Fapajal Tissue: Old, New & Customer-Centric

A digital-age mindset—with a human touch and a ‘boutique’ approach—forms the core of this company’s strategy.

In 2015, the turnaround team of the Portuguese telecom company ONI Communications was looking for its next project; Xavier Rodriguez-Martín and Rui Sequeira Martins were determined to breathe new life into another business. As unlikely as it may seem, they landed on Fapajal, a tissue producer on the edge of Lisbon with origins going back to the 18th century.

What may be the oldest running paper machine in Europe continues to produce specialty tissue products. Driven by belts and pulleys, it was state-of-the-art at the time of Portugal’s industrial revolution. Gonçalo Malafaya, COO of Fapajal, has a special fondness for this living museum.

Founded by monks seeking refuge after Portugal’s famed earthquake of 1755, facing severe floods and neglect several times over, Fapajal had faced its challenges. The last owners of this small tissue producer had made great strides with modernization and growing export sales. But why Fapajal for the financial and marketing whizzes of ONI?

Says Rodriguez-Martín, president, “When we discovered Fapajal, we immediately saw a fit for our business approach. We could use digital expertise to build a future around existing and new customers. With customers at the Fapajal core, we could transform a traditional company into a globally-focused niche player. Passion, soft technology, and customer-centric practices could create something different—maybe even a model for all of Portugal.”

Xavier Rodriguez-Martín, president of Fapajal: “Having come from the telecom business, our top management knows that staying on top is about listening, adapting, and implementing.”

The group of telecom investors purchased Fapajal Tissue in 2016. They focused on modernizing the company’s infrastructures and processes, as well as developing new products, markets, and international customers. Today, at just under 30 million euro in annual revenue (about US$36.5 million), employing approximately 200 people, they are by design a creative player in a vast global business segment.

When you consider some of the biggest successes in recent years, like Uber and Airbnb, traditional businesses have been ignited by the digital marketplace and strong customer-buyer relationships. The same principles applied for Portugal’s ONI telecom provider, where close interactions with customers are the central business asset.

No tissue leaves Fapajal before a series of tests are made to confirm properties sought by individual customers. Strength is critical, but so are absorption and cleanliness.

In Fapajal’s case, the tissue manufacturing and converting facilities exist to support each individual customer. Everyone who works at the company has a mission to satisfy what customers want and expect, much like a boutique hotel.

“Of course we must deliver quality tissue; we are not simply selling sunshine. Our existing customer relationships and new ones are being strengthened because of our responsiveness to them as individuals. We are adapting our products and our supply chain to fit unique requirements. We use sophisticated software and IT to bring us closer,” says Rodriguez-Martín.

Sergio Faria, production manager, holds a lightweight Finebar MiniSegment for the refiner: “A single operator can change a plate very quickly.”

Fapajal’s parent rolls go primarily to Europe, Africa and, in the near future, America. Major retail companies serving corporate customers, wholesalers, and distributors specialized in market niches buy converted, ready-to-sell products.

Fapajal’s Papercare concept is built around “the reinvention of comfort.” As Carla Marreiros, CMO likes to say, “We contribute actively to the well-being of our customers and their customers, who make and use couch rolls, napkins, toilet paper, paper roll towels, table covers, and wipes.”

Rodriguez-Martín continues, “Global brands like Makro, Elis, and Cannon Hygiene, as well as local brands including Recheio and Progelcone, appreciate our approach to business. Each customers’ feedback is crucial for our modus operandi, based on prompt and flexible responses in view of continuous improvement.”

Fapajal has three tissue machines. TM 1 is a notable European antique dating back to 1870. It is driven by belts and pulleys and runs very slowly, but it is still producing quality tissue products, such as tablecloths and novelties. TM 2 uses recycled paper and virgin pulp for speciality grades. TM 3, installed in 2012, is a 55 tpd workhorse, producing most of the company’s parent rolls. The hardwood and softwood furnish, as well as recycled fiber, are refined separately.

Fapajal’s parent rolls are increasingly for customers outside of Portugal. They have ramped up to 60 percent of sales in Europe and Africa, with North America on the radar.

The mill management team recognized that optimizing refining was critical to increasing capacity and lowering production costs. They chose Finebar refining plates from AFT. Production Manager Sergio Faria says, “Even though we have our own cogeneration, lower energy costs matter. We were certain that AFT’s refining know-how and Finebar plates could help us increase fiber yield and cut energy use. We didn’t expect the amount of gains we’d achieve in fiber quality, increased production, and energy savings.”

AFT has supported Fapajal with workshops on refining and delivered tailored patterns for their refiners. “Continuous improvement is maintained by well-trained and ambitious operating personnel, thanks to support and leadership from top management,” says Claus Grunow, technical leader with AFT. “Their old refiners have new life because of Finebar plates; however, the fine tuning of performance comes from how their team maximizes the way the mill functions.”

Faria likes the latest technology from AFT, lightweight Finebar MiniSegments for refining. Notes Faria, “A single operator can change a plate very quickly. Because they are long-lasting and easy to install, we have a productivity and safety gain.”

Says Rodriguez-Martín, “AFT is an ideal fit for our customer-centric philosophy. They have global experience and know-how, yet they focus on very specific needs.”

The company is finally beginning to realize the results from what Rodriguez-Martín calls “the Fapajal Tech Factory.”

Fapajal’s Toscotec machine, which was installed in 2012, and TM 2 (left) produce most of the mill’s output.

“Last year we started with the foundations of this new digital model, including the deployment of a new wireline and wireless connectivity infrastructure; the migration of our platforms and systems to the cloud; and the improvement of our core processes to facilitate the digital transformation,” he explains. “This year we are completing the modular implementation of the Processware platform, which links PLCs at every paper and converting machine to our ERP; the intense training of all our workforce in these new digital tools; and the embedding of the results of the new analytical tools in our decision-making process and client service models.”

As a next step, the company is beginning to study some basic Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools to explore all this new flow of data for machine learning, starting with back office processes. “We anticipate that, with the existing AI tools in the market, some of them available on an open-basis format, we may have significant improvements in three specific areas: efficiency gains, more proximity to the clients and a better service model, and increased agility in our decision-making processes.”

Of course, the integration of new digital technologies also has a strong emotional element. For Fapajal, it has been a cultural transformation. “Machines and digital platforms are tactical, but people continue to be the real strategic element for us,” says Rodriguez-Martín. “After 260 years of corporate life, the art of papermaking continues to be the secret ingredient in our business model. This is why we are emphasizing not only the technical training of our people, but the impact of all these new tools in their daily habits and processes.”