It all began on the fringes of an IAA motor show in Frankfurt. ElringKlinger had already invited Plastic Omnium to an initial meeting at the trade fair. Taking up this invitation, the French delegation headed by Laurent Burelle, majority shareholder and then CEO of Plastic Omnium, and Félicie Burelle, then Head of Strategy & Development and now Managing Director, visited ElringKlinger’s booth at the show. During discussions that involved ElringKlinger CEO Dr. Stefan Wolf, Head of Fuel Cell Technology Armin Diez, and Head of Global Strategy, M&A, and Innovations Dr. Gernot Stellberger, those attending the meeting soon realized that the companies not only had similar structures but also shared the same values. Both corporations are listed on the stock exchange, but have families as strong anchor shareholders. What is more, both companies have a clear vision of emission-free mobility: hydrogen will be an essential energy carrier of the future.
On this IAA meeting, both partners were equally enthusiastic about their shared awareness and agreed on further rounds of negotiation to sound out and define a joint approach. Dr. Gernot Stellberger led the discussions on behalf of ElringKlinger. His counterpart at Plastic Omnium, Marc Perraudin, CEO of Plastic Omnium New Energies, joined the project task force in early 2020 after the initial groundwork had been laid. This turned out to be a fortunate coincidence, as both men knew each other from earlier collaborations. “This gave us a tremendous sense of trust in each other, which proved beneficial to the subsequent workflow,” Stellberger recalls. “We didn’t have to spend time on figuring out what makes the other person tick,” adds Perraudin. “Instead, we were able to focus fully on our common goals.” As part of this process, both maintained a close dialogue with their respective CEOs. Both Dr. Wolf and Laurent Favre, now CEO at Plastic Omnium, were always kept fully briefed on the individual steps of the project.
The initial task for Perraudin and Stellberger involved defining the companies’ common views on mobility. Both Groups are of the firm opinion that the hydrogen-based fuel cell represents the next generation of drive technology. Both realize that large-volume production will make this particular solution more appealing, as economies of scale help to reduce the overall price per unit. Initially, the strengths associated with this technology are likely to come to the fore primarily in the commercial vehicle sector. After all, a battery-powered truck would probably have to stop at a charging station on several occasions to complete its tour in the case of long-distance travel or delivery routes that have a particularly demanding profile. However, recharging also means idle time for the forwarder and thus additional costs. Alternatively, the battery fitted to a truck could be dimensioned in such a way that fewer recharging stops are required.
In this case, however, the forwarder would be faced with additional costs or less profit due to a smaller payload. Trucks powered by fuel cells, by contrast, are capable of resolving this conflict. The power needed is generated on board, which translates into greater distances covered and the avoidance of lengthy downtime. Refueling is unlikely to take much longer than before. Even if it takes twice as long, truck drivers will certainly not be held up for an hour or more, as they would be in the case of battery recharging.
“Based on this common understanding, we then went on to identify the strengths that each partner can contribute and planned the next stage,” Stellberger explains. “It was clear that we wanted to work in very close collaboration to cultivate the fuel cell market.” Agreement was reached on a joint venture for stacks and components. At the same time, Plastic Omnium would acquire ElringKlinger’s Austrian subsidiary for the purpose of establishing a focus on systems. ElringKlinger possesses the technology needed for reliable components and high-performance stacks and was prepared to contribute it accordingly. The emphasis for Plastic Omnium, meanwhile, is on supporting the joint venture in an effort to expand production capacity and accelerate market penetration. The company based in Levallois near Paris will provide a total of EUR 100 million for this purpose. “Our joint venture has access to outstanding technology. It is equally important that customers are made aware of this quickly and in as compelling a manner as possible,” says Perraudin in explaining the objective of the cooperation.