International expansion at Wörwag is closely linked to the field of coatings for plastic add-on parts in the automotive industry. In the slipstream of car makers and their suppliers, the company is now active around the world as one of the major producers of paint for plastics.
There was a time when Rainer Nebel spent entire nights at parties. For professional reasons, namely, because in studying to become a paint engineer he earned his money as a disc jockey. In the late 1980s that meant placing the records physically onto the turntable and setting the needle in the groove – and then watching the guests dance and enjoy themselves. “I was one of Stuttgart’s leading DJs,” he says. “Although no one’s going to remember that anymore,” he adds with a grin.
But he honed certain skills that are still useful today even when applied to a completely different field. Like creativity, or the ability to find new combinations and give existing arrangements their own individual style. That type of thing can be transferred very easily to the coatings industry and to his todays job at Wörwag as Head of Purchsing. Two of Nebel’s most important tasks consist of knowing the beat and having an excellent sense of the people involved.
From sound mixer to color mixer
DJ Nebel was a big name in his local community. His job at the turntable was always to discover new musical horizons. Trends like disco, synth-pop, and new wave were in demand, and the precursors to techno, hip-hop, and grunge were appearing. Some things need a certain amount of time to become established. Yet for others, that can happen very fast. When demand is high, for example, and when a product captures the spirit of the time.
One of the strengths of the Wörwag family has always been a keen appreciation of its customers’ needs. The decision to get involved in the early days of coating plastic add-on parts for automotive applications has had momentous consequences, perhaps more so than any other in the company’s history. These coating systems are anything but a one-hit wonder. They have become a fixed presence on the company’s worldwide charts. For as the market developed, so did Wörwag – from a family-run company in Stuttgart to a globally active family-run company with sites in all the strategically important markets.
Away from heavy metal
Wörwag was virtually alone in identifying the enormous potential of coating systems for plastic add-on parts early on. Its major competitors, at any rate, did not. “They all underestimated this business to varying degrees,” recalls Nebel. The surface areas in question were small, for at that point hardly five percent of vehicle body parts were made of plastic. “We had an advantage,” he continues. “We were quick and effective.” When Daimler wanted a concrete response to a query about coating a fender, Wörwag too first had to discuss the matter.
Does it make financial sense to develop a new coating system for a relatively small surface area compared to the overall car body? Is plastic just a fad as a material for car bodies? When the Baby-Benz came onto the market in 1982, all doubts quickly disappeared. At Daimler’s production sites in Sindelfingen and Brake, around 1,600 cars rolled from the assembly lines. Every day. “The aha effect suddenly kicked in. We were the leader in this niche,” says Nebel. “Coatings for plastic add-on parts were a super-safe business, and living proof that we had made the right decision.” The numbers confirm this. Within just a few years the sector topped the sales charts, accounting for around two thirds of the company’s overall turnover .
But what did Wörwag do differently than the others? Its competitors’ coating systems could only be transferred to plastic surfaces at considerable cost and risk. “We already knew a lot about cleaning and pretreatment. Both of these are necessary if coatings are going to stick on plastic surfaces at all,” explains Nebel. Wörwag was also able to accumulate technical expertise in a short period of time – about systems that dry at 80 or 85 degrees Celsius (176 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit) yet still possess the desired properties like chemical resistance, weather resistance, and elasticity at low temperatures as well. “We acquired this technical know-how rapidly with a lot of enthusiasm and dedication,” remarks Nebel. The competition was astonished. They had underestimated Wörwag. When they later recognized the potential themselves, Wörwag was already well out ahead.
Directly to manufacturer
Another key factor in the company’s success was its proximity to Daimler and its suppliers. The coating for the Mercedes-Benz 190 was a ground-breaking development achieved jointly with the Rehau company, a leading provider of polymer solutions for all manner of applications. Hand-in-hand with Rehau, the primer was developed to series production. Two family-run companies with similar philosophies made common cause. As Nebel reports, “a close and trusting relationship has continued to this day.”
The project marked the start of Wörwag’s international growth. Like setting off on a road trip together around the world. This is because globalization was fueling enormous growth in the automotive industry. If you embark upon an adventure, then you want familiar faces on board. Not always at the wheel, but let’s say as passengers who sometimes know the route even better than you do. That was Daimler’s situation when it queried partners like Rehau when it was planning to build the first SUV at its newly erected site in Tuscaloosa in Alabama. When Rehau made the leap and opened a site in the town of Cullman, Wörwag followed close behind. “We pulled out all the stops back then to make sure it worked,” says Nebel.
A joint venture or a subsidiary? Wörwag’s approach to growth quickly became clear when it decided to maintain complete control over its work. Following the successful start-up phase in 1996 and after working together with various partners, Wörwag founded Worwag Coatings LLC in Lafayette in 2000. The launch of an American dream. Sigurd Tetz remembers it all very well. Now Senior Sales Manager, he spent many years as a liaison between the headquarters in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen and the plant in the state of Indiana. “That was a very exciting time,” he says. “A completely new culture, a different way of thinking, and many new impressions.” Tetz maintains close relations with the USA to this day, and is still a valued contact.
Land of unlimited possibilities
Together with Wörwag, the car makers and their suppliers moved into the fast lane. Buoyed by a growing worldwide market and the triumphal march of plastic add-on parts into the automotive sector, Wörwag seized the opportunity. The risk was quite substantial, but at least there was a safety net. After all, Wörwag was entering this new territory with well-filled order books. At the same time its efforts in the USA, the company also secured a foothold in China. In fact, it had already founded a subsidiary there in 1997. That was a very unusual decision for the time.
Many companies preferred to enter into joint ventures. But Wörwag followed its own path there too. Successfully so. South Africa and Spain were next in line. And last year they were joined by Mexico. The company is producing coatings around the clock and around the globe, in one time zone or another. There were periods when Wörwag products like primers or clear coats were found on nearly every plastic part used by the major German car makers.
20% of the car body made of plastic
Coatings for plastic add-on parts continue to be the most important pillar of Wörwag’s business to this day. Around 20 percent of car bodies now consist of plastic add-on parts. In addition to the product itself, customer proximity is a crucial factor in this ongoing story of success. “I don’t know any company in Europe with a similar sales volume to ours that has more than 30 application engineers at clients’ sites,” says Nebel. “We want to help our customers. We’re problem solvers.”
And these efforts have paid off. Moreover, Wörwag knows its customers exceptionally well. “We see where they’re heading early on, and what new technologies, vehicles, and requirements are in the pipeline,” observes Nebel. In addition to its service packages, Wörwag has always held the trump card of serious expertise. That was evident in the conversion to electrostatic coating in the late 1990s.
Wörwag was in a position to supply the coating systems needed, including an aqueous base coat. The latter initially posed some major problems. But thanks to incredible commitment on the part of many employees, Wörwag met this challenge in record time and laid the technological foundation upon which it is still building today. Around 20 percent of car body surfaces currently consist of plastic, distributed across 60 to 80 different parts. BMW alone has more than 13,000 different bumper variants. And nearly all add-on parts are now coated in the same color as the car’s exterior paint. In 1993 Daimler’s C class (model series W202) was the first to stop using contrast colors.
Encouraged by designers, that trend rapidly increased and is expected to continue with the growing number of electric cars. “These coating systems are very sophisticated,” says Nebel. “But we’re in a good position. It’s no coincidence that we’re one of the leaders in the plastics sector.”
This article was first published in the Wörwag customer magazine “finish” in 2018.