The Jokey Group is a leading manufacturer of plastic packaging for the filling industry. The medium-sized family business, with its headquarters in Wipperfürth, North Rhine-Westphalia, can look back at 50 years of successful business. We spoke to the managing director, Herbert Kemmerich, about the successful rise of the small start-up that has grown to become an international group of companies with 1,950 employees today.
Mr Kemmerich, how did you and your three brothers succeed at making the small family business Jokey so successful internationally?
Herbert Kemmerich: When my father first started manufacturing thermoplastics in the little town of Fähnrichstüttem near Wipperfürth in 1968, with two second-hand machines and five employees, nobody knew how great it would become one day. The company grew little by litte. In those days, plastic products were still manufactured for household purposes and not for packaging. The idea of putting a lid on a simple household bucket was innovative. That marked the beginning of the Jokey bucket. Today, it is used daily in numerous variants and for a wide variety of products, both in the food and non-food sectors.
Back then, the packaging market still used to be dominated by tinplate, aluminium and glass. Did you first have to convince customers of the advantages of plastic packaging?
Herbert Kemmerich: Customers quickly saw the advantages: plastic containers were an inexpensive, truly competitive, alternative. When compared to sheet metal and glass packaging, they are dimensionally stable, in addition to being break-proof and providing reliable protection of the contents until they reach the consumer. What is more, they are stackable and weigh less, thereby reducing costs and CO2 emissions during transport and production. Demand increased rapidly and, as early as the early 1970s, we were already able to build a larger production facility. Little by little, my three brothers and I joined the company, and my father already passed away in 1975.
Family businesses are the cornerstones of the German economy. In your opinion, where do you think are the strengths?
Herbert Kemmerich: On the one hand, there is the ownership idea: we have always been driven by a common will to develop the company further. A clear structure and clear distribution of roles is important, a part of the third family generation has also been working in various fields at Jokey for a number of years. Family businesses often offer employees more security; today Jokey can build on an excellent equity ratio. Our fluctuation rate is very low, presumably also because we rely heavily on partnership-based teamwork. Thus, a well-organised family business can be more competitive than a competitor with a different structure. Needless to say, the early days were strenuous and called for high personal commitment from us brothers. More often than not, we had 16-hour working days. Since we only had about 20 employees, we would also help out in case of illness. From time to time it happened that I would visit a customer one day and deliver the goods by truck the next day myself. To this very day, the customer is always right at Jokey. We are extremely grateful that we lost hardly any of our customers at that time.
With your plastic packaging, you concentrate on a niche market. What was your vision for Jokey?
Herbert Kemmerich: Initially, we wanted to build up a solid medium-sized company. Growth came with the opportunities offered by increasing globalisation and changes on the market. When we took over the insolvent Sure Plastik in Gummersbach in 1974, we were still the smallest on the market. Back then, the competitor was three times larger than Jokey and in hindsight, this was our greatest challenge. Six years down the road, we were able to build a new plant in Gummersbach. After Wipperfürth, it has remained our second main plant, and it has just been comprehensively modernized and expanded once again.
You left your home market in Gummersbach and took over the northern French company Sicopal in 1981 …
Herbert Kemmerich: The French competitor approached us at Pack Emballage in Paris. In France, we established an international production facility for the first time. Only the Americans and Japanese were serving the Western European market at the time, and this offered great potential for Jokey. We have also followed our major customers, time and again. The fall of the Berlin Wall gave us the opportunity to tap into the dynamic growth markets in the new German states and the Eastern European market. Today we have five production sites here: in Sohland near Dresden, Poland, the Czech Republic, Belarus and central Russia. Therefore, our sales area extends as far as the Ural and Siberia.
You are a market leader in Russia, Kazakhstan and the Czech Republic. How were you able to expand your position, despite the often challenging economic situation here?
Herbert Kemmerich: Eastern Europe had a lot of catching up to do, and we were very prominent on the market, especially at trade fairs. This is where we were soon approached by key customers. This way, after the Berlin Wall came down, little by little, we were able to cover a huge market, and we could access almost all Eastern European countries. One of my brothers travelled to Poland and helped to build the factory there. He did pioneering work, since the necessary infrastructure on the ground was still lacking at the time. Viewed from today's perspective, consistent internationalisation was the correct approach for Jokey. We can cover the Southeast European market from our location in Istanbul. In 2000 and 2007, with Joktal in Algeria and Jokey Egypt, the North African market was added. The North American market was tapped into in 2005, and we are presently setting up a new production facility in Belgrade.
In retrospect, what were the most important building blocks of your success strategy?
Herbert Kemmerich: A clear vision. A good team, and you have to make sure that your employees understand the significance so that they, too, remain committed and dedicated. Personal responsibility of the individual division heads but also of each individual employee. And, of course, the right product at the right time. Thanks to internationalisation, costs can be bundled. For instance in research and development, where innovations are created. In 1986, we were the first in the world to design round containers with 8-fold offset printing. Here, we are constantly optimising, tools can be calculated exactly in advance. We reinvest a great deal of money in this area. And it makes a big difference whether you make 500 million or only 5 million. The consistent expansion of digitisation and networking is also an investment in the future to ensure consistently high quality and security of supply in all markets at all times. Today, more than 75 percent of our products are sold internationally. Our German competitors did not follow this path. And I don't know of any family business in our industry that has gone down the path of internationalisation the way we have.
You were also responsible for sales for a long time and very close to the customer. What role did customer orientation play in developing your packaging product range?
Herbert Kemmerich: The wide Jokey standard programme is the result of 50 years of cooperation with our customers. For a key customer, for example, we developed a new packaging system that allowed him to transport 30 percent more containers on a pallet and thus save considerable freight costs. For dairy customers, we have developed peel-sealing for large containers, the Jokey-Seal-Tainer. This posed a technical challenge but - at the end of the day - this has enabled us to gain a larger market segment. Worldwide, such a large packaging range of rigid lidded containers is unique to Jokey. Our JET series is available in all sizes and shapes: round, oval, rectangular. With a metal or moulded plastic handle that, by the way, was a technical milestone in 1995. This way, the buckets were 100 percent recyclable. Nobody can imagine how much technical know-how, from so many years of research and development, lies behind it. We have had our own tool shop since 2002. This way, we can guarantee reliable quality in mould construction.
The Packaging Act aims to achieve a recycling rate of 63 percent for plastics by 2022. How is Jokey responding to the growing demand for sustainable packaging?
Herbert Kemmerich: Thanks to ThinWall Technology, we have been able to reduce our plastic packaging's material weight by a third since the early 1990s. This is a benefit, both economically and ecologically. The Jokey Eco Concept aims at maximum sustainability along the entire product life cycle. The plastics we use are 100 percent recyclable. Currently, we are once again increasingly focussing on the use of secondary raw materials from post-consumer collections for non-food products, in part because customers and their customers are requesting this more and more often. We have been using the grey recyclate bucket with handle as early as 1991. Back then, though, customer acceptance was unfortunately not great enough yet. However, in a number of various initiatives, we have taken up the subject time and again since then. This year, too: together with industry associations and environmental committees, we are promoting the Grau initiative. In any case, our plan is to significantly increase the share of secondary raw materials in our packaging. Finite resources, plastic waste in the oceans and the growing world population are issues that oblige us all to greater sustainability.
What are Jokey's plans for the next few years?
Herbert Kemmerich: We will consistently continue on our successful path. We would like to continue growing and look into new markets, for example in Asia. We will continue our diversification strategy. In 2017, we acquired Treplas, a Spanish packaging manufacturer and expert in injection-moulded closures, thereby expanding our product portfolio. We are further expanding future technologies such as packaging 4.0 and smart packaging. We keep a close eye on new trends, market developments and sales concepts. Producing something new is always fun. However, at the end of the day, it's not our developers who decide, but our customers and their customers.