Interview: IRN talks to TowerLight's Andrea Fontanella and Paul Hay

28 September 2010

Five years ago TowerLight was selling lighting towers in 12 countries. Now, it is marketing a much wider range of equipment in 39 countries. Murray Pollok visited the company's HQ near Milan, Italy, and spoke to technical director Andrea Fontanella and international sales manager Paul Hay.

"Quiet is dangerous", says Andrea Fontanella, technical director of TowerLight, "When you are quiet your company is dead." Given the business environment of the past two years TowerLight would have every excuse for being in less than perfect health, if not expired. In fact, in the past six years the Italian manufacturer of lighting towers, pumps and other rental-related products has grown its sales from around €4 million to closer to €19 million last year and with the prospect of hitting €21 million this year.

If the growth sounds unlikely, Mr Fontanella explains how it has been achieved; "We have increased turnover. Each customer has bought less, but we have doubled the number of importers."

The growth has been achieved by a combination of product innovation and diversification allied to an ‘internationalisation' of the business that has seen its reliance on the important UK market fall from 45% in 2007 to closer to 20% this year.

"The UK is still the most important market for us", says Mr Fontanella, "Our domestic market is still very fragmented - we feel that the UK is more of our home market than Italy."

The early focus on the UK was partly because TowerLight's products used to be sold there by GenSet plc, the UK dealer for Italian manufacturer GenSet, which has very close links to TowerLight.

With the recession in the UK and the drastic fall in sales to rental companies, TowerLight took the decision to set up its own subsidiary in the UK. This operation, which recently moved into a new headquarters and warehouse in Milton Keynes, is led by Paul Hay, TowerLight's international sales manager and director of the UK subsidiary.

"We have been relatively happy during the bad years because we have completely changed the strategy", says Mr Fontanella.

One of the problems was that the reliance on lighting towers made it a very seasonal business. Paul Hay explains; "We needed to flatten out that peak. One way was to add less seasonal products - pumps, a new range of environmental products [see box story]. They are niches, but fast growing and less seasonal." In 2005, lighting towers accounted for nearly 98% of all sales; this year, towers will represent 60% of the total.

Over the past five years, the facility near Pavia, south of Milan, has been extended three times (from 3000 m2 to 9000 m2 covered area) and the company has built a steel fabrication shop nearby and run as a sister company, called Top Metal.

Using its core lighting tower products the company has successfully stared to sell to many of Europe's big name rental companies, including MVS Zeppelin, Loxam, Kiloutou and Boels (which has recently placed an order for 66 of the Eco VT1 models - the first of these units to be sold in mainland Europe.)

In addition, it is selling towers to Australian dealer and rental company PR Power. It has recently started selling lighting towers to Japan's Nishio Rent-All (40 units), and it has made inroads into the African market with sales to Cat Rental Store operator Burkina Equipement (Burkina Faso) as well as companies like Accord SA (Mali), Matech (Tunisia) and Africa Power Systems (a joint venture between JA Delmas Export and TractAfric that covers 22 African countries).

Some of the African contacts have come through TowerLight's French salesman, the ex-Sullair employee Serge Bazin, although TowerLight's status as an allied vendor in the Cat Rental Store programme has also helped.

The creation of the UK subsidiary also indicates the strategy that TowerLight will take in major markets. Mr Fontanella says the next step is a French subsidiary, using the UK as a template.

"This year has been fantastic", says Mr Fontanella, "The first six months have been the best of our working lives."

If the company is adding a commercial focus to the technological expertise that it sees as its strength, product development still lies at the heart of the company's philosophy.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the lighting tower business. A pioneer of the vertical, telescoping lighting tower, the company is now further developing its range, with environmental and cost benefits being the key drivers.

Although the company makes a wide range of lighting products, it is the VT1 that is the biggest seller. Last year, the company launched the ‘Eco' version of this machine, incorporating a light sensor that turns the tower on and off according to light levels, saving fuel and engine wear, and the expensive and sometimes dangerous task of manually controlling towers on large sites. Speedy Hire in the UK, for example, is one rental company that only orders Eco versions of the VT1.

Now, however, the company is in the process of launching the next generation tower, and it is a significant development even on the Eco VT1.

The new VB9 - which, like the VT1, has a 9 m mast - uses permanent magnet alternator technology found on hybrid cars, together with a conventional generator, to dramatically reduce the power required to run the lighting tower.

In conventional towers, the power needed to start up the lamps is far greater than that required to keep then going. By using soft-start technology and the new alternator, Mr Fontanella says they have been able to minimise these start-up power requirements, which means reducing the size of the generator from the 10 kVA Kubota used on the VT1 to a 3 kVA Kohler on the new VB9.

The end result is a far more efficient unit, with significantly lower fuel consumption and an increase in running hours on a single tank from around 65 hours on the VT1 to 320 hours on the VB9. The benefits for rental companies and their customers are not difficult to see.

As far as lighting output is concerned, TowerLight has devised a 4 x 400 W arrangement using the casings for 1000 W lamps: the use of 400 W bulbs with 1000 W casings gives the best possible light diffusion, says TowerLight.

There is a slight trade-off in terms of lighting output: the total area covered to 20 Lux drops from the 4200 m2 of the VT1 to 3600 m2 with the VB9. Paul Hay says the challenge they have met was to provide the enormous cost saving benefits while maintaining the light output as close as possible to the VT1 such that they are "compatible" for use on sites side-by-side.

"I'm convinced that within 2 years the vast majority of our towers will be the VB units", says Mr Hay. Pricing will be the same as the VT1.

Some of these new units have already been sent to some customers in Europe and 2011 sees the next step in the development with a battery powered version. The space for the batteries is already incorporated in the design (the smaller engine has made room for the battery packs), and the engine battery system will allow the tower to be run on battery power for a period before switching to the engine, which will recharge the battery.

For TowerLight, the VB9 is the challenge it is setting the rest of the lighting tower industry; "We made the first vertical mast machine!", says Paul Hay, "Now we are making the next major evolution."

The company will be making lots of noise about the new tower in the coming months. Quite the opposite of quiet, it seems.

Water power

TowerLight's strategy of diversifying beyond its core lighting tower products led it to acquire a Rimini-based pump manufacturer, Pumpa 3G, in 2004. It now has fully canopied 4", 6", 8" and 12" pumps.

More recently, the company has entered the dust control market with its range of Dust Fighter water cannons marketed under the DF Ecology brand.

The DF MP 7500 - one of a range of five or more cannons - won the rental product of the year award earlier this year and the concept has certainly won fans with some sales and rental companies, including Dehaco in the Netherlands, Terra Team in Finland, TP Equipement in France and Ace Plant in the UK. In the US, Wrench, which rents equipment to the demolition sector, has a fleet of 10 DFs. Mainstream renter Kiloutou has also bought two units.

Around 200 have been sold in the past 18 months, a combination of stand-alone machines and others with integrated generators and water tanks (MPT versions).

"I think the MPTs will be the main direction", says DF Ecology director Andrea Fontanella, "People want to operate without the need for power and water pipes and cables."

The units sold to rental typically have ranges of up to 60 m, but DF Ecology is now talking to a mining customer in Chile about a 400 kW version that would have a 250 m range.

The big benefits of the units is that they use significantly less water than traditional bowser techniques, can be operates remotely and a safe distance from site activities, and offer more efficient dust suppression because of the tiny size of the water droplets (compared to much larger drops from hoses.)

DF Ecology is also offering mobile, temporary wheel washers that can be flat-packed for easy transportation. These incorporate a filter system that allows the re-use of the cleaning water.

Finally, TowerLight is also now offering a range of compact site tools under the Gladiator brand. These include fuel tanks mini-dumpers, washer bowsers and site storage boxes.

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