Olympia Group is a leader in the Greek business world and a key contributor to the Greek national economy across its business streams. Over the last 30 years, the Group has grown Sunlight, a subsidiary company, into one of the world’s leading producers of industrial batteries. With a company philosophy centered on innovation, Sunlight contributes to Greece’s local economies and is a model of a thriving Greek manufacturing industry. The company is introducing new advanced products based on disruptive lithium technology, exports all over the world and is driving Greece’s lead-acid battery recycling efforts
Can you please provide an overview of Sunlight’s competitive position within the industrial battery industry and the company’s major milestones?
Sunlight was founded about 30 years ago, when Olympia Group acquired it. It started with a small factory producing batteries and over the last thirty years, it has evolved into one of the largest industrial battery manufacturers in the world with a market share of about 11 percent. We also have the most modern and largest industrial battery manufacturing plant in the world, with a capacity up to 3mil cells, an assembly line in Verona, Italy, and another assembly plant to come soon in North Carolina, USA. We have invested significantly throughout the years in Research and Development of new battery technologies. For example, we have partnered with a German company called Atlas Elektronik, a subsidiary of ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, to produce batteries for advanced applications. The competitive advantages of Sunlight are summarized in three key areas: customer-oriented approach, manufacturing excellence, competitive and reliable product range. Using state-of-the-art technologies and implementing various R&D programs, we have managed to create high-quality, high-performance batteries and we are constantly strengthening our position in the global market for energy storage systems. In terms of other milestones, our latest two developments are our entry into the United States market – we are the first company in Olympia Group to cross the Atlantic– and our investment in Lithium technologies. Our industry is transforming, and we want to be a key player in Lithium applications for specialized batteries in various sectors.
Sunlight was granted a €12.5 million loan by the European Investment Bank, the first support for industrial development in Greece under the EIB lending initiative. What is the significance of this loan for Sunlight and for Greece?
The importance of the loan is mostly strategic gaining from the credibility of EIB. Sunlight is a Greek company, but most of our sales are exports in over 100 countries around the world. The level of financing for R&D and machinery that would allow us to compete in the global market is beyond the customary Greek bank financing practices. It was critical for us to be able to utilize European funding mechanisms and we hope we will be a case study for other companies in Greece. The loan supports the Greek GDP and trade balance, while also helps local small communities. Our factory is located in northern Greece, in an area where unemployment is extremely high. We are creating jobs and continuing to invest in that community.
Sunlight invested €31 million in its new recycling plant. What is the importance of the plant to the company and what is its impact on the local economy?
Lead-acid batteries are almost fully recyclable, but unfortunately, only 50-60 percent are currently being recycled in Greece. In most Western European countries that figure is over 90 percent. Moreover, the lead-acid batteries that are being recycled are not being processed to the latest European environmental standards. Sunlight Recycling is the first comprehensive lead-acid recycling approach, as it includes the complete recycling cycle. That is, the collection and concentration of used batteries, their recycling according to international quality standards, and the utilization of recycled products to produce new batteries in Greece by Sunlight. We are working closely with the relevant regulators in Greece to help other Greek recycling facilities reach the same level of international standards that we are employing in our recycling plant.
Sunlight introduced new lithium batteries in 2018. What is the importance of this segment of the industrial battery market to Sunlight’s business?
Lithium batteries are critical to our strategy as Lithium is disrupting, among others, our core market, forklifts. The traditional forklift batteries last for about one work shift, or six to seven hours, and then need to be recharged slowly, typically overnight. This means that for a 2-3 shift logistics operation, one needs at least 2 batteries, and some actually opt for 2 forklifts. Lithium batteries will revolutionize the forklift industry as they can be recharged quickly and frequently. They are of course more expensive, but we expect as technology evolves and the electrification of the automotive industry continues, prices will lower and TCO (total cost of ownership) will make them more attractive. We’ve done R&D for over a decade in lithium batteries in our Defense sector and Sunlight is are one of the only companies certified by the German navy to manufacture lithium batteries for training torpedoes. We are applying the safety know-how from this segment of our business to commercial batteries and are exploring ways to add additional value. We have created one of the first “smart” batteries for forklifts and are developing new ways of financing for lithium batteries, such as leasing. We remove the burden of ownership from the customer and “sell energy” instead of products. Moreover, our batteries are highly modular, and if there are any performance indications from our remote battery-management system, we can identify the problematic module via our cloud application and have a local engineer replace it on the customer site.
Are there opportunities for these innovative solutions in lithium batteries to be applied to other machinery and sectors?
New technologies like lithium will redefine our existing core business. There are many examples of transferring the R&D from forklifts to other areas, such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and industrial vacuum cleaners. We are also exploring the marine sector, examining the transferability of the technologies we use to produce batteries for submarines to yachts and large commercial boats. Large commercial boats emit pollution equivalent to 50,000 cars during the process of entering and exiting ports. Globally, many countries are exploring regulations that require such boats to have an electric engine for port entry or be guided by electric tugboats. If you think about it, tugboats are not much different from forklifts – little devils producing high power for a limited time. We are investing significantly in research for safe Lithium cells for such applications and are about to launch also an R&D center in Athens with more than 50 scientists.
Sunlight exports 93 percent of its products to over 100 countries. The company has 20 percent of the German market share. What is your export strategy and what collaborations do you currently have in the German market?
Batteries for forklifts are highly customized and this requires a modular design of cell types that are standardized. This means batteries must be assembled in the right configuration for the customer, and this requires us to be close to the end-users. We built a plant in Verona, Italy, and we can ship cells from Greece and within 48 hours can have a custom-made battery. Verona’s location allows us to ship easily to Germany and any other European country. Germany is the largest market and the hub of industrial batteries in Europe. We have quite a few partners there as it has many regional territories. We have very close cooperation with Triathlon Group, one of the largest battery companies in Germany. We sell cells to them, and they put them into batteries and supply the German and European markets. Our approach to each country is tailored to what the market demands either through a local partner or its own operations. Our long-term strategy is to create more hubs to be near our customers and thus our plan to open this year an assembly plant in the USA.
What is your assessment of Sunlight’s performance over the last few years from a financial and operational perspective?
We had a large fire in 2018, which completely disrupted our operations and seriously damaged our main factory. The Board of Olympia Group, our parent company, took the decision within 24 hours that we would rebuild the factory bigger, better, and safer. It took us only 6 months to partially rebuild the factory and within 12 months we had achieved full recovery. During this period, we held onto every single member of our staff, paying them their salaries until the factory was restored. Operationally this was a major crisis, and our entire organization of Sunlight and Olympia Group stepped in and achieved the impossible in record time. The market did not believe we could do it and actually tried to increase the capacity to win over our customers. We had our Group’s financial support so we didn’t have to wait for the insurance compensation, which when settled was the largest insurance compensation in Greek history. We committed orders to our machinery manufacturers to work almost exclusively on our rebuild, which meant that they did not have any spare capacity for our competitors. Moreover, we treated this crisis as an opportunity, optimized the factory layout, and increased our capacity by 30 percent. Financially, these two years have had significantly fewer sales and profit. However, for 2020 we anticipate higher sales and profitability than 2017, the last full year before the fire, even though the market is currently 20% down. I’m extremely happy and proud of how the company has bounced back in the face of adversity.
What is the role and contribution of Sunlight and Olympia Group to Greece’s socio-economic growth?
Sunlight directly employs over 1,000 employees, mostly in Thrace, an area of Greece with enduring and particularly high unemployment. We contribute 15 percent of GDP in that area and employ directly and indirectly 8 percent of the local community in our workforce. Olympia Group’s philosophy is to contribute to the communities in which we operate. We decided to build our recycling plant about an hour away from our factory. It is close enough to our existing operations but far enough to create new growth in another community. That is very important to us. Sunlight also contributes to the trade balance because 93 percent of our business is exported. We are not only contributing to the fiscal balance but also providing an example to foreign investors of a Greek company thriving in the global manufacturing landscape. The economic crisis and reforms in Greece have forced us to keep costs down so we can be cost-competitive with our neighbors. Moreover, we now enjoy more regulatory and tax stability and start again to receive an interest in foreign investment. We want to show that local companies can be thriving here. Greece has historically been a manufacturing country and while not all survived the crisis, the companies that have survived are profitable and healthier.
What are the factors that you think most contribute to Sunlight’s success?
Determination is in the DNA of Olympia Group. We are not a typical Greek family business. Our founding family is not involved in the management of the business. We hire the best people globally and stick with our investments, as you can see by the fact that Sunlight is a 30-year-old investment. Today, 8,500 families are part of our Group. We want the group to survive future generations and thus apply the latest standards of Corporate Governance to all our companies and their Board of Directors. We have the flexibility and hands-on approach of a family company but the governance structure of a multinational company. Commitment and experience are our core values.