In recent years the movement for employee safety has gathered pace at a phenomenal rate. In many industries, a good safety track record is an essential to stay in business. At Refraline (Pty) Ltd safety has become a way of life.

Refraline operates in a variety of industries fraught with risk, yet its dual record of safety and quality, has helped to promote the company as a major refractory contracting business in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. All of which is achieved by asking the right questions.

Manfred Rosch joined the company back in 1996, having studied and worked as a mechanical engineer in his native Germany, before graduating to his current role as Managing Director:

“We are very proud of our safety record and we subscribe to the DIFR (Disabling Injury Frequency Rate), which shows that we have had zero accidents for over 12 months. Many years ago we introduced our own in-house safety management processes that have helped us to get to that standard. This is an important consideration for prospective clients and is very important to us when we are working on a client’s premises.”

Refraline is a specialist construction company, involved in all aspects of servicing the refractory industry. Refractory materials are used in linings for furnaces, kilns, incinerators and reactors and are also used to make crucibles. The materials must be chemically and physically stable at high temperatures and depending on the operating environment, they need to be resistant to thermal shock, be chemically inert, and/or have specific ranges of thermal conductivity.

As Rosch explains, there are a variety of industries using such processes, all of which have different requirements that Refraline has to understand first time.

“We work on refractory and corrosion linings, engineering, design, supply, construction and demolition, “ he describes, “essentially our customers are everyone with heat processes and the need for protection in certain environments, which in South Africa can be glass companies, petrochemicals, steel, foundries and mining companies.

“We have orders that vary from R5,000 up to R10 million projects and the duration can be one day or one year. No job is too small or too large for us.”

Headquartered in Meadowdale, Johannesburg, the company was founded in 1981 and forms part of the Refraline Group, which also includes: Refraline Natal, DCE Corrosion Engineering and WR Refractory Services.

The industry Refraline operates in can be extremely complex; depending on the nature of the industry, a refractory lining could last 2-3 months or have a lifespan of 15 years. Rosch says that maintenance accounts for probably one third of business, with repeat business often acquired on the basis of understanding the client’s need:

“It is a very difficult business and you have to understand the customer’s requirements and operations in order to propose the right material and installation method,” says Rosch. “You have to get a good understanding of each process and the recent influx of new materials can complicate matters.

“Being located in Africa and operating from Johannesburg gives us an advantage as we fully understand how things operate across the Continent. Newcomers investing in Africa have to appreciate that things may operate differently in Africa to other continents,” he continues.

Rosch says that understanding client needs is of paramount importance – but adds that some customers also have a better understanding of their processes than others. That is perhaps where Refraline’s experience really comes into its own, working alongside customers and helping them to understand the best way to keep their processes running.

The experience comes from a workforce that is 400-strong across the whole group. Like Rosch, many of the senior management at Refraline have worked their way up to the top echelons of the business but remain equally happy to mix with staff of all levels, creating a relaxed and open approach to business.

Past projects also play their part in building a strong knowledge base and among its flagship projects, Refraline has installed the refractories in two cement plants in Israel, and a in a magnesium plant in 1996 – both projects helped to put the company on the map in a big way. Approximately four years ago the company also built two furnaces in Tasmania, Australia, for BHP Billiton, a project that Rosch says was won partly due to the existing relationship with the client in South Africa.

“Relationships are essential,” states Rosch. “For example, we have made great inroads in the glass industry in the last four years thanks to our relationship with German company Sorg Feuerungsbau who design and build furnaces around the world.

“Another success story is our relationship with Process Consultants who are the sole agents for Elkem’s ceramite, products in Sub-Saharan Africa, a material that offers greater wear resistance and offers an advantage within the metallurgical,process and power industry for plant live extension.. This material has undoubtedly given us a material advantage with our work.”

Such innovative materials are plentiful in an ever-changing market, and Rosch is acutely aware of the need to keep up to date with advancements, whilst being selective over any news materials Refraline might use:

“You have to come up with new innovative materials that will find an advantage for the client,” he affirms. “It is vital to remain at the forefront of technology but much of the R&D is carried out by our suppliers, our job is to find the right materials and we engage with different suppliers and try to match the materials to the right industry. This is why it is so important to understand the client’s needs, to match them with the right product – failure to do so can be disastrous for their business as it means they cannot function.”

Refraline’s track record for success can also be traced back to a series of shrewd acquisitions the most recent being the purchase of WR Refractory Services on October 1st.

“We are very proud (of this latest takeover) and the company operate from Richard’s Bay, an area of South Africa where we have not previously been active, so we are now able to increase our own footprint,” proclaims Rosch.

“All of the companies within the Group have been acquired over the last eight years and have added a new dimension to our business. DCE Corrosion Engineering lie outside of our traditional scope for refractory work but we felt that the corrosion market and refractory engineering were closely related and it made sense to have a presence in the corrosion business,” he continues.

Rosch says that all companies in the Group have worked hard to attain ISO9001 and OSHAS18001 accreditation, stating that this is an immediate target when a company has been newly acquired.

Whilst manufacturing plays a small role in the business, consisting of a small pre-cast shop for manufacturing refractory special shapes, warehousing is an important facet for storing materials, which are typically only ordered for project, such is the variety of material available.

Having been involved in the industry for many years, Rosch has seen a great deal of change: “The refractory business has developed a great deal not only from the number of materials available now, but also in the way technology has changed in South Africa. The standards for installation have also improved and practices are much safer now and have enhanced quality. Much of this has stemmed from industry and Government requirements and we have adapted our installation practices accordingly. We at Refraline have embraced change from the beginning.”

The increased volume of materials on the market is something Rosch encourages with a degree of caution: “There are materials from cheaper sources now flooding the South African market. It is a matter of looking at the costs and evaluating the qualities of each material very carefully. You cannot take a risk with materials that have an unproven track record and we have to manage the constant change, to ensure we don’t disadvantage our customers in any way.”

Refraline had been appointed by Germany-based refractory materials engineering and installation company Beroa as a subcontractor for the installation of refractory linings on four gas-heated heat-exchange reformer (GHHER) units at petrochemicals producer Sasol Synfuels’ gasification plant, in Secunda.

Beroa, of which Refraline is an associated company, was awarded the main contract for the engineering, supply and installation of the refractory linings by Sasol Synfuels in August 2010. It is another example of strong relationship building that brings mutual benefit, as Rosch explains:

“Beroa operates on a global scale and consists of 35 companies around the world. They offer lots of expertise that we can access and we are able to work closely with companies within the group. As a shareholder, Beroa is involved in our decision-making processes and is able to help with investment when we decide to make an acquisition or purchase machinery.”

Such alliances will doubtless offer Refraline further opportunities to broaden its global footprint, but for now Rosch has his sights set on closer to home:

“Our focus stays on the African footprint and going into the Middle East, but if we see opportunities to enter another market then maybe we have something to offer.

“We have always strived to fulfil or succeed customer service expectations by first asking the customer the right questions. The most important thing is to understand the client’s requirements and we have a great advantage given our experience.”