From the valley of guns and rosesPublished 16/9 at 15:01
Superabrasive’s line of Lavina floor grinding and polishing machinery and diamond tools has grown to be one of the biggest on the US market, with its main production sites located in Krun, Bulgaria and in Hoschton, USA. Now the company aims to grow more aggressively in Europe. PDi Magazine’s Jan Hermansson met recently with the company’s founder and CEO George Popov and European sales director Svetlana Peneva.
The history of the concrete floor grinding and polishing industry is quite a tail, with few knowing the full story from the early 1990’s when everything began, but founder and sole owner of the Bulgarian manufacturer Superabrasive, George Popov, does. Jan Hermansson, editor in chief of PDi Magazine, is also one of those, who well remember when a new method using planetary grinding heads was developed for efficient concrete floor grinding, and later on, polishing. This method would soon revolutionise the construction industry and create a whole new market.
Jan Hermansson met with Superabrasive’s CEO George Popov and European sales director Svetlana Peneva at the European head office and factory in the city of Krun in Bulgaria. Krun is a small city, but very close to the much larger city of Kazanlak in the centre of Bulgaria, and is located in a valley with high snow covered mountains to the north, and a lower ridge in the south. This valley is known for its plantations of roses, sun flowers and lavender, also being famous for its rose oil.
When the meeting began, Popov asked if the PDi editor wanted to hear the long or short story about the company: “Raised in an investigative journalism atmosphere the long story is preferred of course,” Hermansson replied.
From weapons to diamond powder
Popov was born in the 1960s in a small village not that far from Krun, which was at that time known for the manufacturing of different types of armaments, with one such company named ‘Arsenal’, being active and owned by the state. Arsenal’s weapons’ manufacturing still exists today, but not in Krun. The locals refer to the valley as the ‘Valley of Guns N’ Roses’, due to the weapons production and the rose plantations.
In 1974 the Arsenal factory in Krun started, parallel to the weapons manufacturing, to produce diamond powder to be used in grinding wheels to grind hard metal. This was actually the beginning of what would later become the company Superabrasive. Popov had no connection to the company at that time, but following graduation in 1990 he was hired by Arsenal to develop its diamond tools production and was promoted to general manager of the division within a year. At that time some 700 people were employed in weapons manufacturing, and 30 were producing diamond powder. Following the political changes in eastern and central Europe in 1989 the Bulgarian state began to privatise many state owned factories, including Arsenal, with the plant in Krun being acquired by Popov and several partners from the US in 1993 and the name changed to Superabrasive.
“What happened in 1989 all over the former Eastern Bloc was of course something positive, but also a collapse of the political and economic systems in all of the countries. It was a very difficult time also for Superabrasive to find new business. I had to find out ways to make money somehow,” says Popov.
USA opened the doors
The manufacturing of tools for grinding hard metal decreased, and so Popov had to start looking for new markets. This directed his attention to the USA with a business trip resulting in the establishment of a US office in Michigan, and the production of grinding tools for optical lenses began in Krun. Shortly thereafter, the factory also started to produce a lot of different diamond tools for various sectors, including the stone industry. This led to Superabrasive starting to make tools for polishing counter tops as well as granite and marble floors, directly leading to where the business operates today.
As the new concept of polished concrete became more popular, there was also a growing demand for high quality concrete grinding and polishing tools. Superabrasive started producing private labelled tools for a number of floor grinding and polishing machine manufacturers including HTC America, King Concepts (and consequently Husqvarna), and others. Superabrasive also made private labelled tools for other diamond tools producers for the stone fabrication and rental industries, such as Diamant Boart and Pearl Abrasive.
By the millennium, competition from Chinese diamond tools manufacturers was clearly seen with prices starting to drop. Superabrasive began to increase the company’s product range, with the selling of machines for grinding and polishing being a natural progression, and beginning co-operation with a US manufacturer of floor grinding and polishing machines. As those machines were rather light and single speed, Mr. George Georgiev, the Superabrasive US President of the company between 1998 and 2012, convinced Mr. Popov to start manufacturing a new line of floor grinding and polishing equipment.
The Lavina series
The first Lavina grinder was launched in 2004. “This first model actually turned out very good. In fact, yesterday, a customer came to the office here in Krun and needed to have service on his Lavina from 2004 which still works very good,” smiles Popov. That was the start of the Lavina series, which has expanded rapidly over the last 15 years, and being upgraded continuously in order to meet the contractors’ growing demand for higher efficiency, productivity and reliability of the equipment that they are investing in.
In early 2000 the concrete floor grinding and polishing industry really had a global break through. In fact it was considered to be over heated from 2008 to 2012, with many new brands, most of them from China, entering the market. Sometimes a single Chinese manufacturer would sell different brands to different distributers. Since then the global market has consolidated with many brands having disappeared due to lack of quality and service: however, during the last 15 years some strong brands has consolidated their positions with Superabrasive’s Lavina being one of them.
Nowadays, all Superabrasive machines for grinding, polishing, burnishing and dust extraction are sold under the brand name Lavina. The latest generation of Superabrasive floor grinding and polishing machines is called Lavina Elite. It includes 11 electric and 6 propane models, starting from a 178mm electric edger all the way to 965 mm remote controlled propane machine. In addition, Superabrasive manufactures a 915mm planetary polisher and an electric burnisher LB-21 with a width of 530mm. The company also has its own series of Lavina dust extractors containing three electric and four propane driven extractors, and recently Superabrasive also launched a series of air cleaners, Lavina LA2000.
Popov stated that the Lavina range has been developed and built to make the daily work for the contractor as easy as possible. The machines are sturdily constructed, being able to withstand tough handling and conditions with minimum down time, and are easy to operate, transport, maintain and service. The Lavina planetary grinding heads utilize ‘Poly-V’ belts, which are more durable and relatively easy to replace. The Poly-V belt has teeth, which keeps it in place, and is superior to a flat belt, which might be slipping during operation. Flat belts are still being used on some machines from other manufacturers, and even Superabrasive used them in the past in some of the Lavina’s first generations.
Superabrasive’s diamond tool assortment today consists of a large number of different metal, hybrid, and resin tools for coating removal, concrete, stone and terrazzo grinding and polishing, floor restoration and maintenance, as well as tools for stone fabrication. Superabrasive also still manufactures tools to the optical industry, and has during the last few years developed its own system for maintaining polished concrete floors called ‘ShinePro’. One of the biggest US grocery retail chains, Kroger, has adopted ShinePro for maintaining the floors of some of its many stores. The main reason for Superabrasive’s ability to manufacture high and consistent quality of diamond tool is its expertise in the classification of diamond powder, which is generally bought unclassified from a third party supplier. Making sure that the right diamonds are being utilized for the right applications guarantees the excellent performance and reliability of the tooling.
Major expansion in Krun and Hoschton
Superabrasive was during the first ten years of its life essentially a diamond tool producer, but since beginning the machine production in 2004, today about 50% of the production consists of machinery.
Now over 300 people are employed at the plant in Krun, with the highly loyal staff consisting of many employees who have been with the company for decades, and some even from the very beginning in 1990. In some cases, whole families work for Superabrasive, with most of them being from Krun or the surrounding region.
Production is divided in two shifts, with each morning three company buses picking up workers from their homes and returning them at the end of the shift. Currently the plant covers approximately 25,000 m2. A new production facility dedicated to Lavina machines, measuring 6400 m2, was finalised at the end of August this year. An additional building, measuring 5,000m2, is also being constructed and is expected to be operational by the end of January 2020. “We have a lot of work, and we are quite overcrowded in the older parts of our facilities, so the new extensions will be appreciated,” says Popov. Located around the plant there is also quite a lot of undeveloped land, with Popov recently acquiring a large lot measuring 40,000m2.
The USA is currently the biggest market for Superabrasive, and Nikolay Nikolaev, the current president of the Superabrasive US office, believes that the company is one of the top 5 flooring equipment manufacturers in the States. Sales in Europe and the Middle East, in particular, have been also picking up. The USA market really kicked off for Superabrasive during the 1990s. In 2002, Popov and Georgiev moved the company from Michigan to Georgia, and after acquiring a lot of land in Hoschton, GA, the company built its new Headquarters there. It is currently approximately 7,500m2, including the manufacturing facility for the ShinePro diamond impregnated pads, and recently another 26,000m2 lot was acquired to allow for warehouse expansion due to the growing US market. Superabrasive now employs approximately 30 people in the US and is selling exclusively through its authorized network of Distributors and Dealers, similar to what it has been doing in Europe and other international markets.
The rental industry in the US has been a big growth engine for Superabrasive, with the company having a nationwide network of large and small rental dealers that are being serviced by two of Superabrasive’s strategic partners in the US – Niagara Machine and ConcretePolishing HQ. “We see a steady growth in the demand for concrete grinding and polishing equipment. Even nationwide companies, such as Sherwin-Williams and Sunbelt Rentals, have been attracted by the potential of the concrete flooring market and have been utilizing the Lavina line of machines” says Popov. Superabrasive was the first company to supply a low-profile propane driven grinder to the US market in order to meet Wal-Mart’s need for a high-speed grinding and polishing machine that was able to polish under the racks in its stores. Superabrasive today has its own certificate to convert petrol driven Kawasaki engines to propane at the plant in Hoschton, and is proud to offer the newest Lavina Elite propane machines with some of the cleanest propane engines in their respective classes.
Even though the company fought for survival in the beginning of the 1990s, it is very healthy financially today, with no external investors in the company. One competitive advantage that Popov is really proud with is the fact that Superabrasive has been producing in-house almost all of its products and major components for the equipment, whereas many other manufacturers buy parts from component manufacturers, and then assemble their products. “We make everything in house which makes us far more efficient. For instance, we send containers with machines and spare parts from Krun to the US every week. It is a constant flow. Now that we are expanding our facility in the US we will be even better positioned to meet the growing demand of the US market,” says the CEO of the company.
The European sales director for Superabrasive is Svetlana Peneva, who prepared the PDi visit at the plant in Krun. Besides Peneva there are five sales managers looking after Europe, Bulgaria, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Besides its US facility, Superabrasive also has sales offices in the UK, Turkey and the Ukraine, as well as a global network of 30 independent distributors.