On the face of it, 2010 was hardly the most auspicious year
to launch a new business.
The Great Recession which followed the 2008-9 banking crisis
in the United States and Europe cast a long shadow across the
eurozone, resulting in a series of national bailouts.
Yet, while economists mulled the possibility of implosion in
the eurozone, Erik Zobec was busy hunting for financial backing
to launch a new monolithic refractory company.
With banks in no position to lend, Zobec assembled a group
of seven benefactors - including himself - who eventually
managed to cobble together just enough to set up a new plant in
Later that year, Seven Refractories - a nod to its septet of
backers - commenced operations with Zobec as chief executive
|Erik Zobec was one of the founders of Seven
Refractories in 2010.
Those early struggles have since paid dividends. Next year,
the group will celebrate ten years in business. In that time,
Seven Refractories has become recognized as offering one of the
largest portfolios of monolithic refractory products in the
At the last count, its annual turnover stood in excess of
€65 million ($72.6 million*), with a customer base spread
across 45 countries.
"Never in our wildest dreams did we envisage where we would
get to today, when we first set out," Zobec says of his
company, whose original shareholders all remain in place.
"When you start something new, you’re not
thinking about making a huge profit or becoming rich - all
you’re really thinking about is survival and
justifying all the effort and sleepless nights. Seven was born
out of hard times, but it was also born out of a lot of energy
Recounting Seven’s trajectory,
Zobec’s pride is palpable. The
company’s success is reflective of a strong
personal work ethic that has driven Zobec’s career
over the past two decades.
Not that refractories were always on his radar. Growing up
in the Slovenian-speaking city of Trieste in northeast Italy,
Zobec’s first career ambitions ranged from being a
boat and car designer to a Formula 1 engineer - the latter
sparked by his childhood idol, racing driver Ayrton Senna.
"Inspiration comes from many sources, but if I had to name a
prominent figure, it would be Senna," says Zobec. "He had
amazing charisma, on top of an intense dedication, deep
knowledge and great heart."
Though a career in Formula 1 was not to be, Zobec found
himself studying mechanical engineering at the University of
Trieste. While drawn to the technical aspects of his field, in
his final year Zobec also began attending management seminars,
which he credits as a lightbulb moment for his subsequent
"It was a really important moment in my life," reflects
Zobec. "That’s when I started thinking, 'this
technical stuff is great, but maybe management might be the
thing that gives me a career’."
Not long after graduating with a PhD, Zobec was recruited
for a purchase management position with an Austrian fused
alumina company, something he describes as coming completely
out of the blue, having "never even bought a screw before!"
Zobec was thrown in at the deep end, relocating to Austria
with his wife and working in an unfamiliar language.
"Those first few months were really hard," he says. "But
after that, everything fell into place. We ended up staying in
Austria for six years. Looking back, I was incredibly lucky
they took a chance on a guy like me, with my bad German and
limited career experience, but they did."
Without divulging names, Zobec speaks glowingly of the
individual who headhunted him.
"He wasn’t that much older than me, maybe in
his late 20s or early 30s, but he was a real inspiration," he
says. "Coming from Italy, where at that time, the average
management age was 60-plus, and where nepotism was rife in
business culture, it really impressed me to see a manager so
young. It gave me hope that I wouldn’t have to
wait 40 years to reach the same position."
|Inspiration: Ayrton Senna
Juan Pablo Donoso, via Flickr
The move to monolithics
Zobec’s time in Austria served as springboard
to enter the world of monolithic refractories. He served as a
general manager at a German company for the next 15 years,
before eventually breaking away to set up Seven in
From the outset, Zobec and his team made a point of being
global in their outlook. As well as his native tongue, Zobec is
fluent in German, English, Russian, French and Portuguese.
Seven’s workforce is comprised of 25 different
nationalities and its production footprint spans Europe,
Central Asia and India.
"Being curious about the world is so important," he says.
"At this company, there are so many cultures and nationalities
coming together - it also keeps you young at heart."
What is abundantly clear from speaking with Zobec is that he
loves his job. He cherishes the business of developing and
selling new products (Seven’s portfolio totals
over 800 offerings) and fostering young talent. This, again, he
credits to his former Austrian mentor.
"In any business, choosing the right people and keeping them
on board represent the key for every growth story," says Zobec.
"The lesson I learned from my first boss, and which I try to
pass onto all the youngsters I’ve recruited, is
that when you take a job, above all else, look at the person
offering you the job."
"Of course, the company, environment and products are
important, but the person who offers to recruit you should
instill confidence in you. That’s what I try to
Testament to a childhood spent by water - the Gulf of
Trieste lies in the northeast corner of the Adriatic - Zobec
lists windsurfing, kitesurfing and kayaking as some of his
favorite pursuits outside the office.
"I also like the simple things - spending time with my
family, watching the football with my son," he says. "That
said, I have to confess there is no strict division of work
and leisure. A lot of my colleagues are close friends. There
is never a morning where I wake up thinking, 'Damn, I have to
go to work’."
New ventures and expansions
Despite Seven’s international standing, there
is an undiminished entrepreneurial spirit to Zobec. This year,
the company has gone about expanding its plants in Slovenia and
Kazakhstan and launched a joint venture in India and yet Zobec
has somehow found time to involve himself in a start-up coffee
company in his hometown.
But, he chuckles, he will not be swapping refractories for
Robusta beans anytime soon. Seven is still very much in growth
mode and earlier this year, the group announced plans to
increase the capacity of its plant in Astana, Kazakhstan, by
10,000 tonnes per year of taphole clay.
As part of a joint venture with India’s Dalmia
Bharat Group - known as Dalmia Seven - in May, the group
inaugurated a new monolithics production line at its plant in
Katni, Madhya Pradesh.
In a bid to serve the growing demand of Indian steel
producers, this new production line has enhanced the
facility’s overall capacity to 45,000 tpy. It is
equipped with state-of-the-art feeding and mixing circuit,
controlled by centralized processing software and is able
deliver up to 50 tonnes per shift.
According to Zobec, entering the Indian market was a
"India is one of very few places in the world where you can
be sure there will be growth - even if you don’t
know exactly how quick it will be," he explains.
"We started selling to India around five years ago, but
really wanted to develop a strong local presence there. But
finding the right partner can take time, and requires some good
fortune. Luckily, Dalmia came to us and we ended up joining
forces. Sales are going really well."
As Seven has grown, its main plant in Divača has also
expanded. "When we initially designed the factory, we had
perfect circumstances: lots of knowledge coupled with a
greenfield situation," Zobec says.
"When you see existing refractory production factories, you
often notice inefficiencies, as lots of the sites have been
around forever. Divača was designed as a modern facility,
based on efficiency, flexibility and modularity."
As well as serving the iron and cement industries,
Seven’s most prominent clients include
ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel
producer; Russia’s Novolipetsk Steel;
Austria’s Voestalpine; and Turkey’s
In recent years, both steel and refractory producers have
found themselves in the spotlight over their environmental
performance. Seven has long been ahead of the curve on this
front, insists Zobec, thanks to it alumina-based taphole clays,
which carry numerous energy advantages over standard bricks
used in steel production.
"The entire steel industry is in the midst of a quantum leap
from traditional bricks to monolithics," he says. "All our
products are designed to support our customers in pursuing a
joint green goal - our taphole clays are the most outstanding
example, but it is also the guiding star of our entire product
On top of this, all Seven’s plants are run at
least partly on solar energy.
"We refer to this approach as 'environmentally
gentle’, as opposed to 'environmentally
friendly’. Friendly is a quick smile; gentle is
a touch, an action, something that’s hands-on.
This makes us one of the very few players out there today
selling truly green clay."
Surviving the steel slump
As evidenced by the collapse of British Steel earlier this
year, these are tough times for steel, which continues to
suffer from weak demand, oversupply from China and increasing
Seven’s customer, Luxembourg-based
ArcelorMittal, recently announced a set of production cuts at
its European sites.
"It’s not easy to be in the steel industry in
Europe today," Zobec says. "Of course, this has an impact on
suppliers. But on the other hand, the global steel market has
always been cyclical. Just look at the United States. 20 years
ago, people were forecasting that it would halt its steel
production completely, and now look at it."
According to the World Steel Association, US crude steel
output in 2018 was up by 6.2% year on year.
In his role, Zobec admits having to navigate "headwinds,
tailwinds and currents".
"Some work in your favor, some don’t", he
shrugs. "That means you need a clear vision of your goal, but
also a bit of luck to get there faster."
*Conversion made August 2019