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Introducing the Development department from PIK Vrbovec

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In many companies, openness to knowledge and new ideas is in principle highlighted as a business guideline, but few companies have decided to systematize their internal base of knowledge and ideas, thereby encouraging all employees to open communication and sharing of ideas. Precisely in this area, PIK Vrbovec has made a significant step forward.

The company PIK Vrbovec, leader in Croatian meat industry Croatia, with more than a 40 percent share in the Croatian market in the category of meat and meat products, has a long history of 70 years. The biggest turning point in company business occurred in 2005, when PIK Vrbovec became a part of the Agrokor Group. Through continuous and intensive investments into high technology and innovation, which have in the past ten years exceeded one billion kuna, PIK Vrbovec has become the market leader that creates trends on the domestic and foreign markets. The entire PIK brand assortment includes around 1,500 products, which, in addition to Croatia, are sold on twenty markets, both in the region and in the European Union. Ongoing commitment to investing great effort into innovation, designing new meat delicacies and improving production technology is proudly emphasised in PIK Vrbovec. Such strategic approach in many ways goes beyond the scope of the meat industry, which is in relation to other consumer goods industries - mostly traditional. The real confirmation of such company strategy and a big step forward, not only in the meat industry, but also in the food industry, is in general PIK’s project presented to the market this year, entitled "Less is more", which means that all the products under the PIK brand do not contain flavour enhancers, artificial colours, soy or gluten. This major project is the result of several-year work of the entire company, in which professionals working in the R&D Department had a key role.

DEPARTMENT ORGANISATION

By becoming a part of the Agrokor Group, the need for establishing a single department was recognised, whose primary task would involve product development, and soon the R&D Department was established. Director Ines Bertinovec leads the Department that has eight highly qualified employees. "The main premise was to hire experts whose creativity, personal development and improvement of products and the company was extremely important," says director Bertinovec.

Given the lack of meat industry experts on the Croatian market, finding a suitable profile of employees proved to be a challenging task, and the Department Director does not hide satisfaction with her successful team. Food technology engineers, nutritionists, a chemical engineer and a professionally trained technician are specialised in certain categories of products and production processes. PIK Vrbovec annually places up to 30 new products on the market, which is significantly above the meat industry average, and the company is reasonably positioned as the trendsetter in its sector. "During the year, together with colleagues from the Marketing Department, we create an idea base that includes all available knowledge from market research, focus groups, participation in trade fairs, and following trends and innovations," says Bertinovec.

Very good cooperation and teamwork with the Marketing Department in each project is essential. „All products that enter into the development process are also the products that will be marketed. Guided by following the latest scientific trends and creating products of the highest quality, the development of new products or improvement of the existing products is a motto in PIK Vrbovec," says Deputy Director of the Marketing Department Jasenka Talapko Blažević.

Nutritionist Diana Pavlić, who has been employed in PIK Vrbovec for 17 years, has participated in numerous development projects. Diana explained that the conclusions obtained from the aforementioned research and following trends provide a finished product in the R&D Department "We start from designing an idea that we theoretically develop on paper, and then we define the recipe and perform the trials. Once we are satisfied with the initial trials, testing is transferred to industrial conditions to see how the recipe will behave," says Diana, adding that technical support has an extremely important role in the aforementioned. "Once we have appropriate products from industrial production, we follow their shelf life, perform sensory analyses, market research, and organise focus groups to see whether this product really has a market potential," adds Diana's colleague Ivan Magerle, who is also a nutritionist and Deputy Director of the R&D Department. The path from the idea to sausages, hams and mortadellas is not pre-determined, which makes it difficult to say precisely how long it takes until the product is available in stores. Depending on the complexity of the task and the desired outcome, it is not unusual for a complex development process to last for a year. However, experts from PIK’s R&D Department have vast experience in dealing with professional challenges.  "For example, if product development requires further investment in terms of developing the technical aspect of production, the process takes longer because an additional team deals with a particular aspect of the project. Ultimately, it may happen that the final plan is extended," adds Director Ines Bertinovec. Less demanding development projects include products of which background knowledge already exists and that can be incorporated into the existing production lines, so the product can be created over a period of several months.

PiKLUB

What makes PIK Vrbovec really specific and an example for all other manufacturing companies is an internal innovation platform with a symbolic name - PIKlub. Ambitiously conceived, the project is based on two crucial objectives: 1. opening "bottom-up" internal communication channels in order to share ideas at the company level, 2. connecting teams in order to initiate systematic management and sharing of knowledge and innovation.

PIKlub is an internal innovation platform for wxchanging ideas and knowledge.

There is a firm belief in PIK Vrbovec that each of 1,965 employees currently working in the company have useful and valuable knowledge, ideas and suggestions that can improve individual products, business processes and the application of technology. PIKlub, whose 17 members completed appropriate training, and are constantly available to employees, record and discuss each idea at meetings, which are held every three weeks. In order to strengthen the innovation climate, a transparent system has been established in PIK Vrbovec aimed at recognising and rewarding employees who contribute to the entire production process with their constructive ideas.

"We encourage the employees to think creatively and to have the opportunity to express creativity that the employer will recognise and reward", explains Ines Bertinovec. Another PIKlub aspect includes connecting employees and departments that do not interact in their daily work, but that can reach the desired results more efficiently and more easily with joint efforts and knowledge. PIK Vrbovec is proud to point out that they are the first company in Croatia that has developed this model of knowledge and internal communication management, and the expected benefit is already evident.

21ST CENTURY FACTORY

Together with investments into employee education and training, the company has placed great emphasis on the introduction of impressive technology and the creation of modern, automated production processes. The company does not hide satisfaction with setting trends in other levels of business as well. Namely, a new fresh meat factory was commissioned in 2009, while three years later a new dry sausage factory, plant for slicing and packing PIK sliced products and a warehouse with a much larger capacity were put into operation. "When the new sausage factory was put into operation, as the most modern factory of its kind in the region, I was lucky to have the opportunity to work in the implementation and work processes as we transferred the production into the fully automated factory," says Valerija Šimunec, a food technology engineer, who has since enrolled into a PhD programme as part of the project on which she is working. Her colleague Ivana Gregurić-Tissot, who graduated in food engineering at the Faculty of Food Technology and Biotechnology in Zagreb, got her first job in PIK Vrbovec. At the beginning she worked in production, and now, as a member of the R&D Department, she is in charge of semi-durable meat products and hams. Together with about twenty colleagues, Ivana is also engaged in the organoleptic evaluation of product properties within the sensor panel, which, in addition to other market tests, adopts decisions on the placement of products on the market on an educated level.

"We perform preliminary assessments of technological and other product properties, and then decide with other teams which products will be tested on consumer groups," explains Gregurić-Tissot.

An important aspect in the production and models of preserving freshness and quality of meat and meat products is certainly the packaging. Each product requires specific packaging, which, in addition to durability, should provide the product with visual recognition. Ana Rešček is engaged in primary, secondary and tertiary packaging, and is included in all development projects, and obtained a PhD degree at the Faculty of Chemical Engineering and Technology with a dissertation on active packaging. She points out that the latest trend in meat packaging is individual packaging due to which more packaging per unit of packaging is used, but also more food is preserved.

A particularly challenging area for Ana are the materials used to produce packaging. "Although it seems that the packaging consists of a single material, there are up to nine different layers in micrometre sizes, each with its own function," says Rešček, once again confirming that the company success is based on constant innovation.

Campaigns and plans

The popular PIK Vrbovec campaign "Less is more" was launched with the aim of providing consumers with even better and healthier meat products. Within the campaign "Less is more", PIK Vrbovec provides its customers with only the best meat products without flavour enhancers, artificial colour, gluten and soy, while further educating all customers who care about proper nutrition, as well as those with health issues. The company recognised that consumers have confidence in quality and safe products that are nutritionally enriched, which is evident in the recognition received with the label "Meat from Croatian farms".

PIK is, namely, the first meat-processing company in Croatia, which, thanks to the traceability concept from field to table, meets the requirements for obtaining the subject label. In addition to the synergy of rich tradition, modern technology and investment into employees, Marketing Director Tihana Vujčić also reveals that future plans include further expansion into foreign markets: "We are primarily focused on the markets of the countries in the region and the European Union, and we expect further growth in export, which now has about 15 percent share in company revenue.

" In view of the above mentioned, the Croatian company has a lot to be proud of in the demanding market of developed countries, and its planned success will continue to be based on an active approach to development, practical application of new knowledge and the implementation of modern technologies."