De Mello proudly reports that MSA Brazil recently came out with two new lines of helmets, including a hat without a brim for work in high places and confined spaces. This item was designed and marketed exclusively by MSA Brazil. De Mello says that new portable gas detectors produced by MSA in the United States will soon be released in Brazil. Collaboration with other MSA branches worldwide facilitates access to cutting edge technology and engineering. MSA Germany provided the technology for a high-tech, telemetric mask with technology for remote monitoring of a user’s oxygen levels, heart rate and other functions. The new model of this equipment, geared toward firefighters, is more efficient and features decreased weight and an Alpha base computer interface.
“We make things that save lives,” boasts De Mello, and not just for clients. MSA’s genuine concern for safety goes beyond the commercial. When tragedy strikes, MSA steps up with donations of equipment to assist with rescue efforts. De Mello says, “We donated masks, goggles and helmets to rescue workers and volunteers after the recent flooding in Santa Catarina (in Southern Brazil).” MSA also made donations to improve the safety of rescue efforts for a 2007 airplane accident in Brazil, an earthquake in neighboring Peru, the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and even the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy in the United States. “It’s gratifying to know that we can help and that our products are really used to save lives. Sometimes they’re not even really noticed but they do help. For example, not many people notice that our equipment is protecting them from many illnesses,” De Mello notes. The company’s quality has already been recognized with the ISO: 9000 certification and MSA is now qualified to standards for SA: 8000, which covers social responsibility and decent working conditions.
With a year of record growth behind it, MSA is optimistic about prospects for 2009. De Mello says that the company has invested millions of reais for the recent expansion. He notes that while the economic crisis has deeply affected the United States and Europe, the impact in Brazil has been less serious. MSA will continue to serve its customers well.