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Centre International de Couchage meets customer satisfaction


October 1, 2005
By Pulp & Paper Canada

“There was nothing of the kind in North America,” Ren Francoeur, president and general manager of the Centre Internationale de Couchage (CIC), recalled. “There were privately owned centres, meaning t…

“There was nothing of the kind in North America,” Ren Francoeur, president and general manager of the Centre Internationale de Couchage (CIC), recalled. “There were privately owned centres, meaning that companies owned their own research facilities, but many of those were forced to shut down due to mergers.” In 1996, he started directing a considerable amount of energy towards looking at what the needs of the market were, and in 1998, the actual construction of the facility began. In September of 1999, the CIC first opened its doors in Trois-Rivires, QC.

For the past six years, one standing philosophy has permeated every aspect of the CIC’s business, which is to make certain that all facets of the operation are simply the best of the best. This rationalization has propelled the centre forward, to earn its position as one of the most technologically advanced centres of its kind in the world. “We wanted to have equivalent, or better technology than what was being used in Europe,” Francoeur explained. “So Groupe Laperrire & Verreault, J.M. Huber Corp. and Mintech Canada joined forces and formed the company CIC, and built the centre. We were well received right away. Certainly, we had to show the industry what we were capable of, but when our customers did a comparison, they could see that we really are the best in the world.” A customer-based survey the centre conducted ascertained that the CIC’s clientele ranked its services with a 4.78 out of 5.

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What makes the CIC so unique is a combination of its state-of-the-art technology and the fact that it works to assist customers from start to finish with its trials. Clients can obtain support in developing a coating formulation, the CIC then prepares the formula, the trial is run and once it’s finished, the CIC offers the customer a detailed evaluation. Results are never, under any circumstances, made public. Strict confidentiality plays a pivotal role in the CIC’s dealings with its customers and therefore, details concerning the trials of previous clients are never divulged to new or returning ones. However, should a customer indicate a need or desire for counsel, the CIC can offer a certain amount of direction. “We will never let them know who tried a particular formula, but we can certainly advise them,” Francoeur illustrated. “But in the end, the customer has the final decision.”

It is also worth noting that the centre does not run trials of a commercial nature. Nothing produced at the CIC is ever sold. The trials are purely for research purposes.

Surprisingly, only 15% of the centre’s business comes from Canada, while an impressive 70% comes from the U.S. with the remaining 15% from overseas. Although a definitive reason for the relative lack of focus on coating in Canada has yet to be pegged, Francoeur speculates that it is largely due to our country’s emphasis on its strength in other market areas. “In Canada we’re known to be number one in the world for newsprint, (which is uncoated), and so the focus is often placed on improving newsprint grades.” Despite the absence of a strong Canadian client base, the CIC isn’t hard pressed for business. In its first year of operation, the centre managed to secure bookings for 20 weeks out of the year (one trial typically runs between one to three days). Now they’re entirely sold out.

It pays to be flexible

Francoeur attributes this success to several things, namely flexibility and confidentiality. “We sell time and knowledge,” he said. “Our mandate is to support the industry and I think we’re doing really well.” The CIC offers its clients a tremendous amount of flexibility, elbowroom that simply isn’t available through its European counterparts. “In Europe, you need to supply a trial plan which needs to be approved,” Francoeur explained, something which the CIC doesn’t require of its clients. “We aren’t rigid. If at 10 a.m., what the customer tried isn’t working, we can change the formula, we can adapt, whereas many other centres would say, ‘well, we have an opening three months from now.'”

This flexibility is just one of the many reasons enumerated by Ron Hostetler of BASF for his being such a longtime CIC customer. “It’s a tremendous organization, they have,” he said. “I really appreciate what they do. They have some of the best equipment in the world, but they are definitely the most organized. It’s an excellent facility.” Hostetler has worked in the paper industry for 40 years, and has enjoyed a career in paper product development for uncoated and coated specialty and commodity grades on pilot coaters for 32 years. Currently a NAFTA paper coatings applications development and global technical liaison for BASF Corporation, Hostetler has run more than his fair share of coatings trials, and has developed a deep rooted appreciation for the high level of customer service offered by the CIC.

“It’s truly incredible what they do there,” he said. “The staff is extremely efficient and knowledgeable, and there is such a high degree of continuity. You know when your materials arrive, you have a pre-meeting with the staff to go over any last minute changes, and then once the trial is done, everything can be wrapped up and ready to go that day. That’s why I love working there. I just get so much work done.”

Hostetler also continues to be highly impressed with the quality of the trial reports the CIC prepares for its customers. “Their data collection system is amazing. The weights, ash content, formulation listings, temperatures, everything will be listed in your report,” he explained. “From every temperature change that occurred in the trial, to application information, coating characterizations, you don’t even have to ask for it, all that information is there.”

Another characteristic of the centre Hostetler has grown to appreciate, is the speed with which trials are set up, run, and documented. “They’re extremely efficient,” he confirmed. “I’ve done complete turnarounds in four weeks, which is great because you can give a customer a plausible solution to a problem in roughly a month.” According to Hostetler, a similar trial would span a turnaround time of between four to six months in Europe.

Getting from A to B

Logistics associated with transportation and customs have also rendered the CIC an attractive option for companies looking to run coating trials. “Getting materials in and out of Canada is a lot easier than getting them in and out of Germany, or the U.S, where it can be a nightmare. You can spend two to three weeks going through the product regulations just to get something shipped,” Hostetler explained.

Also, and as Sophie Bdard, a trial manager with the CIC pointed out, it’s significantly more expensive to run a similar trial overseas. “If you’re sending paper rolls, they have to be shipped by boat or air, and then all those materials have to be sent back. This in itself requires a lot of advance planning and it gets a lot more complicated.”

Although transporting the necessary materials to the CIC poses considerably less of a challenge than would a similar undertaking in other parts of the world, the centre goes to great lengths to ensure that even possible glitches in this department can be easily smoothed out. “We keep paper inventories here for customers to use, because arranging to have paper rolls transported can be especially difficult, so it’s a great opportunity for clients,” Bdard explained. The centre also keeps on hand an array of related chemicals available for customer use should the need arise. The winter months have on more than one occasion led to the freezing of chemicals that customers had shipped to the centre, and this is yet another example of how the CIC works to anticipate and then meet its customers’ needs.

Looking ahead

Although the centre has built its business on catering to coating applications, plans for the installation of an independent loading calender are underway. Such an investment would imply a $15-18 million capital expenditure for
the centre. The CIC as it stands now is a $40 million facility. Discussions on the possible expansion are currently at the board level and if the plans are approved, the ground will be broken next spring and the actual machinery itself will be up and running by 2007.

The potential ability for the CIC to cover both major sides of the industry, coated and uncoated applications, is illustrative of the tremendous lengths the facility goes to in order to ensure that its customers’ needs are not only met, but that their expectations are surpassed.

“They are extremely flexible,” said Ron Hostetler simply. “I’ve never had Ren say he couldn’t do something for us. He might not tell you this, but he’ll even run on a Saturday for you. If ever there was customer focus, Ren Francoeur has got it.”


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