Like many a successful business, Filmatic was incubated in a garage. The location was Paarl and the dateline was 1979 when savvy mechanical engineer, Johan Beyers, acted on what he believed was a huge opportunity: dairy farmers crying out for affordable, entry-level, hand-operated plastic bottle fillers
‘Thirty years ago, machinery from Europe was ridiculously expensive. I started tinkering in my garage and designed and built the first Filmatic Model 3000. While European suppliers could only offer machines that were totally unaffordable at around R300K, this cost less than R3K!’ says Johan.
No wonder, then, that the Model 3000 became a big hit. The word spread, sales took off, and soon Johan was in business with hired assistants and proper premises. He reckons over 2 600 of Filmatic’s ‘work-horse’ fillers have been sold and they’re still a popular item on the company’s extensive inventory.
‘The demand for entry level fillers in the food and beverage industry is ongoing. We’ve upgraded and automated this level filler, but it remains a cost-effective, uncomplicated, user-friendly machine that’s suitable for filling dairy, water, juice and other still beverages in 250ml to two-litre containers,’ comments Johan.
One of his first customers was Karl Kebert, owner of Montic Dairy near Heidelberg, Gauteng, and, from the far left of Filmatic’s product spectrum, Montic recently moved to the far right with the commissioning of a sophisticated ultra-clean rotary filler to launch its new ESL (extended shelf life) milk that hit the fridges in June. It has a chilled shelf life of 21 days.
Ultra-clean fillers were a watershed development for Filmatic. The ongoing evolution of its design and engineering saw Filmatic well placed to take this giant and bold leap into this top-end market back in 1999. Ten years on, the ultra clean/ESL concept is probably only now coming to fruition – well, in this country at any rate. This appears surprising considering the significant benefits this technology offers bottlers of sensitive products: ESL achieves significant savings across the whole value chain, it lowers wastage, reduces the rate of returns from resellers and slashes logistics costs. Plus, it goes some way to meeting growing demand for more ‘natural’, additive-free products. In all, bottlers can be sure of a relatively quick ROI.
‘We pushed rather too early, perhaps, rather than waiting to react to the market pull. Any new technology suffers adoption hurdles, mostly cost related, no matter how obvious its benefits,’ says Johan. ‘Our move into the realm of ultra-clean technology and net weight filling (with non-contact filler heads) put huge demands on the company; it’s technically difficult and a very costly R&D exercise – but our investment is starting to bear fruit with increasing market interest. The experience we’ve gained since we manufactured our first ultra-clean fillers means we have continually enhanced our designs.’
Another defining moment in Johan’s career was the major strategic decision to enter the export market back in 1985, and with considerable success. Not only was Filmatic’s engineering on par with the best, a weak rand meant its machines were very price competitive. Today, there are more than 3 300 items of Filmatic equipment operating in 21 countries, including Western and Eastern Europe, Australia, Taiwan, South East Asia, Mexico, the UK, US and Sub-Sahara Africa.
However, the prevailing strong currency scenario has changed the trading environment, as has increasing competition, from both local entrants and overseas players attracted by the robust rand.
‘We’ve had to adapt to these realities,’ says Johan. ‘And to retain our reputation as a top-quality, value-for-money vendor we looked to our R&D strengths and embarked on a holistic programme of “value engineering”, involving better design, clever cost-cutting, smarter fabrication, more efficient buying and improved productivity, all without compromise for the customer. The aim is always to be in the lead and offer world-class technology at a competitive price. A recent example is our new entry-level rotary filler that has knock-out performance at an unbeatable price.’
Transition to turnkey
Another early realisation for Johan was that he couldn’t box Filmatic as a supplier of stand-alone units and that he would have to offer complete packaging lines if growth was to be sustained.
‘The transition to turnkey vendor was a gradual one, prompted by the need to give customers exactly what they wanted. We started by supplying labellers and expanded from there and today we act as a systems integrator, building our core range ourselves, and augmenting it through the purchase of labellers, coders, shrink wrappers, palletisers and the like from global suppliers. We have been on a mission for the past few years to secure agency rights to reputable equipment that complements our own range.’
On this point, he wants to put the record straight: ‘Contrary to a lot of rumour out in the market today, Filmatic is still building its own filling machines – augmented and complemented with the most appropriate technology we can find elsewhere in the world. Why build it at home if you can buy the equivalent cheaper elsewhere?’ Johan stresses.
Notwithstanding the robust rand, Filmatic still exports, and to African countries in particular. ‘Our knowledge of the African market, here and beyond our borders, is probably the single most important asset in keeping ahead of the competition. We have adapted our designs to suit regional needs, and have paid much attention to building in quality and durability,’ he remarks.
He’s also had to give much more focus to protecting Filmatic’s intellectual property. While imitation may be the greatest form of flattery, this is a continual irk: ‘We see our designs all over the place, with someone else’s label stuck on it. It’s very irritating – but it has forced us to be more astute, and we’re now very much more careful about patent protection.’
The road ahead
With so many demands on his time, Johan recently took the decision to step back from day-to-day management, and has handed this reponsibility to Chris Mijburgh. With Filmatic for five years, Chris is now GM, while Kim Dunbar recently assumed the role of sales manager.
So is it time to smell the roses for this hard-working and creative man, who is just a few years off his three-score-years-and-ten, and indulge his passions for the wide outdoors, bush-whacking and photography? Not likely!
‘Succession planning is important and I’ve got a great team together – perhaps I’ll only come in to the office from 8 to 6 now!’ he laughs.
Johan, in fact, declares he’s as motivated and excited about business today as he has ever been, and what’s really setting his pulse racing at the moment is a move into the supply of blow-moulding equipment for HDPE bottles and PET preforms and bottles. Filmatic has dabbled in this game in the past, working with Spanish company Urola, but it’s now taking it further and intends making a concerted splash via a new subsidiary, Filpet, and the sourcing of machinery in China.
‘It’s given me a whole new lease of life – and we’re very excited at the potential. These entry-level blow moulders allow small-to-medium volume producers to produce their own bottles with significant cost savings,’ he explains.
This development raises several questions. Is it viable for a juice or milk producer to worry about bottle production? And what about the skills required to do so? Chinese technology? And isn’t this stepping on the toes of some of his best customers, the major bottle producers?
Johan dismisses these queries, saying if a producer can run a filler, he can run a blow moulder and that the cost savings are so attractive, it’s a proposition that can’t be ignored. The technology, he asserts, is outstanding and has been sourced after intensive research and travelling in China. As for toe-stepping, he says the aim is to explore the huge opportunity in the marketplace that exists for this specific business model: ‘We want to develop this business to the benefit of the bottler and ourselves. If we don’t explore this, someone else will,’ he notes.
Filmatic’s vision has always been to shape the future of liquid packaging, to be at the cutting edge of technology and this will continue to be its driving ethos as it moves into a new generation: ‘We pride ourselves in the fact that we have a solution for every packaging need. Filmatic was created on being responsive to the demands of the industry, and this won’t change. It’s about adapting, evolving, recognising opportunities, being flexible – always a work in motion, and always with our customers first in mind,’ Johan concludes.
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Caption: Incubated in a garage, Filmatic now enjoys a footprint in 21 countries, serviced from its headquarters in Paarl.
Caption: Johan Beyers, founder and CEO of Filmatic, and a packaging visionary in South Africa.
Caption: How it all began: the first Model 3000 filler, that today, in various variations and configurations, is still sold all over the world. Some 2 600 have been produced.
Caption: Montic Dairy’s new 30-valve, rinser-filler-capper ESL filler is rated to fill under ESL conditions at capacities of up to 180 two-litre bottles/min and 300 500ml bottles/min. It comprises a bottle rinser using ozone to rinse and sterilise the bottles (with a water recirculating system to save on water consumption), filler, cap rinser (with ozone), pick-and-place capping system with proprietary magnetic clutches and patented flexible cap grippers, a HEPA air system, and a fully-automated machine wash-down function to clean external surfaces.