Machines to wash everything (Published by El País)
The industrial washing machine manufacturer Girbau embarks on a new phase of international expansion
Machines to wash everything (Published by El País)

The industrial laundry equipment manufacturing business is small but highly competitive. A handful of firms account for a global turnover of 2,500 million euros and the Catalan company Girbau, with 55 years of history, has carved out one of the solidest positions with a world market share of 5% and sales in a hundred countries. Like many other manufacturing firms, the economic crisis forced Girbau to expand its overseas market to bolster sales. When the Spanish economy contracted, they were already working on overseas markets like North America, according to CEO Mercé Girbau, “So we opted to carry on investing in sales teams and opening up subsidiaries outside Spain, especially in the Caribbean region and Asia."

One of its riskiest moves was to double its commitment to China, where the business offered opportunities but also called for major adaptations. “The Chinese market is very special,” explains Girbau, “Because local competition is very strong and, quite frankly, they're getting better and better. They supply a simpler product that's better suited to the characteristics of their country." Expansion in China is calling for a change of strategy from the company to build up its presence in this economic giant, although it markets washing machines in 200 countries. "We moved into China 30 years ago and it's time to make changes to face the ferocious competition. We're considering various strategies which involve having a strong sales network there with a product that can also be manufactured in China," states the CEO.

The group is embarking on a new phase of consolidation in its international adventure and Mercé Girbau has an announcement: "We're looking for talent for a new stage of agreements and growth in which we aim to move closer to our customers located all round the world. We're opting for positions to reinforce our management structure, with an international viewpoint and a technical profile, as well as middle managers, experts in developing new products and engineers."

With a workforce of 715 employees in four factories and 15 subsidiaries in Europe, Latin America, Australia, China, the United Arab Emirates and the USA, Girbau's customers include hotel chains like Meliá, Barceló, Iberostar and Hilton, as well as oil rigs, restaurants, hospitals, armies, mining companies, sports clubs, industrial laundries and vended laundry franchises. The company, which made net profits of seven million euros in 2015, expects a 15% higher turnover this year, up to 150 million euros. Over 80% of its turnover comes from its international business.

The four businesses

From its headquarters in Vic (Barcelona), Girbau runs three business areas: commercial laundry for small and medium businesses (washing machines, dryers, ironers, finishing equipment and other ancillary machinery); self-service launderettes (the machinery must be easy to use, give excellent professional washing and drying results and be reliable and robust) and industrial laundry (washing equipment like batch systems, presses and dryers; ironing systems like flatwork ironers, feeders, folders and stackers); and folders for towels and form linen, as well as ancillary equipment.

One of the keys to the firm's success was the early implementation of pioneering computer technology to develop a line of washer extractors that "few manufacturers in the world dared to make," according to CEO. "We are also fully committed to taking on board digitalisation and data analysis, which will enable us to get to know out customers better in order to personalise our products even more," concludes Girbau.

As well as embarking on a new phase of expansion outside Spain, Girbau is working to increase the specialisation of its products through alliances with compatible companies in order to take on its bigger competitors based in the USA, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. "We have striven to develop more features and solutions, as well as new business models." We want to give our customers a turnkey package, ranging from the machinery to the complete solution, covering the whole process, improving the efficiency of their business and using less polluting products, reducing water consumption in washers and energy consumption in dryers," states Pere Girbau, CEO in the third generation in this family business.

The history of Girbau is, like that of many family firms, a project that began with a vision that went on to be consolidated. In 1923 Pere and Mercé's great-grandfather, Pere Girbau Barbosa, convinced that electric devices would expand in the future, opened an electrical engineering workshop. His son, Joan Girbau Vilageliu, boosted the business, turning the workshop into a space devoted to the manufacture and repair of electrical devices. In 1960, Pedro, Toni and Teresa Girbau, who worked with their father, began a new chapter by opting to manufacture industrial machinery for laundries.

This was the origin of Girbau, today in the hands of Mercé and Pere Girbau, who have moved from management functions to those of CEOs, "to focus on strategic issues and the future development of the business." To do this they recently recruited Guillem Clofent to the project as general manager. Clofent, who will be the first general manager of Girbau who is not a member of the family, was previously the executive manager of the Austrian TGW group, having previously held the positions of general manager and managing director at companies like Serra Soldadura, Mecalux and Germans Boada.