James Pozzi ventured to the French city of Lille to visit Sofrigram, Europe's largest insulated and thermal packaging firm, a year after launching its Cold Shop website to expand its export potential.
As I stepped off the Eurostar in a rain drenched Lille, situated in the Western borders of the French Flanders, it didn’t feel all that far from home. Being less than a two hour train journey away coupled with the added bonus of rain, it felt as if I could have accidentally alighted at a UK destination. Given their close geographical proximity, it would perhaps be left to French industry for me to ascertain the most tangible difference.
Sofrigram, the 25-year-old insulated and thermal packaging systems specialist, would be providing me with this insight. Being my first visit to a French manufacturing company, I was curious to bear witness to its practices as a means of contrasting with the British companies I see and talk to on a daily basis. While geographically very close to one another, do we share a much in the way of similarities through our industries?
Sofrigram in numbers
Founded in 1979
£22m turnover (2013), 90% of sales international
Biggest customer industries include Health 62% + Food 25%
Good times, bad times
Like many countries across Europe, French manufacturing has experienced tough times in recent years. While still the continent’s second largest economy behind Germany, its manufacturing sector has incurred some heavy hits. Last month was a particularly bad month.
French manufacturing PMI contracted to 47, below the growth rate and underperforming the likes of Greece. Its automotive industry was also recently dealt the blow of being surpassed by the UK in January this year. More positively however, it has maintained enviable output in its energy, aerospace and pharmaceutical sectors. Evidently, there are still many French manufacturing success stories.
Situated on an industrial site some 30 minutes out of Lille, the Sofrigram headquarters has all the hallmarks of the modern facility. All processes, including manufacturing, R&D and packaging of products are all carried out on location. With 50 employees on site, underpinned by £22m annual turnover and with 90% of products going overseas, Sofrigram is a company which knows its market.
Almost a year to the day of my visit, the company launched website, thecoldshop.com, into the UK and US markets in order to expand its overseas reach. This was inspired by the desire to enter the UK’s Big Pharma market, where it had previously seen its market share in packaging for textiles.
Big pharma, big plans
While serving a diverse range of industries, its primary customer base across the globe lies in the food & drink and pharmaceutical sectors. Typically, a pharmaceutical customer, which include big names such as AstraZeneca and Glaxo Smith Kline, will require the shipping of drugs and vaccines across the world which require transportation at a set temperature. More flamboyant cases have included wealthy tourists shipping France’s finest croissants and champagnes to the Middle East. The emphasis is on low volume production tailored to customer request.
The site’s industrial director, Alexis Marchand, gave the delegation a tour of shop floor, which sees 18 staff rotate across manufacturing and packaging lines. Output is fierce, with 250,000 packages shipped out of the factory in 2013 alone. The floor itself has seen continuous improvements in its manufacturing processes.
A recent six-figure investment in automation equipment is the culmination of the site’s 45% expansion in the past few years. Perhaps most impressive of all is the site’s Ater Metrologie lab – the world’s largest – used for testing the packaging to keep product temperature throughout the shipping process.
With the company investing 5% of its annual turnover in R&D, every single product is lab tested before being sent out. Such an approach is progress for a company which not only produces cold chain packaging but also advises on it, says Franck Brognard, E-commerce manager at Sofrigram. “The main challenge lies in developing services rather than just products,” he says. “Individual lab reports are available upon request for customers, giving them an authentic approval of a product made under strict regulations.”
With distribution partners now serving nine different countries ranging from Spain to Israel; Canada to the United Arab Emirates, it now finds itself as Europe’s number one packaging manufacturer, whilst being in the top 3 globally. Forays into the UK market are set to grow in the coming years. Described as a “market of great potential” by Sofrigram marketing director Laetitia Perche, the never-ending demand for the transportation of medicines is set to continue to be a lucrative one.
An upside of this is in UK job creation, with the company confirming to me that it is looking for a warehouse situated between London and the English south coast to commence with UK distribution.
With overseas investment a way of life in UK business, the Gallic enthusiasm for its Anglo-Saxon neighbours health industry is fueled by an increased level of accessibility at odds with its own. One Sofrigram employee remarked how the UK is ahead of France in terms of its technology adoption of faster, more readily available internet in places such as hospitals and associated aspects such as cloud computing.
Upon saying au revoir to Lille, I felt the company gave a good overview of a manufacturer diversifying its products and services, while exploiting the ever valuable export market. Although the hi-tech, modern facility is similar to anything you’d find here and further afield, Sofrigram’s biggest innovation is in tools such as the Cold Shop website.
With tighter regulations and extended deliveries a continuous concern for the packaging sector, keeping the customer informed of all steps of the process is now a necessity. Based on recent successes, Sofrigram is tackling these challenges head on.