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In profile: Hubertus Mühlhäuser, president and CEO of Welbilt Inc.

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"If you want to conquer the world, do it step by step,”says Hubertus Mühlhäuser, president and CEO of Welbilt Inc. At HostMilano 2017 in Milan, Italy, he discussed future opportunities for the now independent company with Michael Jones

The 40th edition of HostMilano in late October in Milan, Italy was Welbilt Inc.’s first appearance at the show following its rebranding from Manitowoc Foodservice earlier this year. “The journey to becoming an independent company was a hard one, but a rewarding one,” smiles Hubertus Mühlhäuser, president and CEO.

Welbilt, headquartered in Florida, US, boasts 17 manufacturing facilities throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia and sells through a global network of over 3,000 distributors and dealers in over 100 countries. The company has approximately 5,500 employees and generated sales of $1.46 billion in 2016.

“Our shareholders doubled their money,” says Mühlhäuser of the strategic repositioning that saw Welbilt begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange under the new ticker WBT in March 2017. The company’s stock price has since risen from $12 to $23.

Restoring confidence

“We have significantly improved our profitability and we have been restoring confidence in our brands,” says Mühlhäuser. Those brands include Cleveland, Convotherm, Delfield, fitkitchen, Frymaster, Garland, Kolpak, Lincoln, Manitowoc Ice, Merco, Merrychef and Multiplex.

Welbilt has also won 15 projects with a major quick service restaurant (QSR) brand in the last quarter alone in the US according to Mühlhäuser and has seen 3.5% growth in the first two quarters of 2017, clocking up 30% organic growth in Europe and 5-8% growth in Asia.

Welbilt has a “wait and see approach” to the US market, says, Mühlhäuser, who claims if the proposed tax plan from president Donald Trump comes to fruition Welbilt will see additional growth in the US. “The Trump Tax Plan will be an enormous stimulus to the industry if it happens,” he says.

“We are out-performing competitor companies and are the system supplier to our industry. I believe we are not only the strongest on the product side, but also on the system side,” says Mühlhäuser as the company seeks to further the connectivity of its equipment in commercial kitchens.

“We are addressing that from three elements: changing the process flow in the kitchen, connecting equipment and via automation. We have a long-term system approach,” says Mühlhäuser. “For us it’s more than just selling a box. We sell solutions and services.”

Product pipeline

At HostMilano 2017, Welbilt showcased a full portfolio of products and services available to the European market including the latest innovation from its hugely popular Merrychef range, the Merrychef eikon e2, as well as equipment from its Frymaster and Garland brands.

Mühlhäuser emphasises Welbilt’s commitment to lean manufacturing processes. “5% of space [in the company’s manufacturing facilities] is freed up every year with productivity gains via lean manufacturing. We cut costs, but we do not cut R&D. We think ‘how can we get ahead of the industry – not follow it?’ We want to lead the industry,” he says.

“We launched 25 new products in 2016, 27 in 2017 and we will launch 30 in 2018. Our R&D pipeline is very healthy,” says Mühlhäuser, who added that Welbilt was likely to combine organic growth with acquisition in the future.

“There are still holes in our product line up,” says Mühlhäuser. We don’t have horizontal cooking in our line up. We once had warewashing and ventilation [brands in Manitowoc Foodservice]. We like warewashing and we want to get it back. In ventilation and hot side cooking there is a lot of opportunity for connectivity. If you want to conquer the world, do it step by step.”

Welbilt is, according to Mühlhäuser, also “collaborating with start-ups” in Sillicon Valley in order to stay ahead of the competition and be aware of, and even lead, disruption in the industry. “We have a head start [on] our competitors,” he says. “We are looking at what has worked in other industries and seeing how we can adapt that to our customers. For example, for QSR products we are investing in software and controls.”

Global brands

The company currently sees an approximate 50/50 split in its customer base between the QSR and the hotel, restaurant and cafe (HoReCa) sectors. The former is, says Mühlhäuser, “a volatile market – but if you get specced out, you’re going to make a lot of money.” He cites the HoReCa market as “very brand driven and very technology driven.”

Since the strategic repositioning Welbilt has rationalised its global brands from 25 down to 12. “We don’t want to be a John Deere or an Electrolux, with just one brand – but companies such as McDonald’s want [to deal with] one strong partner. If there is a problem – they know who to go to,” says Mühlhäuser.

“We have a good, better, best approach. You need to be scalable. You can add functionality as you go,” he adds.

He also highlights the importance of consultants to Welbilt. “Consultants are very important to us. We want to do more [with them]. We want to work with them and make their lives easier.”

Looking ahead

There are, says Mühlhäuser, “very strong tailwinds right now” for Welbilt. “We feel very confident for the future. The loyalty to our brand [following the strategic repositioning] was outstanding. Since we became an independent company I got a lot of feedback about what we did right and what we did not. A two-way dialogue is very important,” he says. “The opportunities for us are amazing.”

Michael Jones

Picture: Claudio Sforza