Is Soma on the right track?
CZECH REPUBLIC • In 2013, the Czech flexo press manufacturer Soma set the ambitious goal to become a global supplier. The open-house held this year proved whether this was a realistic goal. Two years ago, Soma Engineering celebrated 20 years in business, a year later they officially opened the Soma Globe technology and training centre. The manufacturer from the small town of Lanskroun, nearly 200 km (ca 125 miles) east of Prague, is doing all it can to become a global supplier of flexo presses.
Since last year, there have been a couple of changes at Lanskroun. One can definitely tell that there has been some significant investment in the interim period.
The first thing that catches one’s attention is the historical neighbouring building to Soma Globe, Villa Globe. This mansion has been bought by Soma and fully renovated to provide additional space for training and meetings. In the Villa Globe, Soma has organised technical presentations together with business partners with each presentation being linked to real life print demos at the Soma Globe centre.
The manufacturer has also updated the production capabilities by investing EUR 5 million in a CNC machine from Deckel Maho.
Besides these investments, Soma also hired skilled staff for important tasks.
Dr Peter Lechner is the new Sales Director for Soma Engineering, responsible for the development of the company’s home and international markets. He succeeds Pavla Kusa who has taken leave of absence to meet growing family commitments.
Lechner began his career at Plasticart in 1986 as Head of the Technical Department, rising to the position of Managing Director and Sales Manager for Eastern Europe. He subsequently held key positions at Kiefel Germany, Europlastica, CZ and Brueckner Formtec Germany before taking on the role of Vice President, PTI Aurora, USA.
He studied Mechanical Engineering and Wood & Plastics technology at the Technical University of Dresden gaining a doctorate in both fields and in addition to his native German, also speaks English, Russian and Czech. Based in Germany and the Czech Republic, he has established and managed enterprises in both countries and is a well known figure in the international blown and cast films extrusion industries.
With the increasing significance of the Asian market, the recruitment of Jörg Kullwitz is also very important. The Soma spol.s.r.o. representative office is based in the German Centre of Singapore and will be headed by Kullwitz who has been based in Asia for over ten years. He has held key management positions with companies in Indonesia and Malaysia and brings with him a high level of expertise and experience in the Asian flexible packaging industry.
Not exactly new at Soma is David Stevens, he also plays an important role in conquering the Asian market. In the past he has established customer technical centres in Malaysia and China for DuPont, and now the flexo pre-press expert also is tasked with convincing and educating the gravure market in Asia of flexo’s advantages.
For anyone who has followed Soma’s course can see a clear development from a manufacturer from Eastern Europe for Eastern Europe to a manufacturer that has gained recognition on a global scale. Despite the fact that Soma has only been active in some markets for just a year, the new Optima press has been sold on every industrialised continent.
No matter how positive the feedback is, which the compact CI flexo press has received since the launch, the Czech company stays realistic and knows their advantages. As Ladislav Verner put it: “We provide good quality machinery at a very competitive price.”
To answer the question from the headline: It certainly looks like it is achieving its aims!
Exclusive interview with Dr Peter Lechner, Soma’s Sales Director
As of June you are working with Soma. Please describe your area of responsibility.
I will handle global sales and marketing, and my responsibilities also include the technology centre. For historical reasons, Soma has a strong presence in Eastern Europe. In the last year, Soma has grown step-by-step on the global market. We are active on every market, our new Optima has been sold to every industrialised continent. Our focus is now on growing our presence in key markets, while Asia including Turkey enjoys the highest priority. North America is the biggest flexo market, but we have to be realistic. Our competitors have been present on this market for long time. For sure that’s a very interesting market, where we also have several installations. But when taking the current market situation into account, Asia is of greatest importance to us. I can confirm that we have a couple of promising projects in the pipeline.
When looking at Western Europe, you only have two installations in the UK and two in Germany. What is the reason Soma hasn’t had more success in this market?
Recently we have an installation in Sweden. Western Europe is a region I will personally take care of as there is a huge growth potential for Soma. When considering the market, our share is far too low.
For some people, Soma has the image of being a low-cost supplier. How do you intend to alter this opinion?
That’s a good question indeed. I wouldn’t say it’s an image problem, but a problem of brand awareness. You have to understand that our competitors have been on this market for decades, it’s easy to understand that we have to make up the leeway. Soma has made good progress in the past few years, and invested in new personnel. The Optima has attracted wide interest in this market, especially for high quality short run jobs. Maybe people have reservations about a manufacturer from Eastern Europe, but I believe we are on the right track.
For now, the majority of presses are being sold in Eastern Europe. Do you believe that this will remain the most important market for Soma in the future?
Eastern Europe has been the most important market for us for a long while. Due to our efforts in the past few years, we are seeing increasing success in other markets. We are trying to rest our success on more than one pillar. Our activities in Asia aim to strengthen our business in this market.
How many printing presses will you sell annually in Western Europe, Asia and North America in five years from now?
In order to answer that question you have to be able to predict the market development in general. Many forecasts indicate that the market is growing, and will further grow in the future, but giving a clear prognosis is not that easy. We want to grow and we believe our set up is designed for proper growth. For instance, we have been active in the North American market for approximately a year, and have already sold three flexo presses! This shows a great interest in our products. But as we are new in many markets, forecasting is not easy. I believe that in the future the three big markets Europe, Asia and North America will present some sort of balance in terms of sales.
Exclusive interview with Jörg Kullwitz, Soma representative office APAC
You are in charge of Soma’s Asia Pacific business. Could you please identify your tasks and explain why Soma has decided to open an office in this region?
As of the beginning of this year I have been developing projects for Soma in the Asia Pacific region, recently we opened an office in Singapore, which I am heading. This location has proved to be the right choice mainly as for its central location, as a base for the regional headquarters of many brand owners and printers and its excellent connections throughout the region. My task is to support our customers and agents in the region and furthermore we will expand the agent network in APAC. Previously Soma was only represented in very few markets, e.g. Japan by Heidelberger Druckmaschinen. The management in the Czech Republic considers Asia Pacific as a strategic market for the future, which is why we have increased our presence and efforts significantly. Leaving Windmöller & Hölscher aside, I don’t know any other flexo press manufacturer with such a strong presence in this region.
No doubt, Asia is a growing market, but is mainly dominated by gravure printing. How can Soma, a “no-name” producer of flexo presses compete in this market?
That’s right. At first we have to convince customers about the merits of the flexo printing process. Many customers do not understand what flexo is capable of today. Our clear strategy is not to replace gravure printing, but to complement it and help the gravure printers to focus on what they do best. Asians have the same issues as Europeans or Americans have: shrinking press runs. Therefore a compact mid-web press like the Optima is the perfect solution in order to produce short run jobs efficiently with a printing quality comparable to gravure. Even in Asia a 3000 metre job on a gravure press is no longer economical. That’s where flexo comes into play.
Due to the strong presence of Soma at all the important tradeshows, many of the printers know us. When Asians visit the Soma headquarters they are impressed by the production capabilities and the new technology centre. It also helps that many visionary Czech entrepreneurs and Czech brands are successful all over the world and that many German high technology manufacturers have production plants in Czech Republic, based on the long and successful engineering history there. Furthermore Soma only uses selected suppliers and top quality components, e.g. servo drives from Bosch Rexroth and a German CI-drum.
How do you see the importance of Asian manufacturers in this region?
They are not our direct competition in Asia. They are selling machinery in Europe and North America, but aren’t very active in our region. Being a machine manufacturer from Europe immediately gives you a higher reputation. Building a flexo press requires very special expertise and skills, and Asian printers know that this is a typical strength of European producers. The benchmark for customers is the quality of gravure printing which is something we can offer.
The trip from any Asian country to the Soma headquarters in Czech Republic takes a long time. Would it make more sense to build a Soma Globe in Asia?
This would be great facility to have, but I have found that taking interested customers to the headquarters has a very high intrinsic value. A customer gains enormous trust in Soma when they see the high standards and technology level to which we manufacture. In some cases we make arrangements with customers to use their press for occasional presentations to interested printers from the region. So far we have installed two water-based flexo presses in Japan and have various confirmed orders in hand, which will be delivered and installed in Asia Pacific within the next few months. We also have many promising leads in several Asian countries. The Optima is of special interest to many printers. The machines which have been sold and current promising projects in Asia Pacific confirm that it was the right step to establish a direct presence in the region.