Director Industrial Transformation and Entrepreneurship
Tel. +41 61 295 50 15sebastien. meunier@baselarea. swiss
Patrick Vergult is managing director of Actemium Switzerland Ltd, a provider of networked industrial and building automation with headquarters in Basel and five other sites in Switzerland.
In our interview, the native of Belgium explains what brought him to Switzerland, what objectives Actemium is pursuing and why he believes that, while Industry 4.0 will result in a revolution, we will only see an evolution in terms of the technology.
Your story sounds fascinating: you are Belgian, came to Switzerland in 1991 to work for Cern and are now the CEO of Actemium Switzerland – how did that come about?
Patrick Vergult*: In 1991 I arrived at Cern in Geneva as a freelance software engineer commissioned by ABB. At Cern I programmed cryogenic systems that could be cooled to minus 269 degrees Celsius. These systems are used to cool the magnets in the long ring of the particle accelerator until they reach the superconducting state. These magnets, which are as big as 10-storey building, detect the particles that arise when accelerated positrons and electrons collide. Actually my plan was to return to Belgium after six months, but then I stayed in Switzerland and have steadily extended my network. At that time, I was also co-founder of a company in Belgium called Iproco. The business was going very well here in Switzerland and so in 1998 we decided to establish a branch of Iproco in Switzerland. In 2001 this gave rise to Else Automation. Actemium came into being in 2013 as a result of the merger of Etavis Engineering, Controlmatic and our company, Else Automation.
What exactly does Actemium Switzerland do?
Actemium is basically a product-neutral automation company. We do not develop any products of our own, but integrate various automation and IT systems for our customers. In short, with our six business units we offer electrical, automation and IT technology for networked industrial and building automation, as well as overarching production management. Our objective is to remain with the customer from consultation, planning and implementation of a project right through to maintenance of the systems. After all, we have a strong connection with the products that we use and are very familiar with our customers’ processes.
What excites you about working for Actemium?
I find it motivating to create something together with other people and to be successful together. Actemium enables people like me, who have a very entrepreneurial spirit, to remain entrepreneurs, even though we belong to the large VINCI Group. Actemium is a network with a decentralized management structure. That means that, in this large entity, there are various small organizations – so-called business units – that operate as autonomous and agile players on the market. All our BUs are highly segmented, so that there is no competition between them.
Why was it decided to opt for Basel as headquarters?
The companies from which Actemium Switzerland emerged in 2013 already had a presence in the region. So in 2013 everything ultimately came together in Basel-Stadt. Originally we were competitors, if anything, which meant that our business units had to be well segmented. For us the pharmaceutical and chemical industries were and are hugely important. The pharmaceutical industry in particular invests a lot, Switzerland is an attractive hub and, above all, the Basel region has a very stable market.
Is it not difficult to prevail against the competition in the pharma hub of Basel?
Our competitors of course have a similar strategy. We try to stand out through other factors: The Actemium University offers training for customers and staff, and we also cultivate an internal network of talents for staff under 30 years of age known as Young at Actemium. Our young employees give presentations on the company from their own perspective at graduate fairs or universities – without the presence of a member of management. Trust is very important to us. This year we also introduced a Talent Award, for which theses can be submitted once a year by technicians and engineers. This annual prize will be awarded by us and external jurors from our customer base – for example from Roche, Novartis or Endress+Hauser. The aim of this award is to foster greater contact with universities and develop our own talents more. As part of this effort, we also train 20 apprentices every year and offer dual education studies for five or six students.
Is the strength of the franc a problem for Actemium?
We are fortunately heavily engaged in the pharmaceutical sector, where the strong franc only plays a minor role. Many pharmaceutical companies also export in dollars, a currency that has appreciated in value – which has offset the weakness of the euro to some extent. In fact, despite everything, we have steadily grown more than 10 percent in the last few years.
Aside from Switzerland, Actemium also has sites in Alsace and in Southern Germany – does this lead a trinational exchange?
It’s very important to us that our regional network is cultivated. The advantages of this to our customers and employees, however, depends heavily on their own personality. Some make intensive use of the opportunities, while others are perhaps a little more introverted and do not set as much store by networking. Beyond the three-countries corner, Actemium has business units in a further 35 countries. We are thus ideally positioned to service our customers; there are international working groups that share ideas and information on various issues. Recently, for example, a meeting took place in Paris on the topic of Industry 4.0. In the Basel region, we have established a three-countries corner network that meets three times a year to pool their strengths. We have already seen the first successes: a project in French-speaking Switzerland, for example, could only be tackled in the first place thanks to the pooling of knowledge by mechatronic experts from France and automation experts from Switzerland. This offers our customers huge added value of course, because they get everything from a single source. Actemium in Switzerland goes a step further: we have developed our own CV database, in which each of our 215 employees has posted his or her CV and expertise. The information is updated once a year at the performance appraisal interview with employees. In this way we can easily search for experts internally – regardless of whether we are looking for language skills or other expertise. And in fact we usually also find the skills we are looking for. Not the global Actemium network is expressing a strong interest in this solution. Digitalization continues its advance, and everyone is talking Industry 4.0.
How will this impact the work of Actemium?
We notice how the subject of Industry 4.0 tends to confuse our customers, because most of them don’t know exactly what it means. Industry 4.0 is not a ready-made solution that you can take out of a drawer – it differs from one customer to another. For this reason we will usually first get customers to explain what Industry 4.0 means for them – and then explain what we understand by it. In this way, we arrive at a shared understanding and a good starting point for successful projects. It’s not only about networking objects and gathering data in the Cloud – that’s just the beginning! When the data is in the Cloud, it requires smart conversion for the customer in order, for example, to improve the value chain. Industry 4.0 per se is not a revolution: technologies are used that have already been around for years. But it will lead to a revolution.
So it will take some time yet?
I believe so, because a lot of customers don’t yet seem ready to completely embrace the subject. Take a meat producer that organized a workshop on Industry 4.0, for example. The talk there was almost exclusively about SAP. The fact that the weather, for example, can influence people’s meat consumption and the production of meat could be rescheduled early on as a result did not register. In the future, visionaries who can show customers business opportunities in the area of Industry 4.0 will be in demand – I see great potential here. The strengths of the systems and technologies used have also not yet been exploited to the full by any means. There is still a lot of upward scope in the next 20 years.
What other trends do you see besides Industry 4.0?
We set great store by robotics, manufacturing execution systems and energy efficiency. As regards the latter in particular it is still early days. Our customers have so far had little incentive to invest in energy efficiency – this will probably not come about until there are legal requirements in place. I firmly believe that you always have to step outside your comfort zone, reinvent yourself and adapt in order to survive in the future. And I try to apply this philosophy at Actemium – so that the staff and thus also the company do not remain seated in their comfort zone for too long.
What do you expect from BaselArea.swiss and what would you like to see from the promotion of a region and innovation?
I think it’s great that there are neutral platforms like BaselArea.swiss. For when companies organize such events themselves, then it always happens for reasons of a concrete benefit that the company expects to derive from it. So neutral platforms are an advantage because they can also link up different networks.
What does Actemium want to achieve?
The basic values of the Actemium network place the focus on people. We invest an annual three to five percent of the payroll sum in further training for our employees. We cultivate the network and generate our own talent through the training of apprentices and the dual education system. But of course we also want to grow further – in order to establish a nationwide presence in the longer term. To make sure we remain sustainable, each business unit should occupy an innovative and future-oriented business area aside from its core expertise. But regardless of whether we are talking about employees, customers or shareholders, everyone should be happy. And we try to achieve this through healthy, stable and profitable growth.
And if you could wish for something for your company?
Then I would wish that we become the best automation company and the best employer in the field of automation nationwide. And we are well on track. If we achieve that, we can achieve anything – and we enjoy working hard on this every day.
*Patrick Vergult is the CEO of Actemium Switzerland Ltd., a company that offers solutions and engineering services in the field of industrial and building automation. Actemium sees its mission as helping its industrial customers to modernize their factories and buildings and increase their profitability.
In 2001, Patrick Vergult was co-founder and major shareholder of ELSE Automation Ltd. The company joined the VINCI Group in May 2011 and became part of the Actemium network of VINCI in 2013. In addition, he founded curaVer Business Support, a company that provides consulting and support services mainly to foreign companies settling up business in Switzerland. He was also successfully involved in the restructuring of travel company Venture Europe, where he underwrote the financial risk.
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