Chinese adventures

Due to the heightened activity in the niche market Coek Group operates within, the Belgian designer and manufacturer of special equipment for the chemical, petrochemical, and mining sectors has been compelled to improve the efficiency in its work, in order to maintain its leadership position. “Since the beginning of 2018 in particular, we have seen a remarkable increase in the number of projects in petrochemical that were given a green light to go ahead. This trend is especially noticeable in Asia, mainly China, where various programmes are now receiving funding more easily and, as a result, starting to move towards implementation,” comments Coek’s Chief Sales Officer, Patrick Van Roy.

Discussing the reasons for growth in this part of the world, Patrick singles out the more relaxed business climate the Chinese government has created in the past couple of years. “Only two or three years ago, it was much more difficult to get these projects financed, because the Government was controlling the bank sector quite tightly. Fortunately, this is changing now, and the payback conditions offered are becoming more favourable for the companies willing to set these initiatives in motion. We have been present in China for 15 years and I can say that we are in an unseen-CG 161 bbefore situation, where everybody is racing to get their approvals ready and make the most of the unique environment we find ourselves in.”

Enhanced technologies
With the new market picking up pace, it was not difficult for Coek to quickly fill its order book and even expand its capacity, so it could serve the coming growth and remain a step ahead of the competition. Patrick reasons: “The new situation means that we were forced to find solutions that would allow us to continue addressing our customers’ requirements without affecting the quality of our services. Therefore, we decided to invest in enhanced fabrication technologies to improve our efficiency. It is not a very big market we are working in, so we had to take the necessary steps and prepare ourselves to protect our position. It was a bit of an unexpected start to the year, because we did not think the market would become so buoyant, but over the following months, we were able to grasp what was to come up, started to expand our capacity, and refined our approach. Our anticipation is that the demands will be even higher in 2019 and we are now getting ready to meet them,” he notes.

“Another positive trend, which has taken shape in the past five to six years, is the shift in EPC contracting. While it was European contractors who were driving the field previously, this has moved to Asian subsidiaries in recent times. This works very well for us, because these Asian companies have less experience, which allows us to cover a broader area, as we can provide the required knowhow in various markets,” Patrick goes on, analysing in greater depth the market conditions of the day.

Recruitment and training
By the looks of it, China will remain the main target area for Coek in the years to come; however, the company is keeping an eye on the market development in other geographical areas, as well, looking for suitable opportunities to take advantage of. One such region is the Middle East and India, where Patrick has observed a slow, but steady picking up of pace. “We are trying to follow up certain projects, which have slowed down in the past couple of years, but it will take some time until they get all the necessary approvals and go to procurement.”

In Patrick’s opinion, a number of new PTA (purified terephtalic acid) and polypropylene-related projects will get the go-ahead in the time before the end of the year and early on in 2019, thus reflecting the company’s latest concerted efforts in the sphere. “Working on these will put even more pressure on our capabilities, but we have to deal with it as best as we can. In the meantime, we will continue playing our part in the large gold mining project for which we won the contract in the summer of 2017. We are in the middle of fabrication already and the whole scheme is progressing nicely, at the moment, so our ambition is to oversee its successful continuation,” he opens up about Coek’s future intentions.

One of the major challenges faced by the company is a widespread issue for the entire manufacturing world – namely, the lack of qualified labour. “The recent growth we have experienced, imposed on us the need to recruit more people to the business. We have invested in automation, but we still need a manual workforce. Unfortunately, it is getting almost impossible to find skilled workers, especially in a niche sector like ours, as it involves working with exotic materials, such as titanium, and that requires a more specific skillset. To tackle this challenge, we have adopted a number of different strategies. We are looking to both bring staff from other European countries and train new people ourselves, hoping that they will stay and help us in our future activities,” Patrick says.

“It is always good when there is a lot of work coming our way. We are happy with the situation, even though I admit it would probably have been better if the workload was spread a bit more evenly in time,” he remarks. “The peak period will come to an end sooner or later and it is hard to predict what the market will look like when this happens. Still and all, we have to take measures that will allow us to continue thriving, even in the case of a dip in the number of new projects, all while maintaining the highest standards of our performance when serving our customer base.”

Coek Group
Products: Heat exchangers, pressure vessels, columns, and reactors