Etienne’s first break came with selling his first cap-sorting unit to Nampak. ‘The first two years were tough, but I survived and, by the third, I had designed a rotary filler-capper and moved the operation into a factory,’ he recalls. Such simple but tenacious self-belief and determination in a young man (he was 28 at the time) has seen Etienne grow Marefa into a bottling equipment company of substance, one with a proud reputation and which rivals, and even betters, the big names in Europe. Over 350 Marefa machines are housed in factories stretching from South Africa to the US, the Middle East and the UK, as well as most sub-Saharan African states. They’re used primarily to fill plastic bottles in a hygienic environment: dairy, water, juices, oil, kerosene, petroleum jelly, and, of late, several types of pharmaceutical products.
Marefa’s flagship and core products, designed, engineered and assembled in-house by a 50-strong work force, are its rotary filler/cappers, double-lane pump fillers, a tub filler for viscous products, a semi-automatic eight-valve step filler and user-friendly self-adhesive labelling machines.
The company also makes and assembles all the peripheral lines and conveyors.
‘To use a motor car analogy, I would call us the “Toyota” of the liquid filling world: where we’ve built our name on robust, top-quality engineering, great reliability, excellent back-up and service and good value,’ is how Etienne encapsulates Marefa’s current standing.
As a qualifed fitter and turner, with an engineering diploma, plus extensive hands-on experience, Etienne does a great deal of Marefa’s R&D work, albeit he now has a six-strong design team. His enduring engineering philosophy is simplicity: ‘I’m single-minded about simplicity of detail,’ he comments. ‘Every aspect of our designs are analysed to find a solution that’s practical and effective. Our machines, therefore, work faster and longer, more precisely and efficiently. There’s less that can go wrong and, if problems do arise, they’re easier to solve. In fact, we’ve probably shot ourselves in the foot because we do little business in spares and consumables, but we wouldn’t have it any other way!’
This approach is particularly pertinent in developing countries with less-skilled operators, and promotes peace of mind for foreign customers. Furthermore, all Marefa machines are linked to head office via modem so on-line technical assistance is immediately available.
Another important aspect of the Marefa way is the fact that many components are designed so that they can be used across several or all of its machines, a strategy that’s a significant cost saver and which greatly simplifies its production and store-keeping.
Being the best
Doing it better was no mere wish fulfilment on Etienne’s part. Marefa has eight patents for its technology and a ninth pending. These innovations include:
- Automatic CIP (cleaning in place) on rotary fillers, where the CIP manifold is an integral part of the filler and is automatically engaged and disengaged. All CIP pipework is incorporated into the machine, greatly saving valuable floor space. Automatic CIP saves time and every hour conserved means more bottles filled. This innovation has proven a popular seller.
- A capping head that dispenses caps with near-perfect accuracy.
- Quick-change bottle-feed components that minimise downtime and increase line efficiencies.
- An anti-splash valve. When the valve exits the bottle on the filling line, the break in pressure can cause product splash, so a sleeve is added to the filling nozzle that controls the pressure release – so no splashing.
- A high-viscosity, double-bellow valve which speeds up the filling process of products such as drinking yoghurt and fruit concentrates.
A notable feather in Marefa’s cap is international recognition of its engineering expertise – it boasts a technology-sharing agreement with a North American filling company which manufactures its components under licence.
The right connections and directions
As Marefa’s business grew, Etienne realised he couldn’t manage the show alone and so six years ago he asked Peter Vermaak to join the business. With a long history in technical sales, Peter’s responsibilities are largely to look after sales, production and to assist with customer support.
Now a shareholder and director, Peter stresses that Marefa’s rising star would not have been quite as ballistic without the support of several industry partners. ‘As with any business, ours relies on the right networks. We have great relationships with the right people in the packaging industry, such as Nampak, Polyoak, Acepak and Hilfort, and it’s a symbiosis that brings fantastic rewards for all parties. They buy many of our machines for their turnkey projects and together we’re partners in quality and service,’ he says.
Another tenet of Marefa’s journey, Peter adds, is Etienne’s uncanny sense in ‘knowing where to next’.
‘Etienne has an amazing vision of which new avenue we need to pursue for growth and sales. He has the knack of doing the right things at the right time and bringing in new ideas and technology just as established ones are perhaps passing their peak life-cycle, just as we have needed to expand our repertoire,’ is how Peter describes his co-director.
As examples he cites Marefa’s development of in-line pump filling for viscous products that followed the rotary fillers; the recent strides made with self-adhesive labellers that, simple to use and with robust functionality, are suitable for operators with low skills; and now the moves to making in-line bottle unscramblers. The latter’s design doesn’t use compressed air and requires no change-parts – unlike the cumbersome changeovers that are a feature of other systems. The containers self-unscramble in transit and there’s no scratching or scuffing of PET bottles. Market interest is very promising, notes Peter.
Marefa’s successful strategies have largely staved off the threat of cheaper Chinese-made imports. ‘Of course, one has to acknowledge that this is a competitive arena and customers have a lot of choice. Sure, we often hit our heads against better quotes for so-called equivalent machines. But it’s very “so-called”. In our experience, made-in-China is cheap today and expensive tomorrow, lacking the inherent robustness that’s required for the rigours of the factory floor. Frankly, in our view, it’s a gamble,’ Peter remarks.
The Marefa duo are upbeat and bullish on prospects for the future. Plans include further growing market share at home and expanding export sales, now at around 35% of turnover, into new countries, and boosting the Marefa profile in new markets. Already, they’re making good headway into the pharmaceutical arena and several new Marefa machines now grace the production floor of Johnson & Johnson in East London.
‘I started out with very humble ambitions, and ten years down the line, I’m living my dream. We’ve kept a low profile in the past, but have steadily worked to let our machines do the talking, to let our technology and service build the Marefa brand and raise the bar for our competitors. People notice us now, and we enjoy unsolicited business and much word-of-mouth recommendation. It’s a great place to be, but we will always remind ourselves not to become arrogant, to keep our feet on the ground – and will continue our journey to offer the best quality, value-for-money technology,’ concludes Etienne.
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Valued partnerships with Polyoak and Nampak
‘When Etienne le Roux first approached Polyoak Packaging 10 years ago, we already had long-standing relationships with other suppliers. Etienne realised that to become a serious player in a highly competitive market he had to be different. He offered our technical staff the opportunity to be involved in the design of the equipment, taking notes and listening intently to what they had to say.
‘This customer focus has helped Marefa to push the boundaries of innovation and design. Their subsequent success is testimony to this customer-focused philosophy. It has given us at Polyoak the confidence to partner with Marefa in offering filling solutions to our customers nationwide.
‘Marefa supplies us with a growing amount of equipment which we know will not be problematic in the future.
‘Congratulations to Etienne and Peter and their team of committed designers and artisans on Marefa’s 10th anniversary. Polyoak is proud to be associated with Marefa International and we look forward to long and prosperous relationship with them.’ Wessel Oelofse, regional executive, Polyoak Packaging
‘Marefa is a small company compared to many of its competitors, but its filling equipment has made a serious impact on the dairy world. Marefa’s success lies in offering quality fillers with good-value price tags, and in good after-sales service that’s so important for a sector which lacks technical skills. In addition, the incorporation of in-house R&D as part of Marefa’s growth strategy is worthy for them and as well as for customers like Nampak.’ Mthandeni Mkhize, technical director, Nampak Liquid and Petpak.
Celebrating a decade of success
Marefa marked its tenth birthday with a celebratory bash recently at Pampoenskraal Restaurant on the Altydgedacht wine estate in Durbanville. Some shots from a happy evening . . .
Marefa’s founder and MD, Etienne le Roux, Dave Grobler (MD of Acepak) and Mthandeni Mkhize (technical director of Nampak Liquid & Petpak).
Leon Kruger and Linda Edkins (both Johnson & Johnson, East London) with Justin Tomsett (Acepak).
Wayne Groenemeyer (Polyoak), Jane McClunan (Hilfort) and Clive Lucas (Afoodable).
Karl Lambrecht, Wessel Oelofse and Greg Fortuin (all Polyoak) with Marefa director, Peter Vermaak.
Longtime Marefa customers, Peter and Rafiq Gihwala of Gihwala’s Eastern Gem Products, Cape Town.