Howden aims for new heights

Africa Outlook talks to Thomas Bärwald, the CEO of gas and air handling equipment giant Howden Africa, a regular in the Business Times newspaper's 'Top 100 Companies', which has its eye on growing its markets through excellent engineering and service.

By Ian Armitage

Howden is a major engineering force. Its equipment underpins economic development on the African continent and it has played a significant role in large-scale power generation, mining, construction, petrochemical and manufacturing projects.

"We have long-term relationships with customers in many sectors of Africa's industrial infrastructure," says Thomas Bärwald (pictured), the CEO of the Johannesburg-based and JSE-listed Howden Africa.

Howden Africa has four main business units - Howden Power, Howden Fan Equipment, Howden Projects and Donkin Fans - offering comprehensive engineered systems and after-market support services, focusing on specific industrial sectors or product ranges.

As part of Howden Global, which has operations all over the world, the company has access to the extensive engineering knowledge derived from a worldwide installed base.

"We're able to meet the demands of our customers, by providing solutions engineered for their specific requirements, backed by manufacturing excellence and on-site installation and technical support throughout the lifetime of each system," Bärwald explains.

Howden Africa has two world-class manufacturing centres in South Africa, one in Johannesburg, and the other in Port Elizabeth, giving it a geographical reach that enables it to support large-scale, turnkey engineered plant and products, through most of sub-Saharan Africa.

"We specialise in the design and engineering of a wide range of equipment and have an extensive offering," says Bärwald. "We have an excellent reputation in the market and listen to the customer.

Through its engineered solutions, such as ventilation systems and refrigeration plant for mines, boiler fans, airheaters and environmental control systems for power stations and general industry, and ventilation systems for HVAC systems in construction, Howden Africa has built up an enviable reputation and offers customers a personal service and presence in Africa, he adds.

"Our involvement in the development of Africa's industrial infrastructure is matched by our commitment to the future."

The firm has, according to Mr Bärwald, achieved "excellent results in the first half of the financial year", with the share price "gaining 120 percent". It's a good performer on the JSE.

"We have secured more mining business from Countries north of the border such as Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia and the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo, etc," he explains. "We have received some really good orders there. We also had a very good year in the environmental control business and generally we have done very well in service and maintenance. We have extended the amount of services, especially in the power and mining industry."

His goal is to expand even further beyond South Africa's borders. "Opportunities for business in future are huge in the African context. [There] is always a need for more power and there is potential for new mining projects, generating substantial demand for our products, especially capital equipment such as air and gas handling equipment, mine main ventilation and cooling.

"The SADC countries are emerging as an important market for us, especially in mining and infrastructure. We have developed a strong reputation in the region through a combination of excellent engineering solutions and innovation, and our geographical proximity facilitates rapid after-market support, at site where required."

Opportunities are plenty at home too and Bärwald is optimistic about the future for Howden Africa, particularly in the light of the environmental regulations that are increasingly impacting the manufacturing sector.

"South Africa is focused on cleaning up environmentally and driving to green and we're seeing new environmental laws and carbon tax proposals for the country, as well as the 2010 Clean Air Act. Companies are now required to manage and monitor emissions and invest in environmental control. We'll see a lot of power producers looking to clean up their acts even more and bring the existing plants and new plants to international standards. Obviously a big slice of what we do is relevant here - our environmental control division is growing. We have good, proven products.

"We are optimistic about the future. We are supplying major turnkey ventilation projects and ice plants for the ultra-deep gold mines and platinum and coal mines in South Africa and we currently have major contracts within the rest of Africa to supply ventilation equipment to deep level mines and process plants. Our main projects going on right now are the supply of air and gas handling equipment to the new large power projects at Eskom."

The aftermarket is another growth area where many of Howden's equipment is still in the field after 30 to 40 years operation that need servicing, refurbishments and upgrades.

Mr Bärwald has worked with Howden for over 23 years. Along the way he has worked and headed the Howden's Australian and South East Asia business for 15 years and South American businesses for three years and also headed the Chinese operations for nearly two years.

"Howden is a great place to work," he says. "The company has a presence on every continent and an impressive track record of innovation. To carry that forward we invest in technological R&D, innovation, and the training of our staff.

"We have, at the moment, like many other engineering companies, a generation shift, a change. We have a lot of people that will retire in the next decade and now the next generation has to take over and we want to maintain good skills. We also ensure that if you are in Europe, North America, China, Australia or Africa you will get the same quality."

Howden has long recognised the importance of allowing individuals to develop their skills and knowledge to their full potential.

In 2008 it added a formal dimension to its training capabilities by instituting the Howden Academy, a residential training course at the University of Caledonia in Glasgow in which engineers from all Howden business units are brought together for an introduction to technologies and business practices.

"Training is vital," Bärwald says. "We have an engineering ladder structure with the aim of if you are a good engineer you can get the same kind of promotions as you would if you had manager career. Next year we intend to do even more training. "

"We will continue to train."

Bärwald says the Howden Academy builds on the cooperation and shared knowledge that has always distinguished Howden as a company. "Every Howden engineer is an integral part of an international pool of leading-edge expertise."

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