BAM Connect Stories - Episode 4 - Onno Weststrate - Turbocam Romania

Onno, thank you for accepting to be part of our BAM Connect podcast. Please tell us something about you, your family, and your business, especially your business in Romania, Turbocam.

I am 61, married, and we currently have two children in the house, but we have had eight foster children and one biological daughter. Most of the foster children had left the house ,one is still there. That was part of our family life for almost 25 years. I live in Nederland and I have worked for Turbocam since 1999, and it’s been nearly 24 years. It’s been quite a journey that I had to go through.

The Turbocam plant in Romania was part of a vision God gave me back in ’96 when I worked for another engineering company. We had great success in what we were doing, and everything was fine. I was in a perfect position but felt very unhappy about the future because I experienced that God had put on my heart to use my gifts and the skills that he gave me to work with for his kingdom. I remember writing them in ’96 on the list using my abilities for the Kingdom in countries like Romania and a few other countries were there on the list. I felt this was where my heart was. That was the initial thought of an idea starting in Romania. I joined Turbocam in 1999. It’s a mission-driven organization that wants to empower people through providing work and expressing Kingdom values. After a few years of working for them, the time was there to develop the idea of my vision that I had . At the same time, the company’s owner, Marian Noronha, asked me if I had any further ideas and contacts in Eastern Europe and in particular Romania. Two things came together, his desire to do something in Eastern Europe and my heart, my vision to use my talents for this region, and that is how we start to research options for Romania.

As an entrepreneur, you need something to start with, and I began to check around in our church network to see if somebody from Romania was there. I met two Dutch guys who had a machine shop in Cluj Napoca and we thought that this might be a good fit, so we went to Cluj, Marian and myself, and we looked at the facility, and after a while we both felt it was not going to work for us. It was an existing company and one owner was a believer and the other was not. The product line was very different from what we were making at Turbocam but God had put us already in Romania, and we were moving around, speaking to people, praying and looking for answers and directions. Through the connections from Cluj Napoca, we asked if they could find a manager for us to start a new company in Romania. It was vital to start with a guy who was a believer, obviously technical, and reliable.

We were looking in our church network for a trustworthy guy to help us set up a company. The question to our contact was ”could you ask in your network of churches if there is somebody who can help us”? They sent one guy to Târgu Mureș, to a church that happened to be the one were Sorin Ignat was preaching that Sunday. At the end of the service, the guy said, I was sent by an American company who are looking to set up a facility here in Targu Mures. They are looking for somebody to support that new adventures. It’s a Kingdom Company with biblical values.

Sorin Ignat, who was there in the service, felt this was me. The journey is significant to understand for those who listen. He contacted us, and we decided to meet in Budapest, Hungary. I flew to Budapest. He drove from Targu Mures, actually the village Târnaveni to Budapest. It was wintertime with snow and icy conditions on the road and halfway through the journey the car slipped off the road. The car was total loss and he couldn’t use it anymore. He then called another guy who picked him up, and he drove to Budapest. He got in late, but we met and had a good time together. This was the first indication that it wasn’t going to be easy. A few months later, we met in Amsterdam, Marian was there with me, and we drove to Schiphol airport and we said, God is in this. Let’s do it. It must have been early 2007.

Can you tell us something about your mission? Why does Turbocam exist?

Let me start with Turbocam International. The mission is also clearly explained on our website as three-fold statement. Honoring our God, create wealth for its employees and support Christian service to God and people. I think the most important is honoring God in everything that we do. In other words,He creates us and we express that through the workplace in the way we do things. Turbocam also creates employment, employing people is one of the most incredible things to do when you can hire people and provide income for their families. That also has been a drive for me to start thinking about Romania. At that time here from the Netherlands they were still sending much aid to Romania. Much stuff collected and shipped to Romania, and given free to people. This was after the fall of communism. The better thing to do is to employ people and give them dignity so they can make a living with through a good and stable job. That drove me to come to Romania as a blessing to the nation.

Can you tell us something about your beneficiaries? Who are your customers? Also, I would love to hear about your employees.

We are currently producing components for three major customers. One is Siemens Energy. We make components for the, for their gas turbines. We also produce parts for turbochargers for Cummins Turbo. These components go to the UK and the US. The third one is an aero engine manufacturer that produces engines for Airbus. We make parts for them that go through our US division and finally end up in these engines. Concerning our employees, we started with a core group of people. We felt it was essential to be believers, so we begun with Sorin and the second person, a Dutch guy who lived in a nearby village at that time. With a small core team we started and we worked hard to set up the business. Through these people we connected with others in the towns where they lived, and gradually as we grew we needed more people, believers as well as nonbelievers. It’s not a must to be a believer. We enjoy having non-believers in our company so that we can express the love of Christ through the way we do business. Today we have a mixture. We started with five, and now we have over a hundred.

What kind of problems do you solve for your customers, and what solution do you offer?

They design the parts we make, and we make to print. The problem we solve is often lead time, quality, and price. Our price is favourable, our lead time is good, and our quality should be outstanding. It’s any way that you connect with these customers so they can experience the Kingdom’s values. There are various levels. The first thing I want to mention is that we tell them who we are every time we are introduced to a new customer. We show them our mission statement and say, this is who we are and I want you to know this is our company’s mission statement. We want to be very clear and open, so we do that to every customer because we feel it is essential. A customer is something very important that you start a relationship with. It’s not like you sell one item, and that’s it. Not in our industry it’s a relationship you enter. You are building something together. To bring transparency right at the beginning, we tell them our mission statement. Some react to it, others say nothing. Some say o, that’s nice. Very few will start a discussion, but they respect who we are. We operate in a very transparent way. We are always open in the way we do things and that is very much appreciated. We also tell them if something is wrong, which is not very common, but if we have dimensions out of tolerance for the parts we make, we have to be very clear about that. That’s how we operate. That’s the value that we are bringing to our customers.

What other groups do you serve there in Targu Mures or around Targu Mures?

We started an initiative which was called in the beginning Roman Woodworks. The reason was that I saw this as a spin-off opportunity. There is something that we can facilitate because we are a company. We are established, we have financial strengths, and we can use that to go and see if we can bless others. We started in 2013 discussions about setting up something for street children, and the idea grew in what we called at that time Roman Woodworks. The idea was to create jobs for disadvantaged people who have difficulties finding a job. That’s how we started. At the moment is called Recycle Art. It was rebranded and was gone from two or three; now, we have seven people, and they produce custom made furniture. Another employment development we initiated was starting a heat treatment division in Acatari, which is half an hour away from Targu Mures. Again, an opportunity to add something to what we already do for our customers and enable us to employ more people. They now have eighteen people there in the facility from Acatari. Our desire and hope are that we will multiply this activity into more initiatives.

Can you tell us something about your channels?

Usually, the way I operate is that I use existing contacts, I use connections that I picked up from trade shows, from exhibitions, and I follow up. I contact them and see if I can make an appointment and from there we show them what we do. That’s how I got into the businesses that we created in Romania. In the first instance with a UK comppnay, I just went there and I had the opportunity to present Turbocam, a name in itself. So I went to see them, explain our mission, explain what we are doing in Romania, and that’s how it started, with inquiries. You have to understand that our line of business is a very long process, and sometimes it takes a year to develop something from this initial part of an inquiry to an order. That’s how we work. Also, being part of a big global company is an advantage. I work with my colleagues in the UK and the US that subcontract work to us in Romania. That’s helpful. We work for them.

How do you recruit current employees?

It’s all done by the local management. I am not involved, but it’s mainly through recommendation. We usually make aware of those who work for us and say we are looking for more people, and then this guy brings a neighbour, the other guy brings a friend, and the other guy brings a student mate from college and says, I know this guy. That’s how we grew. We grew by recommendation. The good part of the recommendation is that people will not recommend somebody who isn’t a good character. The bad part is that you must be careful to avoid ending up with a clan of all the same people from the same village. We also go to universities. They have annual days where companies come and present themselves to recruit, so we show up, and the people get in touch with us from there.

What kind of relationship are they developing with the employees, and how do they help them to grow?

Our relationship with workers have changed a little because when you are small, you are five people, it feels like a family, we share everything, we know everybody by name, we know their families, their wives, the children they have, and so forth. When you grow, you have five, ten, fifteen, twenty-five, all of a sudden before you know you have one hundred people. As senior management I don’t know everybody from the level I operate. So I have to go by what our managers from the shop floor communicate about these people. We try to keep that family feel. It’s not easy special when the numbers go up. When the numbers go up, you need more structure.

Do they have any opportunities to develop themselves?

It depends on the initiative of the person. We see several categories. One category is people who are eager to learn and want to move on. Often driven by making more money but they want to move and learn. Others are in a steady state. They say, well, I am an operator of the machine, I make money, and I do some overtime to make extra money. This is a Romanian thing in the villages; they have site businesses, a garden, grow flowers, grow vegetables, make furniture, and all sorts of things. I can’t say it’s one approach. You have different people that you work with.

What kind of relationship do you develop with your customers, and what are you doing to grow in this relationship?

This is an excellent question because this is how I was brought into the business, and I learned that always maintaining a good relationship with your customers is essential. I go and see them, visit them, call them regularly, have conversations, and have coffee when they are nearby. That relationship is significant. I see that, especially with the younger generation, who are more used to working through the internet to send a message, WhatsApp, or whatever message they use. I keep saying that it does not build a relationship. You have to go and see them. Our customers are abroad, so we encourage everybody in direct contact with them to go and see them at least once a year. Just go and meet them. It may be expensive to go to Sweden and the UK and Covid of course, made it more difficult, but in general, that’s what we will do, and we invite customers to come to see us, and all of them have come and all of them like the setup and the way we do things. That is how we build relationships. I would say relationships are one of our strengths ships. I think that we are friends with a number of our customers. We have good relationships with them.

What kind of relationships do you develop with the other groups like Recycle Art?

I hope we develop into a friendship rather than a working relationship. Even though we started together with somebody else at Recycle Art, we are building something together as friends. Yes, we have to make products,we have to make sales. But we also must understand that we are on a mission to bless the nation, so that’s building friendship. I am trying when I am in Romania to meet with them once in two or three months to see how they are doing.

I want to ask you about the key activities that you are doing.

We have weekly meeting with our engineers, so engineering is the first stop. We have to make a product, so we look at the drawings and create our CNC computer control program for our machines. Engineers do that. The quality department takes care of all the requirements, measurements, and so forth that need to be taken. It goes to our factory floor, where they make the first sample parts. These parts are measured, checked, and often discussed with our customers the results, and then if our customers are happy with the results of the first parts, we go into production. The management team has several responsibilities. First, one is to run the show, so the day-to-day business, ensure that products are produced according to the required quality, and ensure that they are on time and done correctly. The other element of the management team is looking after new developments, which we all find very important. That is what I learned in the last years in my previous job, about always having to look at the next thing to develop. Never stay steady for years and years. Always think about new products, new product lines, new customers, new ideas, and new industries. That’s part of the management team as well. Together we are looking at the future. We are looking at what’s next, behind the corner, and where we can start investing.

Please tell us something about your partners.

Our key partner is our mother company Turbocam in the US, so the relationship we have is that we have regular meetings via team calls that we use to communicate. We have an annual conference where at least I go and one or two others from our company are invited to go. We have a week of meetings where we tell what we are doing and explain our vision to the other divisions. Turbocam has other divisions in the UK and India, they also come and explain what they are up to, what their latest developments are. So we share know how, we share market information, we share financial information We are open, we are transparent, show the numbers, and build a solid relationship with our Turbocam members of the family.

Do you have any critical suppliers in Romania or abroad?

If you look at our products, most of our suppliers are in two categories. One is the material suppliers we use, which are in Germany or the UK. They are far away. It is not a very close relationship. It is just a commodity situation. We buy from them. We see them once a year. The more interesting one is the supplier of our equipment. We have expensive equipment. CNC mills and lathes. All of these machines are made outside of Romania. They are made in Germany and made in the US, but they use Romanian dealers, and we maintain quite a good relationship with those dealers because we find that it is essential that we have the service that we need. It’s like bringing your car to a garage. You want to be sure that this guy is good when you go to the garage and is not cheating or robbing you by asking for too much money. So we have relationships with several machine suppliers that we want to value and maintain.

What essential resources are you using to run the business?

I don’t know if know-how is a resource, but you need to know what you are doing, especially in the line of products that we are producing. The other resource, of course, is capital. Capital is essential but not the most important because, yes, you need money to start, but also you need know-how what machines to buy and how to run those machines. You can have all the money in the world, but that does not mean you can make products. You have all the know-how in the world, but you can’t buy the machines if you don’t have the money. We maintain a good relationship with the banks. We borrow from the bank. Our business is very capital-intensive. You can’t start the production with a few thousand euros. The machines that we have are usually a few hundred thousand euros. Financing machines is an essential element that we need to operate our business. So, that relationship with local banks is significant. We didn’t have that in the beginning because a bank says, well, show your records, and when you started the business, you have no records. We began over loaning money from individuals and our headquarters and gradually became more financially independent. We operate with loans from banks and one or two investors.

How did you provide capital for this business?

We started with a loan of faith, faith that God will be with us; I took a personal loan with my house because I had no money. I had a little bit but not a lot. But I had a house, so I mortgaged my house against buying two machines, and that’s how we started because the banks would not give you me money. We started with two machines, and gradually you have the banks looking at your numbers and providing you loans. We have over 25 machines now.

Can you tell us about cost and revenues and when the business becomes profitable?

I learned that when you start, you start small before you know that you have a good product and that if you do it, you will make money. Not a massive amount of money, but we were running with a low profit in the second or third year. As we grew, we put all the money we made into investing in new machines, so the profit got away. Everything we were doing was adding new people, buying new equipment, adding more buildings, and renting facilities. Eight years later, we gradually got out of the hole. And that is not unknow for the business where we are because it is such a high capital investment. We are now profitable. We are not making a considerable profit, but we make enough to keep going, add machines, replace machines, add more people, and grow the business.

What do you recommend to an entrepreneur that wants to start a business that needs capital?

If I go back, you need a solid partner if you want to start something that requires a lot of capital. If you don’t have a strong partner is just a battle for many years to survive financially unless you have a golden egg, something that is unique, but in general, find a good partner. I have a good partner. Our US mother company supported me all along. If I look back, if we haven’t had our mother connection in the US, we won’t have been able to survive. You have dry periods, and you need to stay with somebody behind you who can help you if you need much capital. Never go on your own.

Looking back now, can you see some indicators of the social and kingdom impact? Do you measure this somehow or discuss it with your management team or other partners? It comes from time to time in discussions with our senior managers and our meetings when we return to America. The impact in the Kingdom is to employ people; when we use one hundred and more people, we make an impact and grow. One of the things that I see is young people. Young engineers are challenged. They start families. If I looked at the impact when we started with a low number of people, young guys, not married, just fresh in college, now most are married and have children. That is making an impact. We provide financial stability for families.

Thank you, Onno. I am looking forward to seeing you in Romania.

Thank you for sharing a little bit about what’s on my heart. I love to come and see you all in Bucharest.