AS Silikaat, that began operating in 1910, has always been the only producer of silicate stone in Estonia. It is simultaneously a dignified, old and also very innovative company, where development is shown by both active product development and also participation at SEB’s and European Innovation Academy’s growth programme. The attention the company puts into caring for its employees is also praiseworthy.
„Looking back through all these decades Silikaat has successfully operated creates awe. This awe towards the work completed and the hard-working people also motivates to keep going,“ sais Silikaat AS’s CEO Aare Koll. Proof of the hard-work can be seen in the results – for example, the company’s best result of this century was achieved during the first six months of this year and the turnover and profit of the company have constantly increased during the last years.
„It is always possible to justify one’s bad results with the market situation, but in our company, such excuses must be forgotten. Losses arise from not being honest and not working in the interests of the customers. A successful company is flexible and customer-centered, being willing to solve the customer’s problems also during the weekend!”
The Strategy Manager of Silikaat AS and Silikaat Group, Anne-Mari Lehtla, adds that quality is also important. “We have worked hard for it, carried out tests and contributed to product development. Competition in stone production in the world is very strong, but we have managed to enter the export market, recently we concluded a supply contract with a Swedish company”
At Silikaat they do admit that it is difficult to break through the not so good memories of white brick buildings of the Soviet times, which were all left in ruin after the collective farms broke apart. Actually there are very many ways to use silicate stone: gradually this material is being used more and more in both interior and exterior design. Silicate bricks are often used for chimney walls and fence posts, and more and more in complete garden solution. For example, for building barbeque ovens.
Silikaat’s team’s wish is to uphold Estonian own stone manufacturing and they have successfully done it for a while. There is no need to look for good examples from far: the longevity and durability of silicate stone are well demonstrated by the building of the National Opera Estonia (built in 1910) and Suur Munamägi visitor’s centre (built in 1939) at the top of the highest hill in the Baltics.
“Product development has to be quick! If a client desires a product we don’t have, they will go elsewhere. So it is necessary to tackle the issue immediately so that we can satisfy the customer’s needs,” says Aare Koll. “By the way, during the preparation of the last ISO audit, the auditors said that our only deficiency was that product development does not follow months and years of work, but is very sudden.”
Silikaat AS is a company with a pretty complex structure as it includes dry production units, an energetics department and extraction department, i.e. mining quarry sand. The company already has three quarries on 400 hectrares in the Tallinn area and also mining areas across Estonia. The large and old company with many departments struggles with changing the former, not so positive image of silicate stone to reach the younger generation. But they do work hard for it by cooperating closely with future specialists at construction schools, trying to show the more exciting part of their field and letting the young people themselves be convinced in the quality advantages of silicate products.
PRODUCING STONE ALSO SUCCESSFULLY INVOLVES ROBOTICS AND DIGITAL SOLUTIONS
One of the more exciting recent challenge has been participating in the growth programme of SEB and the Innovation Academy of the EU. “Our ambition was to find innovative moments of growth and to connect ourselves with exciting digital solutions,” Lehtla says. By today, Silikaat has underwent the trainings, has come up with an idea and has 100 days to prepare a more specific plan. The idea involves robotics and cooperation partners have been found to execute it. “We are convinced that if we bring the idea to life, it could bring along a true revolution in construction. Not only in Estonia, but also on the Nordic and German markets. Our little idea should help construction companies significantly reduce labour costs and provide a new approach.”
The growth programme also benefited the company as a whole: people began thinking out of the box and looked at their company from a new perspective. Now the group is planning to find a new identity and visual language, renew their image and create a new homepage. Small steps towards a new and innovative future.
Speaking of export, in the case of Silikaat, it is clear that the sales of quarry sands is limited by logistics and price per kilometre. Dry sand is exported to Finland and Latvia, but the main articles of export are still silicate products. It is a growing trend on both the Swedish and Finnish markets, but competition is tense – Poland and Lithuania offer good prices and also Germany has strong silicate traditions. Norwegians however have a historic tradition of building wooden houses, and Belarus and Russia have their own factories.
“Nobody has it easy! While glass and concrete are more in fashion, our products are often used for renovations and stones with decorative structures are popular. We are in very close cooperation with, for example, the Estonian Chamber of Chimney Sweeps,” says the CEO.
MORE ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY THAN USUAL
“Our principle is to protect the environment in the best possible way, using our machines and technology in a sustainable way, taking the nature into consideration and standing up for the well-being of endangered species,” says Koll. “Customer relations can be maintained by good everyday communication and environmentally friendly production. People are very environmentally aware and this is nice. By extraction we damage nature and we feel an obligation to give something back to the nature.”
The areas where Silikaat extracts have many protected species such as the natterjack toad and sand lizard, also habitats of the black woodpecker, woodlark and little ring plover have been found. Considering that rare and highly protected species occur at the Männiku quarry, Silikaat has cooperated with scientists to establish all the necessary conditions for the habitats of such species to remain: there are 7.5 km of paths in the sand quarries for the protected sand lizards and ponds have been created for the natterjack toads in cooperation with species experts. It is a joy to see that according to the last census, the numbers of natterjack toads are rising. The Division of Mining of TalTech gave the Silikaat the environmental deed of mining award for the first running path for sand lizards in Estonia.
Silikaat’s staff does value nature, but it is also important for them that abandoned mines would be set in order and would be safe for people. Silikaat has also had to deal with a dangerous issue – explosives of the Soviet army at the Männiku quarry. In cooperation with the Rescue Board they have found and defused thousands of explosives. “We wish to ensure everyone free access to the forest and lakes in Männiku and want people to be able to spend time there safely and conveniently – may they be soldiers at trainings, bikers, dog trainers, fishermen or swimmers.”
EMPLOYEES MUST HAVE A SAY IN HOW THE COMPANY IS RUN
Silikaat AS employs 50 people of different nationalities. Aside from the age and national differences and the high number of departments, the team does stick together. Usually people work here for a long time – two men have worked here for more than 50 years. However, active young people have come here and are coming here either directly from school and also the army. What is the secret of Silikaat as a good employer?
According to the CEO, Aare Koll, people need individual communication and encouragement to speak about their problems, thoughts, plans and suggestions. “You need to reach people and truly care about them. You cannot stop the company or the employees from growing! Every year, both at the group and every company, even at every department, we set goals and everyone can make suggestions in what to improve, make more convenient and safer. Our people understand that these suggestions and decisions directly impact their lives. And certainly it is easier for the company to meet the goals when the employees themselves have suggested them. It sometimes does happen that not all suggestions are implemented. In such cases it is important to explain why this has happened and why the specific idea was not used at this particular time.”
Silikaat also attempts keeping salaries at a higher level than usual in the sector and does properly compensate for hard work. A quite impressive motivational package has been developed, and of course there is a summer event, Christmas party, celebrations for employees’ birthdays and employment jubilees. People are offered the option to earn more and salaries are always paid out on time. Tolerance for laziness is low, and according to Koll, there is no need to actually worry about it. It is actually necessary to make sure that the people would use their holidays. “And it is always necessary to ask if there is something they don’t like. At our company, honesty and directness are appreciated”
COMPANY WITH A FARMER’S MENTALITY. “THE COW MUST BE MILKED AS LONG AS IT CAN BE”
Ten years ago Silikaat introduced the NAV-software as different functions needed interfacing. For example, quarry sand is sold in large quantities and it used to be weighed by hand. NAV provided an excellent weight interface, which made work faster and checking it easier. However, today the company is in a situation Koll calls the farmer’s mentality: the capacity of the system filled up and the programs slowed down, i.e. the “cow” has been milked empty. And so they had to start thinking about a software update.
“We are in very good relations with the software developer and we accept that time passes and brings along new possibilities: quicker systems, automatic export of data to Excel and vice versa, and better analysis options. We wish to make the work of our accountants and sales personnel easier. We are training our own people for it, are trying out the test version and will launch a new software version in the new year,” Koll says. “Our cooperation partner certainly deserves praise as they have made our software introduction process so simple and smooth, and it is possible that we will also think about additional modules in the future.”
Silikaat’s decision to continue with NAV was well considered and they also compared many other programs before making the decision. The strong advantage of this program was that it had a weight interface and so they decided to keep to their old methods with new approaches.
The article was first published in the äri-IT magazine’s Autumn number 2018. Download the original article