Started as a dealer of feed additives in the German speaking market, Dr Eckel is now spreading its wings and is making its way to the Asian market. From a bedroom start-up to a multi-million enterprise, the company has developed its own philosophy for selling its products and markets this as “Ecknowlogy”. Time for a visit.
By Dick Ziggers
Whoever has been to EuroTier exhibition in Hanover, Germany could not have missed the large cardboard trolleys people were carrying around containing leaflets, brochures and gadgets that companies handed out to them. The trolleys were printed with the creative solutions of Dr. Eckel.
“We had 1,000 of these boxes manufactured and they were gone in the first two days. Quite a success,” says Bernard Eckel, vice president and responsible for business development of the company. His wife Antje is president and owner of the company and takes care of production and day-to-day business. She founded the company in 1994 as a pure trading venture.
Her husband joined the company shortly after the start-up and since then it has grown to a $24 million (2010) business, employing 30 people. The enterprise literally started in the bedroom of the couple, but now is based in the small town of Niederzissen in Rhineland-Palatinate, north of the Eifel low mountain range in a newly developed industrial area with direct access to major highways. “In the beginning, before we received customers, we converted our bedroom to an office and when they left we replaced everything again,” illustrates Antje.
In the 90s most feed millers relied on antibiotics as growth promoting agents in their feeds for pigs and poultry. Alternatives to antibiotics had difficulties establishing. Nevertheless, Dr. Eckel was the first company in Germany dedicated to animal production free of antimicrobial growth promoters and managed to have three direct fed probiotics registered in Germany. “It was hardship in the beginning, but we trusted that we were on the right path,” Antje says. This perseverance has been characteristic for further developing the company. Some years later, a prebiotic was introduced to the market designed for young animals and pets and a new acidifier concept for monogastric animals and calves as well as a non-corrosive mould inhibitor for feed mills and on-farm use appeared. In 2000 the ban on the use of meat and bone meal and plasma in animal feeds led to the development and introduction of a new concept to increase the amount of highly available calcium in animal production.
Right from startup they also participated at EuroTier and found it to their benefit. “Our name became known and when people called us asking who we were I always answered: We’re new, but we’re good,” Antje says. This provocative statement obviously created obligations, but they never turned their back on it. Antje as well as Bernard have a PhD in agriculture and put their knowledge to use when it came to their business. Bernard had previously worked for a French company in feed additives and thus already gained behind-the-scenes insight into the business. Both are convinced that scientific back-up for their products guarantees sustainability in business. Within their workforce seven people have a PhD and five have a MSc and BSc degree, also explaining the ‘know’ in the company’s Ecknowlogy marketing strategy.
Besides the in-house knowledge, Dr. Eckel has a nose for attracting research and development grants. Niederzissen is a sleepy little town and the Rhineland-Palatinate has a budget available for development of the state. Dr. Eckel received some benefits to establish the new production plant and office at the industrial estate, but also knows how to retrieve research money from government sources. The firm has set up close cooperation with several universities and research institutes in Germany, such as IFF in Braunschweig and universities of Bonn and Hohenheim to name a few.
But how does that work? Bernard says, “Because of our facilities and our proven expertise, researchers come to us for participation in a trial. Once the participating parties agree on the research project and on the cooperation we take the responsibility of being the contractor, write the research plan and apply for a grant from the government. When approved we further guide the process and also take care of reporting. The other parties then can be seen as sub-contractors. This saves a lot of back-and-forth communication between partners and increases efficiency.”
Owner of the firm, Dr. Antje Eckel has been demonstrating social commitment for years. “Although we think and act internationally, we do not forget our roots,” she says with regard to social commitment in the region. Dr. Eckel is involved to a great extent in the promotion of children and youth. Numerous projects at the site in Niederzissen enjoy lasting support.
On 24 October 2009, she was chosen as ‘Businesswoman of the Year’ at the annual Oscar Patzelt Award Ceremony in Berlin. The coveted special prize is annually awarded to a successful businesswoman in Germany. “This trophy is a wonderful sign of appreciation for our ideas, our work and our results,” Antje Eckel emphasises and adds that she dedicated the prize to her family and her team “without whom our results would not be possible”.
The focus of research is on how a beneficial microorganism can be kept alive in the digestion process or how a bad bug can be killed. From the research Dr. Eckel managed to retrieve several patents. “It is an important part of our business. It doesn’t bring you direct profit, but it helps us develop our export market.” Antje says.
Ban boosted sales
Sales really took off in 2006 when antimicrobial growth promoters were banned in Europe. Finally, their philosophy of being able to grow animals efficiently without antibiotics was now being boosted by legislation and since they had many years of experience in this field, it gave the company a competitive advantage. During this year the export business also started. Up until now, Dr Eckel had dealerships for products in German speaking countries of Europe, but demand from Asia increased for more tailor-made products. Besides that, there was relatively little growth space in the German area. “In Germany 35% of all dairy cows, 40% of all pigs and 50% of all poultry are fed our products,” illustrates Bernard. “Currently every second egg is laid by a hen that has been fed Dr. Eckel products.”
Currently the company is present in 34 countries, mostly in Asia. This sounds very global, but it is not to the expectations of the management. “I am sure we can expand to more countries, the problem is, however, hiring qualified people,” says Antje. “Very few German applicants speak good enough English to manage in foreign countries. That is why we have made English compulsory within the company. New people need to speak it and if they don’t they will have to learn it. To make our company more international we organise in-house English lessons.” (The couple makes use of their language skills during the interview, which started in German, however without reason communication switched to English.)
The export of products is becoming a substantial part of the business. In 2010 some 20% of the volume sold was manufactured at the plant in Niederzissen, solely for export. “These are our in-house developed products that we sell outside the German speaking countries. We are tied to contracts in the German area with the dealership products,” Bernard says. “So export helps our company to grow,” adds Antje. “For this year I’ve set the export budget at 30% and I strongly believe we can reach it.”
The production plant was especially built for manufacturing for export. Before that, products were mixed by toll manufacturers, but “we did not really like it that they could have a ‘look in our kitchen’ and the volume became substantially bigger, big enough to do it ourselves,” Antje adds. The six-story plant was completed in 2009 and built for energy efficiency as well. At the core of the process is a highly sophisticated mixer. (This also explains the ‘logy’ in Ecknowlogy.) Products are manufactured and sold in paper bags of 10 and 20 kg and in big bags.
In terms of logistics, the company takes advantage of the fact that raw materials from Asia arrive in containers and are shipped back empty. “If we ship our export products in these empty containers it reduces the costs of shipping, because the containers are going back anyway. This saves us considerably on shipping costs and is more sustainable,” Antje illustrates the view Dr. Eckel has on sustainability. Although less flexible than by road, they ship their products to Spain by rail. “It takes some planning adjustments and parties have to get used to it but now it is working well, and in this way there are fewer trucks on the road.”“In the EU we source 80% of our raw materials locally,” says Bernard.
As an example he explains the development and introduction in 2009 of a new all-natural antioxidant made of grape pomace of which the raw materials come from German wine makers. “Besides this, the fermentation process in German wine making is different to that in France. Here they ferment for two days only, whereas in France it can take up to 30 days. This short fermentation process leaves more flavenoids in the pomace, which benefits the quality of the product.”Other examples of what Dr Eckel means by sustainability are that the products they develop and market have to increase efficiency, such as mould inhibitors reducing post harvest losses, enzymes that improve digestibility and reduce FCR or products reducing methane emission in ruminants.
An intensive trial, for example, is being done on the latter with rumen fistulated cows. Furthermore, there are ongoing developments in making dust free acidifier formulations, which makes them easier and safer to handle, even at farm level. This research is co-financed by the local government and EU recourses.Also within the company, the employees’ awareness of sustainability has increased. Field service people drive their lease car for one extra year or when they change, the next one is going to be a greener model. So, apart from the ‘Eck’ in Ecknowlogy coming from the company’s name it could also be the ‘Ec’ coming from ecology.