Bringing Welding Expertise From France To The World
The group Institut de Soudure (the French Welding Institute – IS) is a unique example of a deeply rooted French company that has managed, in recent years, to become a worldwide reference in the welding business. Its company’s unusual story goes back to 1905, when a specific entity was created to the welding process in France. The company successfully grew through a dual process of external acquisitions and internal growth based on its well-performing research center in Lorraine, in the east of France. “Our founders were our first clients,” explains Didier Etheve, managing director of IS. “At the time, there were many accidents and we had to ensure and promote security and safety of equipment. This is how IS was set up.” Today, the aim of the company is to ensure and promote safety and security of all equipment, through a wide spectrum of services: research and development, destructive and non-destructive testing, education, professional training, inspection, expertise and certification. Thus, in 1990, IS had grown from being an association of experts working on safety issues to a services company geared towards helping its clients in all the different segments of the welding activity. “In the 1990s, we were facing some financial difficulties and needed money to invest in research. Hence in 2000, we decided to create a subsidiary focused on industrial services,” adds Pascal Roussel, the company’s international director. IS today is both a specialist of metallurgy issues and a training body for welding engineers and technicians with a one-year specialization course through the association. Besides this, IS was also a founding member of the International Institute of Welding in 1956, which shares the same aim as IS.
IS’s fields of business are wide but always respect the crucial notions of safety and reliability. “Our daily job is to train the welder, check the welding the welder has done – this is the inspection part – followed by certification. We also do non-destructive testing (NDT),” explains Etheve. “We work in several strategic sectors such as transportation with aerospace, nuclear, space & railway, and chemicals –although growth is not coming from this industry. Our main business, since the beginning, has to do with energy.” In this area, the company’s first work was with the traditional and natural trading partners of France: Africa and particularly North Africa, back in the late 1950s. IS worked for instance on gas transportation in Algeria in the early 1960s. “Within the energy sector, oil and gas has always been an important issue,” explains Roussel. “IS operates in both upstream and downstream markets. France, as you know, is not about upstream and E&P activity but refining. This is where we intervene.” For a long time, Total represented up to 30 percent of the group’s revenues, but this prominent share has gone down to 10 to 15 percent of IS’s total revenues, due to the fact that Total’s refining and downstream activity in France has diminished in recent years. In France, IS has, for historical reasons, been very strongly present in the refining side. “Wherever there is a refinery in France, you will find an IS agency,” explains Etheve. “We are also very much focused on the storage side, with GDF Suez and the nuclear activity for example. Internationally, we rather emphasize on upstream activities and E&P.”
IS has strengthened its global presence since the 1990s through its numerous subsidiaries based on its key markets. IS is today present in Morocco, Congo, Nigeria, New Caledonia, Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia and the UAE. Its global turnover is made of more than 20 percent exports. “Africa and Asia represent our two big areas of presence,” states Etheve. In order to gain strategic markets, IS privileges the local content policies of developing markets, where IS focuses, rather than mature markets. “We have a great role to play in these emerging markets due to their needs for local content requirement,” he adds. “We are generally contracted by local governments to train their people. Our century of references and experience explains our success. In that regard, IS just got an important contract with Brunei to train 28 welding engineers. They have just attended the graduation ceremony and we are very proud to see their expertise and know-how recognized all over the planet.” “Unlike our UK counterparts for example, we don’t provide an Anglo-Saxon or French training, but an international one,” explains Roussel. “This global focus is our key to success. Another reason for IS’s expansion is its polyvalence and capacity to cover the full spectrum of the welding chain. IS’s main competitors in France are Bureau Veritas, SGS, Moodys or Apave but none of them are specialists like IS in the welding/metallurgy sectors.”
“We offer a unique expertise that often makes the difference,” explains Etheve. “Some of our partners even call us the mouton à cinq pattes (five-legged sheep) to show how special we are in a very codified environment. Our ultimate aim is to become a ‘company of the country’ and not an international actor that just comes and does business and leaves when a project is finished. We have a long-term policy and build long-term relations.” It took the company more than 10 years to build a solid presence in specific markets, including Thailand, Brunei and Indonesia. IS is thus smoothly moving away from a unique customer shadow and intends to lead business on its own. Moreover, the group has several exciting projects in the pipeline: after Brunei, IS wants to increase activity in China despite the red tape and difficulties of doing business there. Last but not least, IS has recently created a new subsidiary, PINC, that was created with COMEX and aims at exporting the “French touch” in welding abroad. “There are no French players in this activity,” explains Roussel. “It is therefore a new challenge for us. Companies like Technip or Vallourec are very pleased that they will have a new pipeline inspection partner. From now on, we should be able to provide a solution for niche markets and meet specific needs.” IS is also eager to extend its portfolio by acquiring a company in the electronics field in order to complement its offers to its clients and provide a complete range of services.