Foam plantain: New company building during the Corona crisis

At the Wrzburger Heuchelhof, the new Foam Plantain plant is to be opened by the end of the year. Managing Director Markus Wegerich on a large project during the Corona era.

A striking new building is currently being built in the industrial area at Heuchelhof. The company Schaumstoffe Wegerich wants to move in there by the end of the year. How does a managing director feel when the corona pandemic bursts in the middle of his multi-million dollar project? In an interview, Markus Wegerich talks about sleepless nights, the chances of the new building and the hype surrounding face masks.

Question: Mr. Wegerich, many companies are currently plagued by Corona. On the other hand, you and your company are about to complete a large new building at Heuchelhof.

Markus Wegerich: Foam Plantain has developed continuously. What we are now summarizing in the new location is just the sum of the previous areas: At Heuchelhof we have two buildings with storage, production, upholstery and sewing. In Lengfeld we have a hall for factory sales. We also process foam and fabrics there. Because the new head building will be two-story, we are only enlarging in the office and social areas.

Then what is the advantage of the new building?

Wegerich: The shorter routes are an essential aspect. Our company traffic has to go back and forth between the locations every day. Some of our products march across the city until they are finished. In addition, we have to design three retail store opening times, with always enough employees for the customers.

Among other things, there will be a showroom in the new headquarters of Schaumstoff Wegerich, in which customers can get an insight into production and sewing. Photo: Thomas Obermeier

Has there been a plan to bring everything together in one location for a long time?

Wegerich: At some point the thought came up that it might make sense to take the sums of the rent to pay for a building of your own. Once such a thought is there, it can no longer be turned off. Since mid-2018, I’ve only seen processes that are better and more rational. For the first time I freely considered how it should ideally be.

And then?

Wegerich: On April 1, 2019, I asked the city of Wrzburg for a piece of land. As an example, I named the property opposite Obi at the Heuchelhof. The city’s answer was: Exactly this piece of land exists and at 10,000 square meters it is the only one available of this size.

What happened after this lucky break?

Wegerich: In the planning phase I decided to have the new building built by a turnkey provider. According to the plan, we can move into the new building from November and then want to open soon. Our subsidiary Schwarzweller will also have a branch there; the shop in town also remains.

What exactly does your business consist of?

Wegerich: Basically we are a larger craft business. In addition to upholstery and sewing, we also have a large machine park with CNC machines, compression cutting and water jet cutting machines. Foam and fabric and everything that can be made out of them is our thing. Of course, this includes seating and lounging elements, but foam is also used for packaging, soundproofing, acoustics improvement and footfall sound insulation. In Germany there is no wage level to produce inexpensive large series. That is why our business has always been the individual small commission that is in a hurry, for example customers who need a custom-made mattress for their motorhome within a very short time because they then go on vacation.

What is your company’s main product?

Wegerich: There is no such thing as one product, we are jack-of-all-trades and stand on many different feet, because foam and fabric offer countless possible combinations. There was once a customer who wanted to let a waterfall fall onto the stage in the theater, but the audience should stay dry. The solution was a pool of water with a foam element on top, also known as a mosquito sponge. The water could fall through, but the drops wouldn’t splash out. There are the craziest uses.

“Corona reinforces a trend: Many are becoming aware that regional shopping and sustainability are important issues.”

Markus Wegerich, managing director of the Wrzburg company Wegerich

How has Corona affected your industry?

Wegerich: In times of crisis, people usually start to make themselves comfortable at home. So the interior design industry has more to do. Corona is also reinforcing a trend: Many are becoming aware that regional shopping and sustainability are important issues. These customers want to be sure that their product has been made in a decent workplace for a decent wage.

How was your company doing during the lockdown?

Wegerich: That was an absolute roller coaster. We had the construction project for the new location ahead of us, I had signed with the bank, I was in debt, and then Corona came. You can get ice cold; with 60 employees we have a lot of costs every month. When the lockdown came, we only registered short-time working for three days in retrospect.

Why this?

Wegerich: Because suddenly we were producing masks. After all, we had everything we needed for the production of masks: seamstresses, a workshop, bedding, elastic bands, filter materials. We just made 20 prototypes of masks. Then I called the managing director of Arche, which runs various old people’s and nursing homes in the region. Shortly afterwards he was in my office, took three of the 20 prototypes with him and an hour later ordered 1,000 masks and arranged for the next 10,000. That’s how it started.

“There were customers on the phone who cried, pleaded, scolded. We were completely overwhelmed.”

Markus Wegerich on the rush to face masks

and kicked off a whole avalanche

Wegerich: After I sent an advertisement to our customers at the beginning of the lockdown that we were now producing masks that had been found to be good by an expert committee, there was a lot of interest. The special thing about the advertising was that I honestly said what we were doing now because I had to see how I could get my company and employees through the lockdown. Suddenly there were inquiries from journalists from all over the world, we ran on ARD and Pro7, were in the Bild-Zeitung and the SZ.

Masks instead of mattresses: The rush for face masks from Foam Plantain during the lockdown was huge - and generated a lot of public interest.
Masks instead of mattresses: The rush for face masks from Foam Plantain during the lockdown was huge – and generated a lot of public interest. Photo: Daniel Karmann

What happened then?

Wegerich: With the hype came chaos: on the first day we had 1,400 emails, the phone rang non-stop; on the other end were customers who cried, pleaded, scolded. We had people in the yard knocking on the window because they saw that masks were being made inside. We had inquiries from the police, fire brigade, THW, pharmacies. We first supplied the hospitals, nursing homes and pulmonologists and tried to create a sensible list of priorities. We were completely overwhelmed.

Was there anything positive about it?

Wegerich: Yes, our notoriety has increased, and I suspect the masks contributed to that. Our image has improved. And with what it does, the mask is symbolic of what we usually do: it is not sexy, but really good. Incidentally, the demand went away as suddenly as it came at the moment when disposable surgical masks were available again.

The previous four Foam Plant Plantain locations are to be merged in the new building.  The move is planned for November;  the opening later this year.
The four previous Foam Plantain locations are to be merged in the new building. The move is planned for November; the opening later this year. Photo: Thomas Obermeier

What gave you the most sleepless nights during the lockdown?

Wegerich: The existential fear. I know I have a healthy company. But nobody was able to answer the questions of how long Corona lasts and what effects it will have. Then there is the concern of getting all employees through time. And for me personally, the discrepancy between I run from A to B and meet representatives from hospitals and old people’s homes and at home my wife and the children who have decided not to have any more social contacts.

Have you ever seen the new location in danger?

Wegerich: The work never hung, but progressed at high speed. It can’t go completely wrong now.

Foams plantain

Foams plantain is a manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer of foams and fabrics. Markus Wegerich has been the managing director of the Wrzburg company with 60 employees since 1996. The company, which plans to open its new headquarters at Heuchelhof at the end of 2020, is currently spread across four locations.

One location is already at the Heuchelhof. A second was added in 2000 and an online office in 2005. A hall in Lengfeld has been rented since 2010. In 2015, the Schwarzweller business in the city center was taken over as a subsidiary. The company’s main business is shipping. Foam Plantain produces, among other things, care bed mattresses, anti-decubitus mattresses, orthopedic storage elements and ships around 100,000 packages a year.

Target customers are nursing and old people’s homes, hospitals and sanitary facilities; also several thousand commercial customers, including interior decorators and music retailers.

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