“Business is very satisfying!” says Antonio Dal Ben, CEO of PAL, and groans happily. “The whole group is full of orders!”

Under the influence of a strong Italian coffee Antonio becomes expansive. He comes close to admitting that actually things are excellent.

“Ligna was very good. It brought lots of business for all the companies. And it was very concrete business, not just talk. So the coming months, and the year, should be very good, and it should stay good into the foreseeable future.

"It is worldwide. In several countries we are refurbishing and installing new equipments in an existing plants. We are building in Poland, making a big particleboard plant, everything in it up to the forming station, for start-up at the end of the year. As usual, there is a lot of activity in Asia. Asia is all about new plants, the rest of the world is substituting or improving existing plant.

"And for the future, we see more of the same, and better. Our position in the market is improving. In particleboard, in OSB, in MDF, all we see is growth, growth, growth!” Time, and time to develop, is everything, “In the last years we have developed lots of new machines and technology. So now we need time to improve them.

"At PAL we have our new optical sorter, to remove plastics and other impurities from recycled wood. We have been working a lot on this machine. In Italy and in Europe we have installed some, and now we have some in Asia as well. IMAL has a high-pressure system for Particleboard. And in OSB,

our position is going up, including for the preparation area." IMAL and PAL, as we said above, form part of the Panel Alliance, a grouping that works together to pool their expertises and marketing. Antonio’s son Andrea Dal Ben expands on how the alliance is working out.

“The partnership is a most beautiful thing. It is working well. At the Ligna fair the customers were liking it very much that they could bring their needs to one organisation instead of to four or five. They like it also because we can be flexible. Five companies working together can offer more than one big company that can only supply the entire lines that it makes itself.

"If someone says ‘I want this part of my line locally, from another supplier’, of course we like to sell our own products but we say ‘OK, no problem.’ Every time we can give cooperation, give the customer what he wants. This too the customer likes. They don’t like to be obliged to do something.

"And we, the companies like it. We respect each other and work together; we speak openly between us, there is a good feeling. "Insurance is helped, for companies and clients alike, by the fact that the team can work like one. We have worked with some suppliers in the past who offered no flexibility, in designs or in delivery timings, or who did not keep us informed of things they were doing that required changes from us.

That sometimes gave us lots of problems. Now we can give one warranty that covers all the Alliance’s work. And when we are developing our machines we can discuss them with the others, to see how they can be made to work best together, to compliment each other.”

Do not strains grow up within the alliance? “Not so far. We avoid them because we try to be clear that everyone has their own skills and position. We do not overlap in what we offer the customer – that would not make sense.

"At the same time, if someone from, say, PAL sees a niche in the market that would lie outside their own expertise, he talks to the right company, say Globus or Vynke, about it. This is the synergy. So when we work on a project everyone plays his part.

"The companies do not lose their own identities, nor their own individual style. For example, IMAL today employs 180 people: they have increased their workforce. PAL will be recruiting in the near future. As turnover increases we need to increase our size.

"Turnover this year for PAL will be twice that of last year, for certain. We can tell that already. We hope it may be more, but doubling your turnover is enough! For the IMAL-PAL group as a whole the expectation for turnover is 170 million euros; last year it was 105-110 million euros. It seems our strategy over the years is giving results.” Antonio returns to the conversation.

“Panel Alliance is evolving. At the moment, it is co-operation between the companies. In the future, who knows? But just now we do have between us all the expertise for panel production machinery. Everything is inside, nothing is missing.

"We see no big change in panels. There is constant development, for example in special applications for cleaning gluing systems. ‘We want things the others don’t have’ say the customers ‘and we want it with minimum cost and minimum adjustments to what we have already.’ We can reply to them ‘You can do this and this and this, and it will make your plant more flexible and save you money.’ Innovation is what puts your position ahead of the others: if you have what the others do not have, then you have the advantage.

"Plus of course we invest inside the company to make everything go faster. Decisions get made later in the ordering process because customers look at all the options for their money and keep those options open as long as possible before committing themselves. At the same time, they want the results ever sooner. So we need to be very fast if the customer wants delivery two months or even one month from ordering.

"So we need to invest a lot to make the same things that we have always made but do it faster. We have no option, because otherwise we will not be in the market.” The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland had to run fast just to stay in the same place. So it is with PAL.

“Horizons move ever closer. This is a common thinking through the group. It has to be, otherwise we could not work together. We do work faster, but we take no short cuts in quality. Sometimes it is difficult, but that’s what we have always done, that is what the customer wants.

"It is also good for us. It keeps us on our toes and running fast.”