Volume 15 | Issue 3 | Year 2012

When blow molding machinery for the production of plastic parts was first produced in the late 1930s, few estimated that it would have such a profound effect on so many industries. The predominance of wood and metal parts caused a delayed reaction in the acceptance of molded plastics. In the US, for example the number of blow molded plastic containers went from zero in 1977 to ten billion pieces in 1999.
For Astra S/A Indústria e Comércio, the arrival of equipment for blow molding in Brazil was a huge turning point. Founded in Jundiaí, São Paulo in 1957, the company began as a carpentry firm making wooden kitchen cupboards, stools, wardrobes and toilet seats. In 1962, it started working with plastic and applying blow molding manufacturing techniques. With the development of these processes, Astra was the first company worldwide to produce the blow molded plastic toilet seat in 1966. As a cheaper and more hygienic alternative to its wooden predecessor, the seat was a breakthrough in the bathroom. “The product won over the market and became a commodity in the construction material industry, and has been patented in several countries,” says Managing Director Manoel Fernandes Flores.

FANTASTIC PLASTIC
The seat was an important foothold in the market for Astra, which went on to apply blow molding principles to the manufacture of the first plastic toilet flush system and the first plastic bathroom cabinet by injection methods in 1969. “With a finger on the rapid development of Brazilian industry in the 1960s, we noticed an array of benefits offered by the new raw-material that invaded factories all over the world – plastic,” adds Flores.

The success that the plastic revolution afforded Astra led to the adoption of a more professional approach. The company, which had started as a carpentry workshop, began hiring professionals to assume its administration and contribute to the development of its expanding product lines.

By the mid-1980s, Astra had launched the padded toilet seat; today one of its highest selling products and established Profax – one of the companies now affiliated to Astra and responsible for the manufacture of bathroom cabinets and bath tubs. Thanks to advantageous pricing, particularly in relation to imports together with the excellent customer service structure, Astra became the supplier of the mechanisms for almost all national ceramic bathroom furniture. In 1993 Japi, a third company associated with Astra was founded to specialize in metal sanitation accessories.

The evolution of the company, inspired by the use of plastics had taken on vast proportions, and a fourth company, Integral, was opened, which like Japi works with metals, specializing in window frames in aluminum.

“With more than 50 years of experience, Astra has always differentiated itself through innovative solutions. Since the 1990s, we have contributed increasingly to the growing civil construction industry and in 1996 launched our business development department, which opened the market and develops technical products and solutions together with construction companies,” Flores says.

An important partnership with Encol Construction meant 700 simultaneous sites across Brazil. Astra met the demand for fast and efficient solutions, expanding its product line further to include plastic tubing and pipes.

Today, Astra and its three affiliated factories (Profax, Japi and Integral) form one of the most important groups of suppliers to the Brazilian civil construction industry. The company produces toilet seats, hot tubs, aluminum frames, mirror cabinets and fixtures, bathroom accessories, housewares, tanks, sinks, plastic cabinets, plastic and aluminum plumbing systems. In addition Astra manufactures PVC gutters, exhaust systems, and a full line of products for construction, such as underfloor heating, heated towel rails, ribbed formwork for the bathroom panels, electrical boxes, and vertical hydro massage bath systems, among others.

Astra’s pioneering spirit has generated excellent results. Today the company is the trusted supplier of hundreds of construction companies throughout Brazil.

AWARDS AND LEADERSHIP
Astra is the Brazilian market leader in toilet seats, mirrored bathroom cabinets, toilet flush systems and Jacuzzi-style tubs. “We are also recognized for our domestic utility lines, including water tanks, PVC gutters, and PEX (Cross-linked polyethylene) in-wall hot and cold water piping systems,” adds Flores.

The company does not stop at industry standards, always innovating and differentiating its products, being among the first to introduce the dual flush system, which allows a three or six liter, water-saving toilet flush. Astra also produces Jacuzzi-style and spa tubs with television, DVD player, sound systems and even a minibar!

“We are among the most frequently recognized in the civil construction sector and have been awarded various prizes in the industry for our products,” affirms Flores. In addition, the company was named the most profitable in the market by the Gazeta Mercantil newspaper in 2007 and for two consecutive years was elected one of the best Brazilian companies to work for by Exame and Você magazines.

“In recent years we have invested heavily in renewing our infrastructure and staff,” confirms Flores. “Our industrial park houses the most modern technology available, responsible for our excellent productivity levels and safety standards.”

Astra and its associated companies are based in nine production buildings totaling 117,600 square meters and employing 2,200 people in Jundiaí. Each one carries out and controls a specific stage of product manufacturing from the different variations of blow- and injection molding plastics to storage and logistics.

“In 2011, the Astra Group invested around $6.5 million in infrastructure – including new machinery, equipment and molds for new products,” Flores says. The company also invested a further $300,000 in a state-of-the-art showroom to exhibit the diverse range of products.

With an extensive portfolio that includes 1,800 different products, Astra has certainly invested wisely. “Development of new products is made in the most part by our research and development department, which concentrates on improving and perfecting existing lines, and the creation of new products and processes. However, increasing productivity, quality and cost-effectiveness is a discipline diffused throughout the entire company, in the production and administration areas alike. The general concern with efficiency and hard work has always been an important factor in our history and growth,” explains Flores.

GROWING ECONOMY
Astra has recorded annual growth of 15 percent for the last three years, a staggering 12 percent above the market average published by ABRAMAT (Associação Brasileira de Materiais para Construção – Brazilian Construction Materials Association). In 2011, annual revenue reached $260 million.

“Our growth has been purely organic – achieved through increasing product lines, industrial equipment and infrastructure – and through our main differential; our clients,” Flores affirms. Astra has more than 32,000 clients in Brazil and supplies 30 more countries worldwide (8 percent of production is destined for exports). The main customers are construction material stores, home centers and supermarket chains. The quality and quantity of products offered by the company together with its know-how and administrative capacity to manage them mean that clients return time and time again.

The growth comes at a time when Brazil runs the risk of deindustrialization, especially in the manufacturing industry. The situation is the result of extreme devaluation of the currency, high taxation, high labor and energy costs – all of which could have affected Astra and pose a real threat in the future. “It is for these reasons that we always have a keen eye on the changes and developments in the industry,” Flores says.

It is a watchful eye that has certainly helped Astra manage its success. Leading the domestic market and with an increasing presence overseas, the brand is growing steadily and surely. The company also offers local opportunity as an important employer and provider of internships for minors. As Flores concludes, “Good relationships with our staff, partners and community, together with the quality of our products, service, efficiency and ethics are the principles that form our philosophy, and the formula for our success.”

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