FRANCE: A family-owned and run company has worked with Volvo machines for more than 40 years
by Cathy Smith
The bulk carrier Diamantina has crossed the Atlantic from the US coastal city of Norfolk, Virginia and is moored in the deep-water dock in the French port of Fos-sur-Mer. Giant cranes are hauling her 80,000-tonne cargo of coal and transferring it dockside ready to feed the furnaces of the sprawling ArcelorMittal steel plant just a couple of hundred meters away.
This part of the Mediterranean coast is a far cry from its chic neighbors of Nice and St Tropez but, while it may not be as eye-catching, it is fascinating nonetheless.
Huge networks of rusting conveyors transfer the coal into long storage bays where Volvo L180G wheel loaders scoop it up and stack it into miniature mountains, the machines roaring up alarmingly angled slopes as they shape the coal into neat 10m piles.
In other storage bays there are similar, carefully sculpted pyramids but these are of pulverized minerals, the reds and oranges of ferrous oxides resembling an overgrown spice market.
“Making steel is a bit like cooking – you need a little bit of this, a little bit of that,” says site manager Bruno Gilles.
Everything here is on a massive scale. Eight million tonnes of coal and minerals are moved from the dockside into the steel plant every year and the whole operation is carried out by a locally based company, André Simon SARL.
Since it won the contract to manage this supply site in 1972, the company has bought only Volvo machines – approximately 300 in all.
“The machines here have a tough life. Some of them are working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s hard, dusty work,” says owner Jean-Paul Simon. “That’s why we opted for Volvo since we started on this site. The equipment is efficient and flexible.”
With so much wear and tear on the machines, the company replaces its equipment every two years. The latest order was for two wheel loaders – models L120H and L220H – both now hard at work loading and unloading the coal and minerals for the ArcelorMittal coking plant and steel furnaces.
The flat steel produced here is used in the automobile industry as well as for steel tubing and food cans. In 2009, the slump in the steel industry had what Simon calls a ‘violent’ effect on his company. “In the first quarter of 2009, we lost 50% of our business overnight,” he says. But now the company has recovered to better than pre-crisis levels and Simon is able to breathe a huge sigh of relief.
“Today, we have recovered but we live in a much more competitive business linked to the world economy – it is less and less linear,” Simon explains.
The site relies on the efficiency of its machinery and Simon is obviously genuinely proud of his army of 11 Volvo machines when they all roll back into the yard outside his offices as one team of operators finishes the morning shift and hands over to the next team.
FIT FOR PURPOSE
Each machine has its specific task: the L50E works in the tighter spaces inside the steel plant, the L180G stacks the coal and minerals, and the L220H loads the trucks. “The L120H is the factotum – doing a little bit of anything and everything,” says Simon.
Olivier Marziano, the commercial director of the local dealership Payant PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur), who sold the machines to the company is delighted to have such a prestigious customer, which acts as something of a showcase for Volvo CE. “Visitors to the Fos port see our machines and that brings us more customers,” says Marziano. “Every machine eventually brings in a new customer later on.”
But he is not one to rest on his laurels, and works hard to understand the complexities of Simon’s business.
“The company is a very old customer which stays with us because we are serious about our business,” says Marziano. “When machines are working 24 hours a day like some of Simon’s machines, you can’t afford to have them break down. You need reliable and comfortable machines because his operators work throughout the night in a difficult environment.”
Jean-Paul Simon says he is regularly approached by Volvo CE’s competitors, keen to muscle in on this significant business. But, he explains, his father André started with Volvo more than 40 years ago and the company remains loyal to the brand.
”We are very attached to the Volvo brand,” he says, adding mischievously: “Even if certain competitors would like us to break that habit.”