Foam sweet foam
Driven by continuous investment and innovation, The Vita Group, a leading provider of polyurethane foam products, is setting its sights on further growth in 2021
Built on over 70 years of heritage, The Vita Group is on a mission to continue creating comfort, delivering performance and enhancing everyday life.
A renowned developer and manufacturer of value-added, differentiated, flexible polyurethane (PU) foam products, the company has been organized into three divisions, Comfort, Technical and Flooring, since 2019, when it undertook an internal restructure under new Group CEO Ian Robb.
Vita’s Comfort division is geared towards providing premium products and services to the Bedding and Furniture sectors, including the rapidly growing ‘bed in a box’ market, pioneered by online mattress providers. Its Technical division focuses on foam for a wide variety of sectors, including construction, automotive, aviation, and medical applications. Finally, the Flooring division, encompasses the manufacture of branded and premium carpet underlays for various floor types, primarily using recycled materials from Vita’s own production process.
Headquartered in Middleton, Manchester, Vita has over 2700 employees and functions in 15 countries. Primarily a European-based business, it divides the region into the UK, Western Europe and Eastern Europe. The company operates 36 units across the continent and has grown substantially in Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Romania and the Balkans in recent times.
Overseeing much of Vita’s evolution and significant growth plans for the future is Ian Robb, the company’s Group CEO. Talking to Manufacturing Today, Ian reveals some of the ways in which the company has been transformed over the last few years.
“When I joined Vita, the different companies making up the larger Group weren’t maximizing how they could benchmark production or share technology across different sites, so the first thing we did in january 2019 was to form the three divisions and get everyone working together,” he says. “Certain companies already had a great family spirit, but the key thing for me was to improve communication.
“I worked on shop floors for many years of my career and gained vital expertise during three decades as Global President of other specialized advanced materials companies,” Ian continues. “These experiences allowed me to see that people want to be successful, but to make that happen, you have to talk to them. That’s why we record videos for employees, send out monthly and quarterly updates and talk directly to 250 managers on live video calls. These actions are replicated by the divisional MD’s to ensure the same message is transmitted across the group.”
Along with good communication, Ian stresses the importance of assembling a strong team at Vita. Focusing on its core values of safety, integrity, innovation, resourcefulness and responsibility, the company’s resilient and committed workforce is united towards a single goal.
“The way people think at Vita has really changed over the last few years,” Ian reports. “They see that we are all a team, whilst remaining aware of how they can harness their individual competencies and help us grow together. We are all on the same journey now. With an aligned purpose of creating comfort, delivering performance and enhancing everyday life.”
As one might expect, this teamwork and togetherness has proved particularly important over the last 12 months when Vita was faced with the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. After making plants safe by installing initiatives such as temperature controls, staff bubbles and social distancing, the company kept all employees informed with weekly video updates. The result was, according to Ian, a workforce that performed better than ever.
“We focused on safety and communication, and in return, our team really rose to the challenge,” Ian explains. “The pandemic actually led to some really interesting projects for us. We were a supplier of over 25,000 mattress cores for the Nightingale Hospitals across the UK, and we’ve also been supplying filters for ventilators, manufacturing our own new face coverings The Vita Shield, as well as remaining a major producer of incontinence materials. There was great demand for all these products in 2020, which assisted Vita in performing well in a very difficult year.
“Due to the nature of our products, and the commitment and resilience of our staff, we’ve kept going despite the circumstances. In the third lockdown, we were one of the first manufacturing companies to do mass testing onsite. It’s pulled us all together and there is a real spirit in our facilities and the communities in which they are based. No matter what we’ve been facing, we’ve worked with our customers to make sure we serve them to the exceptional standard they are used to. Our clients have really appreciated that and we’ve had many letters from across Europe thanking us for keeping going.”
Throughout the pandemic, Vita has been able to rely upon its significant manufacturing capabilities. The company’s strength in production comes through the adoption of a Value Creation Plan that analyzes where savings can be made and operational excellence enhanced.
“We are a leading player in our industry in terms of our purchasing requirements in Europe. Due to our scale and product portfolio we can forecast and work closely with our suppliers, which is an important factor in our industry. During supply chain constraints, our footprint allows us to swap deliveries between production sites, for example, if I have a delivery coming into Hungary that I really need in Romania, I can swap it. This is one of the areas which really sets us apart from our competitors, who may not be able to adapt so easily.
“Benchmarking plays an important role too,” he notes. “In fact, we have just finished our monthly operational review where we evaluated densities, on-time delivery, projects and downtime.”
For Vita, perhaps the most pressing matter at present from an operational perspective is the issue of sustainability. To help shape its approach to the environment, the company hired a new Chief Technical Officer in 2020 and with a refocus on innovation invested in the four Innovation Centers in Lithuania, Accrington, Corby and Middleton. Costing a total of £1.3 million to develop, the Innovation Centers will work towards finding more sustainable industry alternatives.
“ESG is an essential part of any business and at The Vita Group it is a key factor in our sustainability journey. The concept is to be clear and honest, ‘Yes, we do use polyols, but what are we doing to change that?’ We have to understand where we are in terms of our own environmental footprint and how we will tackle each individual component,” Ian remarks.
“Today, more than 90 per cent of our group’s process energy comes from renewables and the continued introduction of LED lighting across the footprint is delivering significant change. Packaging reductions and vacuum/compressing packing techniques are also helping to reduce volume on a large scale across the group and subsequently reducing our transportation. Innovation within formulation has been a hallmark of The Vita Group for decades, and we are continuing to invest in R&D across our innovation centers to develop cutting-edge new products, including a new generation of sustainable biopolyols.
“When it comes to sustainability, working closely with institutes and industry partners is very important to us. We recently signed a partnership with Dow Chemical to be part of the Renuva Project, which will see old mattress foam turned into a new polyol as part of a circular economy. It’s one element of a business-wide initiative to make sure nothing goes to waste. For decades, we have bought all the trim from our European facilities back to the UK or Germany and used it to manufacture new products. We even utilize our customers’ trim, which stops over 30,000 tons a year of trim material being sent to landfills. After reprocessing, the trim can be used in applications such as carpet underlay, shock absorption for AstroTurf and high-density applications that reduce our environmental footprint.”
As Vita looks confidently towards the year ahead, the company is expecting to reap the rewards of a number of recent investments – namely, its €6.1 million acquisition of IMPE, a subsidiary of Italian furniture giant Natuzzi. The purchase not only gives Vita a strategic foothold in Italy, but enables the company to expand production by an extra 20,000 tons per annum, as well as open up further expansion opportunities in Eastern Europe and the Balkans region.
“We began production at the new Italian site earlier this month,” Ian points out. “It’s been a good purchase and it’s more proof that we made the right decision when we continued to invest during Covid. We’ve added capacity in Poland, Romania and Lithuania, and have committed to expanding three new bedding facilities to supply the expanding online market.”
Ian expects Vita to invest even more capital this year as the business looks to grow, targeting more success across a range of sectors, including the bedding, furniture, industrial, construction, rail, medical and hygiene markets.
“One area of interest is electric vehicles (EV) a market that is growing rapidly,” Ian declares. “A large proportion of sound heard in an EV, comes from the transmission of noise and vibration through a vehicle’s tyres, so we have developed a foam that goes inside the tyres reducing the decibels and creating a more acceptable environment within the vehicle.
“Similar demand is present in the medical, hygiene, conversion and bedding segments,” Ian adds. “We are increasing capital to extend our production capabilities and have committed to building new infrastructures in Germany, Poland, Romania and Hungary.
“We are extremely proud of what our employees have been able to achieve during a very challenging year. With their on-going support and enthusiasm, we will continue to look for new ways to innovate and invest to ensure we remain to the forefront of innovations and sustainable initiatives, so we can achieve our purpose of creating comfort, delivering performance, and enhancing everyday life.”
The Vita Group
Products: Polyurethane foam products