One of the major exhibitors at the recent Convenience Retail Show, AHT Cooling Systems’ acclaimed range of high quality chest freezers and chilling cabinets helps retailers worldwide reduce their refrigeration running costs and carbon footprint, and at the same time increase sales through improved merchandising. AHT’s latest price list, out this spring, features a line-up of new freezers and chillers specially designed for today’s convenience stores, including a number that are Enhanced Capital Allowance (ECA) approved and CFC-free. AHT also supplies a range of bottle coolers and ice cream cabinets. Mr. Jeppe Lisberg, International Sales Director at AHT Cooling Systems, spoke to The Grocery Trader.
The Grocery Trader – Where and when was AHT Cooling Systems founded, and who by? What do the initials ‘AHT’ stand for? Who owns it now?
AHT is based in Rottenmann, Austria and was founded in 1983 as the successor company to the former German Bauknecht Group, which built household appliances like freezers and dishwashers on the same site. AHT stands for Austria Haustechnik, the company’s name until 2002. The company is owned by leading German financial group Quadriga Capital Investment.
AHT Group is a global player, trading in over 70 countries worldwide, either via its own offices or with a third party partner. It employs over 700 people directly and has a turnover in excess of €200 million. In the UK we operate a two-office strategy, the best possible approach for servicing this market. An example of our strength in the UK is our 100,000 sq. ft. plus warehouse, which enables us to hold over 90% of our catalogue stock all the time to meet all our customers’ demands.
GT – What’s your day-to-day role as International Sales Director? Do you personally get involved with customers?
My role in the UK is to ensure the two AHT offices grow and supply customers with market leading customer service that matches both the customers’ expectations and AHT’s company philosophy. My key task is to support both offices in daily business issues and strategic activities. I meet UK customers all the time to get feedback on our performance.
Three things separate us from the rest – people, products and performance. You would expect me to say AHT has good products, but in our eyes we need to wrap around these products a quality of service that keeps customers coming back time and time again. It costs ten times as much to find one new customer as to retain an existing one, and AHT people make this happen.
GT – Can you talk us through the various product families in AHT Cooling Systems’ 2009 range?
We have three main product sectors – supermarket jumbo cabinets, which represent 65% of our overall business, ice cream cabinets and bottle cooling. The Chesham office is responsible for the supermarket equipment, and Buckingham distributes ice cream cabinets, bottle coolers, multi-deck coolers and so on.
GT – You also have a product range called Scanfrost. What does this include?
Scanfrost is a brand currently used only in the UK. It covers non-AHT produced products such as multi-decks and catering equipment.
There is no simple answer, as AHT has a range and depth of equipment that meets 95% of all customer needs, from small convenience stores to hypermarkets, as well as restaurants and bars.
GT – What’s your market position in the different product sectors?
Our overall position is simple – to be leaders in our chosen field. AHT’s goal is to differentiate itself from other companies with market-leading products supported by the best customer service and support.
AHT is a leader in this field, as shown with the Pro-cool award with the Paris cabinet using R290. In recent years we have been phasing out R404a and switching to the ecologically sound natural refrigerant R290. Our Austrian-made products are CFC and PFC safe. The cabinets and packaging are over 90% recyclable.
GT – Where do you make all these products?
AHT has factories in Austria and China. Over 80% of our products are made in Austria, while the production plant we opened in China last year is mainly for the demands of the fast growing Asian market. We also buy from other certified suppliers throughout the world.
Due to the fact that the AHT product range is so diverse, I cannot give a general statement. But AHT was the first company to introduce jumbo cabinets with static cooling with a patented, built-in semi-automatic defrost system that melts frost build-up at a set time twice a week, so almost no manual effort is required.
GT – Energy costs are rising. How has AHT responded?
AHT has invested heavily in energy saving technology. In partnership with Danfoss AHT developed the variable speed compressor that uses R290, which has reduced a typical two-metre chest freezer’s energy consumption by over 25%. In comparison to other plug-in chest freezers our cabinets have an energy saving potential of up to 30%, and compared to remote freezers an energy saving potential of more than 70% can be realised. Most of our cabinets are ECA listed, which brings an additional financial benefit to our customers.
AHT is investing in new systems and bringing about change. AHT made the decision not to merge Buckingham with its existing Chesham-based company. AHT decided to invest in the UK during these tough trading times so that when the market picks up, AHT will be in a position to capitalise on the opportunities.
GT – How do you service UK convenience stores with national account teams And so on?
Chesham has serviced this sector successfully for many years, and with the Buckingham acquisition AHT will be able to sell more into this market. We have very experienced sales teams in both offices, supported by our hugely experienced technical support team and internal account managers.
GT – The convenience sector is going through change, brought about by the major grocery chains entering the market over the last few years. How has this impacted on the AHT business?
This has brought both gains and losses. AHT has lost some customers because one of the convenience store groups was bought up by one of the majors. But on the other hand the symbol groups have responded to the challenge by getting their members to invest more into their stores to compete against the newcomers, so AHT has increased its sales there.
GT – How are the changes within the convenience sector bringing about change in AHT?
AHT is looking for ways to deliver greater value for money. After years of decline, frozen food sales are booming, but selling frozen food still has to be profitable, so AHT is looking at ways to cut energy costs and at the same time maximise sales. A two door upright freezer uses 40 KWH per day, and an AHT chest freezer 6.9 KWH per day. That is a big saving.
GT – What new products will AHT be bringing to the market?
In 2009 we have launched the two-tier Barcelona, designed to cut energy costs and increase rate of sale. Furthermore we have also launched the BOSTON with an illuminated glass dome and the Acapulco, an innovative, two-tier cabinet for ice cream. Buckingham is looking at a multi R290 cabinet with a variable speed compressor to cut energy costs.
As I have already highlighted AHT decided not to merge its two UK operations. To do so when the market was in decline was deemed a risk as customer service might decline during the transition, so AHT has decided to develop both companies and invest, at a time when others are cutting back. To lose a customer now due to poor service is not a good plan, as it would take a vast amount of resource to win back that customer.
GT – What challenges does AHT face in the current UK market?
Apart from the overall decline in the market, the other major challenge is price. At times like these, many customers focus a great deal on price. With the fall in sterling against the Euro, UK prices have risen sharply over the last months. AHT is not a low cost producer so has had to double its efforts to get over the benefits of quality, lifetime costs and energy savings that we offer.
GT – Where does AHT see the market in twelve months?
We all hope the UK economy will be coming out of this trough and things will improve. But within the refrigeration industry, like the car industry there is over-supply so in the next twelve months there will be mergers and market consolidation. In 2008 AHT bought companies and is always on the lookout for suitable companies to add to its distribution network.
GT – How is AHT performing in the UK in 2009?
These are early days and I cannot predict with confidence what will happen over the coming months, but the year has started brightly for Chesham and Buckingham is holding its own. AHT has learnt that it needs to be more active in the marketplace and invest in key areas to increase sales, so we are looking to move more staff into customer facing roles. This will be achieved by streamlining the back office through use of SAP and new systems.
GT – What technical changes will drive the refrigeration sector in the future?
In our view retailers will have to find new ways to cut costs. Capital costs have fallen, and reducing them further without impacting on quality will become harder. Energy saving will become a major factor in new product development. Energy costs will not fall back to historic levels, and will only increase over time. The refrigeration industry must seek ways to cut energy consumption.
GT – What quality standards do you make your equipment to? Have you won any awards for excellence?
We are certified for Quality Management System ISO 9001:2000 and the Environmental Management System ISO 14001:2004. In 2006 we were awarded the European ProCool Award for the development of ecologically safe and energy saving freezers.
GT – Where do you see AHT going from here?
AHT’s goal as a group is to grow 50% over the next five years. In the past we have done this organically, but this is becoming harder, so AHT has started to buy companies to move this process on. AHT will continue to focus on its three key areas – developing products in partnership with its customers; developing its team to improve skills and their ability to serve the needs of AHT’s customers; and seeking ways of adding value and improving service levels in support of our products and service.