cooler innovation Deputy Editor Medina Bailey visited the water cooler manufacturer’s headquarters to find out more.
It all began with ice cream. Ebac’s progression from dehumidifiers into bottled water coolers, that is. Discovering that the company’s entry into the cooler market occurred in 1994 after its business consultant was inspired by a cooler in an ice cream vending firm’s waiting room was one of many revelations that were unveiled during my trip there. The first surprise was the warm northern sunshine that flooded through the car window as we passed lush fields inhabited by new spring lambs en route to the plant in Bishop Auckland, County Durham.
Although the company has moved four times since its inception in 1972, it has remained within a two mile radius, which has firmly welded its roots in the North East of England and reaffirmed its role as a significant employer in the region. “We’re planning on moving again, but not further than two miles away,” confirmed Ebac Chairman and CEO, John Elliott (above centre), whose inspirational rags to riches story has been the subject of many a newspaper spread and even a TV programme about entrepreneurs sharing their wealth with deserving causes.
With a turnover of £30 million, the business now boasts 350 employees in four countries. Water coolers account for the majority of its manufacturing activities, but other areas, along with industrial products such as dehumidifiers, include domestic appliances like refrigerators and Waterfall, a luxurious day spa just for women in the northern city of Leeds that opened its doors in 2005.
Aside from ice cream triggering Ebac’s foray into diversification, the cooler industry seemed like the ideal fit as it involved refrigeration, which ensured synergy, had the potential to grow rapidly and gave the company the ideal opportunity to use its innovative technical know-how to deliver something different. Its unique selling point – the WaterTrail – is still integral to the range today as it replaces the internal mechanism of each cooler with a brand new part every six months, which eradicates the laborious, time consuming cleaning processes that conventional coolers demand. The Cassette WaterTrail that was designed for the Fmax cooler, for example, takes only 60 seconds to replace.
“It’s the most hygienic way of maintaining your cooler,” explained Technical Director Philip Walton, as he enthusiastically set about demonstrating just how quickly the device can be changed. “We spent a long time investigating the market before we produced it and found that there was a high level of paranoia in the UK surrounding hygiene issues, which this product has helped to solve.”
The recent development of a WaterTrail in conjunction with AgION that offers increased anti-microbial protection not only demonstrates Ebac’s commitment to ensuring coolers are safe to use, but also shows its strong belief that customer needs should be met by using the latest technological advances. This is further demonstrated on the plant tour with Manufacturing Director Amanda Hird, which reveals the company’s policy of completing all the tasks behind its output of 300,000 pieces per year in house. These include producing prototyping machines, blow moulding and injection moulding all of the cooler parts, designing software to monitor production line targets, carrying out tool repairs and even training its employees to operate forklifts in the warehouse. “If we can do it, we will do it,” said John, “as it leads to shorter lead times for our customers.”
The hub of Ebac HQ is its Research and Development department, which is in the safe hands of a team of industrial designers, for whom reliability is the key to every project. With a predicted life span of ten years, each cooler is put through its paces in the environmental testing laboratory where it is subjected to extreme climate conditions and programmed to continuously perform to replicate the demands of heavy usage. “We don’t test our coolers to see if they work, we test them until they fail, to ensure that they don’t fail when they’re out there in the marketplace,” explained Global Sales Director Tony Hird.
Another key consideration is the overall appearance of the cooler, whether it be the 360° contemporary appeal of the Fmax, the best selling Emax’s robust, chunky look, or the sleek silhouette of the SlimCool. Due to the predicted long life of each unit, it is essential that they are designed to give a distinctive edge, while not looking dated in a decade’s time, which is where interchangeable clip on side panels come into their own.
“It’s all about putting in subtle, appropriate details that add value by combining looks with functionality,” explained Walton, pointing at an ergonomic handle that fits in with the overall look of the cooler, wheels that make relocation easier and metal taps that are cold to the touch.
“You want to give end users an experience – like when you insert a CD into your car radio and it automatically takes it off you. Styling is important, but we don’t want to produce fashion items, as you have to take into account longevity. We also want to appeal to the masses by designing a cooler that most people will love because there’s nothing to dislike about it.”
More and more companies, such as Nestlé and Vodafone, and even football clubs like Hibernian FC are opting for customised, bespoke branding to ensure that their coolers will never look out of place. The Emax, for example, has been produced in 148 variants, one of which featured an image of a semi-naked woman, which inevitably raised a few eyebrows as it travelled down the production line, ready to be shipped over to the Greek company that ordered it.
Looking to the future, Ebac has many forward-thinking projects in the pipeline, including a budget retail cooler for the domestic market on behalf of a large client, and a POU range that is planned for launch in spring 2008, which it claims will revolutionise the industry and enable it to properly impact on the POU market. A carbonated cooler is also planned to appeal to German and East European end users who favour carbonation, along with the targeting of further flung markets such as India, Russia and Japan, in order to tap into their rapid growth, and the latter’s penchant for high tech innovations.
Although it is considering overseas manufacturing for its domestic appliances, its cooler production base will remain in the UK, and more specifically in the North East. As the visit came to an end and we headed back along the picturesque, winding roads of the Pennines, I was left with the perception that just like its coolers, Ebac is in it for the long haul. As John concluded: “If you want a cheap cooler that skimps on benefits, don’t come to us, as you’ll get a solid, robust cooler that will go the distance. It’s like motor cars – the expensive ones are built to last a long time.”
cooler innovation interview
Medina Bailey spoke to John Elliott, Tony Hird and Philip Walton.
Do you think the cooler industry is in a healthy state?
TH: “The buying frenzy that started about five years ago brought about a period of unsustainable growth where the bigger companies valued their businesses by how many coolers they had and not how much profit they were making. That was always going to be unsustainable, but while it happened, the market grew very aggressively. It stopped when the larger companies like Danone and Nestlé bought most of the smaller companies, which slowed everything down. The big guys weren’t growing because they were digesting everything they had bought and the smaller companies, instead of making new business, were poaching easy pickings off the larger companies as their levels of service had plummeted.”
PW: “Now, however, prices have settled in the marketplace and growth is based more on sustainable cashflow. The rapidly growing Spanish market is a case in point as companies realised they could no longer sell up for £1,000 a cooler, so they got rid of their non- profiting customers and started to consolidate their bases.”
How would you describe your target customer?
TH: “A company that wants to provide a good level of quality, service and differentiation in the marketplace.”
JE: “They wouldn’t want to buy the cheapest cooler or have a fly-by-night result, but instead want to make a reasonable profit from robust, clean coolers that will stand the test of time and be easy to maintain with simple sanitisation routines. We try to understand the market as well as our customers and then apply our technology and innovation to come up with features that they might not have thought of, but when they’re presented to them they realise the benefits. Then they’ll say – ‘that’s what I was looking for but I didn’t know it at the time.’”
What are the main threats facing the business?
TH: “The threats have always been there, but the fact that the three global companies that were around when we first started have since gone into liquidation, while we have survived, is testimony to our strategy.”
JE: “The market is segmented into cheap or good value options, and we have always fitted into the latter category. We don’t regard our competitors that are out there now, such as Dieau and Cosmetal, as huge threats because we don’t look at them, we just look at our customers.”
What sort of relationships do you develop with your distributors?
JE: “Whatever’s appropriate. We do draw up exclusive contracts with some distributors, but we work on the premise that everything is negotiable as long as it suits both parties. We’re quite close to some of the bigger companies like Danone and Nestlé and we’re very conscious not to allow them to abuse some of the smaller clients by dictating how they run their businesses. We treat them all as equally as we can whether someone buys 1,000 coolers a year, or ten. At the end of the day, they are a customer.”
Do you think the home market will develop in the future and what role will you play in this?
TH: “There’s no question that it will. The main issues are timing and distribution. We got into the home market as a way of understanding it better and we’re still trying to get the distribution in place and turn it into a viable economic business model. In other words, we haven’t really got there, but we haven’t given up on it yet.”
JE: “If every Tesco, Comet and Currys store sold coolers and the supermarkets sold water bottles, I have no doubt that there would be a reasonable percentage of homes with coolers. The problem is that the supermarkets only stock mainstream products and people don’t see themselves as owning coolers yet. But it was the same with the Dyson vacuum cleaner, the George Foreman grill, microwaves and even mobile phones. It just takes time. Brita filter jugs, for example, have reached the point where they tipped over from being a niche product into the mainstream. You see them in someone else’s home, you see them on TV, and then you want one.”
Do you think environmental issues are important?
TH: “Yes, and they’re going to get more significant. We’ve led the way with our new efficient vacuum insulated hot tank, which uses only 30whr/day when on standby, and we’re looking to develop it into a cold model. We also use recyclable parts and have adopted the WEEE regulations, which we believe are ultimately a good move.”
PW: “Although it seems like a stealth tax that the consumer will end up paying for and it doesn’t reward people for recycling as much as it should, it’s definitely the right direction to go in.” JE: “You’ve got to live in the world that we now live in and be responsible and professional about it.”
What do you most enjoy about what you do?
JE: “Seeing someone join the company and fulfil their potential because we’ve challenged and pushed them.”
TH: “Satisfying our customers. There’s no better feeling than when a customer is happy with the product and the service that they’ve received, so they keep coming back. We’ve got some customers who we’ve been dealing with for the past 15 years – that is just fantastic.”
PW: “The freedom of not being tied to the past. For a designer, not having your hands tied behind your back is really refreshing.”
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2019