Peter Laube’s two job titles are the result of historical circumstance. He had been with RTK since 1991 and became Managing Director on the previous MD’s retirement. Five years later, Circor International acquired RTK, with the latter firm becoming a business unit within Circor’s control valve group. While Peter retained his MD status and his ties to RTK, he has also branched out to oversee several divisions within Circor.
With a dual background in business administration and the steel industry, including skills from manufacturing and metallurgy, Peter believes he was well-placed to join the valve industry. He currently oversees five businesses that make up a control valve group: Leslie Controls in Tampa, Florida, which makes highly engineered valves for the power sector; Schroedahl in Reichshof-Mittelagger, Germany, which makes control and pump protection valves (and which Circor acquired in April); RTK which covers the lower- to medium-pressure control valve sector; Spence Engineering in New York, which produces valves and regulators for the HVAC and light industrial markets; and finally Circor’s Indian factory in Tamil Nadu state, which makes valves for the power and industrial markets and sells Circor’s products.
‘I own the balance sheets for the entire group,’ Peter says. ‘As VP, practically, because we have a matrix organisation, I am in charge of the operational piece but have to co-ordinate with all matrix functions plus operations to ensure that things go together, focus on common go-to-market strategy, improve processes to ensure on-time delivery, new product development, market input, [keep the] supply chain working, etc.’
Developing a national market – from scratch
The most challenging project Peter has worked on, he says, was market development in China, starting from scratch and leading to revenues of $5 million over the past eight years. He says: ‘At the end of the day it’s all trust and relationship. It’s the same in any market, but especially in China it’s even more important. When I was developing the Chinese market I was lucky enough to act also as MD of a company, so decision-making was easy. I think everywhere, but especially in China, people appreciate it if you can make quick decisions and deliver what you are talking about. For Chinese customers this is essential: if they regard you as a fair and reliable partner.
‘China had such a development over the last 20 years where foreign companies have been entering China and wanted to make business,’ he explains, ‘that probably the Chinese business partners had not-so-good (and also good) relationships with international partners and suppliers. If you are constantly a reliable partner, and in situations where things are not working so smooth you stand together and always try to find a solution and really work with the partner, this is what those customers really appreciate. At the end of the day, sales-wise, we looked at reps, and those reps after a certain while, when they regard you as a partner and not just as a supplier, then you have a very fruitful, trustful relationship you can build on. If it’s just a supplier/customer relationship, this is not a foundation for years of growth.’
Improving across the board
Peter’s current challenge, he says, is implementing Circor’s aim to be best-in-class in lead time and on-time delivery. ‘This is where we are working now as a best-practice example for the rest of the group, to improve performance for our customers,’ he says. ‘We are running between 95%-97% delivery with really short lead times, and that’s exceptional for our business and markets. If we apply the same to all the other factories and be successful, we will have a unique market position.’
He believes this goal to be unique in the valve sector given that ‘most people do not really know what their on-time delivery is because it’s always an estimate. We have established metrics throughout the company, we are tracking it on daily basis, so we exactly know what has been confirmed, what will be shipped etc – so these are real data,’ he adds. ‘For standard control valves we have the lead times down to two weeks, and less if needed – I think that’s outstanding in a world where other people have four to six weeks.’
To achieve this goal, Peter and his team implemented a programme of continuous improvement. ‘This is really part of our culture in Circor,’ he says: ‘that we’re living continuous improvement, doing workshops, questioning ourselves constantly: is this process still good or should it be reviewed, or can we do it better, what is the customer expecting? We’ve been lucky in RTK to achieve so much and come up with such a robust and stable performance – we have functioning IT systems in the background, product standardisation systems, and after that is done we can go ahead and improve.
‘We are working with really very complex systems with product configurators. This is nothing new; it is something RTK has been doing for 20 years now, nearly. We’ve been leading in industry and I think this pays back now – it is really a routine for us. It is constant improvement step by step.
‘In the last two years,’ he continues, ‘while maintaining a high on-time delivery, we have reduced the lead times. I think this is unique for products that request longer lead times, a special alloy or a special design, but with the most common valves we are quite flexible. We have implemented internal systems to supply assembly lines, automated a lot of processes in administration as well as on the shop floor level, installed fully automated valve test benches to test valves on leakage etc in an automated way and document the test results, and one thing comes to the other and totals up to enormous savings.’
When asked how he sees control valve technology developing over the next 10 years, Peter says that, in terms of power generation applications, ‘it is all about materials’.
‘We’re going to see a shift in materials as more temperatures are increased on-site,’ he says, with ‘more nickel alloy materials etc, which most manufacturers have to get used to because it has different welding and machining requirements – so, on the operational side, that’s a challenge.’ In addition, valve performance ‘may increase for higher differential pressure, being able to handle that safely’.
A crucial issue for future technology development, he notes, is the problem of leakage. ‘In the sense of energy savings,’ he explains, ‘every valve that is leaking is wasting energy, so zero-leak technology will become more and more important in future. There are very few companies out there that can guarantee zero leakage,’ he adds, noting that Circor Energy is one of the few that can, and that the issue is growing in importance in developing markets because ‘the costs of wasted energy are tracked, and people recognise what effect – and what savings – it generates if you have a non- leaking valve’.
Electric actuation will become more important in the coming years, he predicts, and flash hydraulic actuation will be reduced, but he reminds that ‘at the end of the day it is all about cost, and as long as pneumatic is more cost-effective than electric, people will have a tendency to install pneumatic valves’. Although this option is more costly long-term ‘because running a valve on compressed air with a pneumatic actuator is the most expensive thing you can do’, he says ‘buying one in the first instance is probably cheaper’. In the longer term, he concludes, ‘this mindset will change’.