The solar downturn of 2012 and 2013 claimed many victims, one of which was Germanys Mounting Systems. The company was left looking for a buyer after parent company Conergy Group became insolvent. In December 2013, an agreement was reached for the Nordwest Industrie Group to purchase Mounting Systems.
Mounting Systems Managing Director Stefan Spork says the new ownership structure is helping the firm to continue with its internationalization strategy. Spork spoke to pv magazine at the recent PV Japan trade show. While there was a large number of mounting system and racking providers exhibiting at the event, Spork said that German quality, engineering and service still remains important in Japan.
What role does Japan play in Mounting Systems business?
Actually the Japanese market is one of the most interesting and exciting markets within the global PV business because it is a market with a strong growth and a very interesting business environment.
We often hear Japan as a high value market. Does that mean that margins arent quite as tight as they are in mature markets such as Germany?
Even here in Japan the prices are very competitive, but there is one difference: the Japanese market concentrates very much of quality. So when you are a high quality supplier, this is a market where you can really do good business. Nevertheless it is a competitive market and there are a lot of players around. A lot of Chinese companies are trying to get into the Japanese market. So overall it is difficult but it is very much concentrated on quality, so it totally make sense for us to be here.
Is it difficult for foreign companies to penetrate the market and make inroads into the Japanese business culture?
Business culture is different here in Japan. You really have to adjust to the culture but actually that is true wherever you go. So we are working very much on a Japanese based business style. So it is something that is really different. As I mentioned, quality is the most important thing here but its not only about quality of product, it is quality in the entire business cycle. So we have to adapt to that and it is something that is important.
So are you talking about communication through the sales process, after sales service and these kinds of things?
Communication is completely different here in Japan than it is in Europe, also in comparison to the U.S. Also the service level that you have to offer, this makes a big difference. The Japanese market is very service-orientated and the customer demands a very high level of service. It is not so much after sales service because in the mounting structure business you normally dont want to have after sales service, but it is service during the business process. It starts with static calculations that have to be done in accordance with the Japanese industry standards. And you have to learn, what you have to present to your customer, what do you have to do to get all the approvals to build an installation.
You founded Mounting Systems KK only three months ago, were you too late?
Weve actually been doing business here in Japan for one and a half to two years. It took a while for us to establish the legal entity here in Japan, but this was more an internal problem of Mounting Systems last year. But nevertheless, we are doing quite a lot of business here already in Japan. We have supplied over 100 MW of installations here. We still believe that this market is not completely at the edge, there is a long way to go and the market will improve. Ground mounted installations might be at its peak but there is a huge market nevertheless here in Japan.
What are you expecting in terms of FITs here in Japan?
We dont expect that the FITs will be completely cut, but of course it will go down. Right now the FIT in the Japanese market is quite high. This makes it very attractive for investors to move into PV. For sure the FIT will go down but remain at a level that makes it very attractive to invest in.
On the show room floor here at PV Japan we can see a lot of mounting system providers, many of which are Chinese. What do you make of the Chinese suppliers prospects of winning market share here in Japan?
I think in this case the service level will be the major difference between the Chinese suppliers and companies like Mounting Systems. Quality level will also be an issue: What type of quality do the Chinese suppliers provide when it comes to a mounting structure? You see a lot of copies of European systems all around, but the question is how much engineering capabilities do these companies really have. What we have learned from doing business in Japan is that we know that engineering capacity is one of the major issues in this market and to being successful in this market. When it comes to cheap materials, Chinese suppliers are always in the first row, but when it comes to quality and service, then the Chinese often fail.
You alluded to the internal problems that Mounting Systems has had earlier, as of February this year it seems that things have turned around with a new investor coming on board. Where do you stand now?
I think its probably best to take a step back. Our problems last year were based on our shareholder structure. We were a part of the Conergy Group and Conergy had to file for insolvency. As a 100% owned subsidiary of Conergy, there was no way for us around that. So we had to go the same way. Now we are in a completely new shareholder structure and we belong to one of the big German construction companies [Nordwest Industrie/Zech Group]. Based on that we have a very strong balance sheet once again, we have a sharedholder who is very orientated on the long term. It is also a company that is doing a lot of international business. Based on that we have a very strong position and I think that this is an advantage we have compared to some of our competitors right now.