'Greenfreeze' company comes in from the cold

April 10, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

NIEDERSCHMIEDEBERG, Germany -- The world's first ecologically correct, ozone-safe refrigerators are coming off the assembly line at a drab East German plant in Lower Saxony.

Developed with the aid of the environmental organization Greenpeace, the new refrigerator cools without ozone-eating chlorofluorocarbons, uses 10 percent less energy than comparable models -- and saved the manufacturer from extinction.

Called Clean Cooler, the "Greenfreeze" refrigerator uses the naturally occurring gases propane and butane as coolant. Equally important, the insulation foam is made without global-warming chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.

"You can take it apart and it's all recyclable material," says the enthusiastic Siegfried Schlottig, an executive of FORON, the company that makes the Clean Cooler.

Now, with the international target date for phasing out ozone-destroying chemicals moved up to 1996, the giant West German appliance manufacturers -- which once scorned the Greenfreeze technology as "impossible," dangerous and too energy-consuming -- are scrambling to put out their own "green" refrigerators.

FORON is the privatized successor to DKK, an old state-owned enterprise of the Communist German Democratic Republic.

The plant, a complex strung out by a sparkling stream, once produced all the refrigerators and freezers in East Germany. When it was DKK, the acronym used by the old East German Cooler Co., it employed 6,000 people.

Every apartment built by the GDR had a refrigerator made by DKK; 10 million households had a DKK fridge; 60 percent to 80 percent of households had its freezers.

"In the last year of the GDR, 1989, we produced a million refrigerators and freezers," says Mr. Schlottig.

"We made 2.2 million compressors," the pump that circulatecoolant, he adds. About half went to East Bloc countries: the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, even Cuba.

"The government dumped our freezers in the West for giveaway prices," Mr. Schlottig says frankly. "They were sold under our name in France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and England."

Western consumers were getting a good deal. The price was low and the quality high, says Mr. Schlottig. The East German quality control agency decreed that DKK refrigerators should last 22 years.

But with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in East Germany and Eastern Europe, DKK's markets collapsed, too. The company tottered on the edge of liquidation.

Big West Germany refrigerator makers like Siemens and Bosch took a look and passed.

Walter Zinsser, a director of the London-based East German Investment Trust that would eventually invest in FORON, said the West German companies wanted only DKK's markets, not its manufacturing plant. They have plenty of capacity of their own in the west.

Mr. Schlottig agrees. One western company studied DKK six months before saying no thanks.

"They didn't want to put up any capital," he says.

Treuhandanstalt, the government agency charged with privatizing East Germany, ordered DKK closed.

But the DKK managers had learned some lessons of their own.

"We didn't tell [West German manufacturers] of this process," he says. "After the wall came down, we became a little crafty."

Greenpeace had brought together DKK and two scientists, Dr. Hans Preisendanz and Professor Harry Rosin of the Dortmund Hygiene Institute, who were also working on propane-butane technology.

The new process for cooling and insulation was incorporated in an apartment-sized refrigerator that is popular in Germany. Greenpeace commissioned 10 prototype models from FORON.

And Greenpeace launched an aggressive advertising campaign to save the company and gain acceptance for the Greenfreeze idea. Greenpeace says the drive cost $300,000 and that it does "not make a cent on this development."

"Greenpeace helped a lot," Mr. Schlottig says. "If Greenpeace wasn't there, we would have been wiped out. Greenpeace helped us to show our customers the firm is still in existence. Greenpeace helped with Treuhand."

Treuhand relented. FORON got orders from a major German mail-order house for 70,000 refrigerators. And a consortium that includes the East German Investment Trust, a Berlin bank group investing mostly Kuwaiti money and company managers is committed to buying FORON.

The company survives. But of the 6,000 workers once employed by DKK, only 600 remain at FORON. FORON's story is fairly typical of the region, and of all the former East Germany. Redevelopment is agonizingly slow.

"With the development of our new refrigerator, we hope to be able to increase employment," Mr. Schlottig says, perhaps more wistful than hopeful.

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