In this section of the expert interviews series we spoke to DI Stefan Ortner, member of the management board of ÖkoFEN Forschungs und Entwicklungs GmbH, spoke. He is responsible for marketing, licensing co-operation, quality management, development, export Germany and Great Britain as well as North America and Russia.
ÖkoFEN is the inventor of modern pellet heating and the founder of the success story of fuel pellets. ÖkoFEN develops exclusively pellet heating systems. Today, ÖkoFEN is Europe's specialist for pellet heating systems with a modern production and several hundred employees throughout Europe. ÖkoFEN has also pioneered the pellet heating technology beyond the German-speaking countries. 50,000 installed systems, sales subsidiaries in 17 countries around the world and groundbreaking innovations give the right to specialize in pellets.
How do you assess the status of the pellet industry in Austria compared to other countries?
Austria, especially Upper Austria, is a world leader in the field of pellet boilers, pellet heating systems and the provision of accessories. Confirmations from abroad confirm this position, Upper Austria is often referred to as the "silicon valley of the pellet industry". The popularity of domestic products is also present in geographically distant markets such as the USA, Canada and Russia.
What are the reasons for this international supremacy?
I think that wood heating in Austria has a very long tradition and the competition in the industry is very strong due to the high number of boiler manufacturers. At the beginning of the company's history, ÖkoFEN developed the first heating system specifically for pellets. Due to the strong competitors in the direct environment, an innovation-promoting competition has developed rapidly and the industry has been profiting to this day.
Furthermore, the fuel wood, and thus also pellets, is very positively occupied in the Austrian population and also known by way of passage. Our communication concept is very much based on regionality and customer-related activities. Association work, for example in Germany, is another important way to bring the technology to the installers, and thus to the customers.
How do you assess future developments for local companies in this competitive market?
So far the established companies have been very innovative. In this way, despite the emergence of new competitors, the pioneering role of domestic companies can be maintained. The reason for this is that the know-how required in this sector is largely based on experience. As a result, the building-up of expertise is only linked to the topic by long-term employment and less by the know-how of individual employees.
New entrants to the market usually try to take a niche in the low-price segment. Large heating technology companies have not shown any great ambitions in the field of pellet burner systems. If this is to happen in the next few years, this will be one of the biggest challenges for the existing players.
What role does fuel pellets play in technology development?
The fuel pellets comes originally from the USA, since it was used very early there for room furnaces. In Europe, this new fuel was used in Sweden, also for use in room ovens. Initially problematic for the establishment of pellet burner systems was the lack of availability of the fuel in Austria. This was a classic "hen egg problem": the sawmill was not ready to produce this fuel without fixed customers, on the other hand, boilers can only be sold if the fuel is sufficiently available. This problem was solved by importing pellets from Scandinavia to bridge the spread of pellet boilers. After seeing that this technology is well accepted, the domestic sawmill industry has also entered the production of pellets.
Important for the further development were the standardization of the fuel and its ongoing control in practice. This has been strongly advanced in Austria; in other countries, ongoing quality control of the fuel is not yet a reality.
How do you assess the conveying situation in Austria in the field of pellet heating systems?
I see this so that we have seen good support in Austria in recent years. Furthermore, a constant subsidy is crucial, since this is the only way to plan for manufacturers and customers. Funding is, in my opinion, also necessary because the fuel is more difficult to exploit in terms of firing technology than, for example, oil or gas. Depending on the state, a pellet plant (depending on the specific design and the conveying situation) will be amortized in about five to six years.
Which markets are important for your company?
Austria is certainly the most developed market, here pellet heating has a market share of around 14% in the heating market. This is certainly the case in Germany, where the market share is only 1-2%. There are still many regions where the pellet heating is still largely unknown and pioneering work is necessary. Another relevant market is France, which is now the largest export market for ÖkoFEN. Belgium and Spain, as well as in the long term North America form other important markets for us. Especially in North America, the potential is very high due to the high number of old oil heating systems.
What is the role of research and development in your company?
At the moment, many manufacturers, including us, are trying to increase the comfort for our customers, so that a pellet heating system can also be an alternative to oil or gas heating in terms of comfort.
Our goal must be to go completely new ways for pellet heating. At ÖkoFEN, this is made possible by the developments at the decentralized electricity generation by means of pellet heating systems. Furthermore, the efficiency of plants is an important issue, the further development of condensing boilers plays the decisive role here.
Our roughly 20 employees of the R & D department work very closely with our customer service. This ensures fast, first-hand feedback and enables the efficient realization of optimization potentials.
What challenges do you see for the future of ÖkoFEN GmbH? What are your goals for which time horizon?
A clear technology-related goal is to further increase efficiency in our standard products. Furthermore, we want to bring electricity generation by means of pellet boilers to a level that represents a viable alternative for all customers. It is important to keep the costs for the customer in a framework that allows a broad realization.
In terms of the general environment, it is an important challenge that the legal and promotion-related prerequisites can be kept constant in order to ensure reasonable planning..
We also have to meet the rapid growth in markets, which we see as a challenge. It is important that the know-how of the installers also grow on the spot, so that a consistently good quality of the systems can be ensured.
geboren 1983 in Rohrbach, Oberösterreich
1999 bis 2003: Ausbildung zum Metall Facharbeiter
2003 bis 2004: Nebenberufliche Fortbildung zur Studienberechtigung
2005 bis 2009: Studium Innovation und Produktmanagement FH Wels
07/2007 bis 02/2008: Studium Management und Marketing - San Diego State University, USA
seit 2009: Exportmanager, ÖkoFEN Forschungs und Entwicklungs GmbH
seit 2010: Mitglied der Geschäftsführung der ÖkoFEN Forschungs und Entwicklungs GmbH (zuständig für Marketing, Lizenzkooperationen, Qualitätsmanagement, Entwicklung, Export Deutschland und Großbritannien sowie Nordamerika und Russland)