How to make money from making money
- 22 September 2011
- From the section Business
We all want to make money. Some of us work overtime, some of us scrimp and save, whilst others invest. But one Canadian went a little further than most and decided to make money, from, quite literally, making money.
In 2007 Chad Wasilenkoff bought the Landquart Paper Mill in south-eastern Switzerland. It had been making security and speciality paper for more than 100 years and was the only mill in the world making the Swiss franc.
Under Mr Wasilenkoff's stewardship, Landquart has been commissioned to produce banknotes of more than 100 currency denominations for more than 25 countries around the globe.
It is one of nine mills making the euro. But how does it do it?
It is perhaps a little known fact that most banknotes are made from 100% cotton, so before the process of money-making can begin, the mill imports leftover cotton from textile factories in India, Pakistan and Turkey.
About 25 tonnes of cotton per day are brought into the main hangar at Landquart.
There, a machine called a "plucker" combs the cotton and feeds it into a big cylinder where it is checked for metal and plastics.
"We've even found shoes during this process," says Marco Ziethen, the production manager at Landquart.
Dust and potentially explosive particles are filtered out by what looks like a giant tumble-dryer at the back of the room.
Then, next door, in the muggy bleaching room, the cotton is soaked in caustic soda and hydrogen peroxide. The fibres are cut into small pieces, and when Mr Ziethen takes a sample of cotton out of the container it looks like bright, white popcorn.
The cotton is turned into a pulp and washed because, as Mr Ziethen says, "no-one wants to be handling money that is coated in acid".
Then it gets exciting.
The cotton is transported into the high security part of the mill where it is turned from pulp to paper.
Here workers and guests are weighed as they enter and leave. Cameras follow every move and sensors check that you are not carrying extra boxes in which you could smuggle out rolls of banknotes.
The staff here must come to work with see-through plastic bags - like at airports. And those are just the security measures they were telling us about.
It is a very noisy room and is dominated by the huge paper machine. Depending on which currency is being made, the workers will select a cylindrical mould and fix it onto the machine.
Each mould is roughly 3m (9ft 10in) wide and individual to a particular country. Most are embossed with a watermark as well as the amount of the note.
A giant roller pushes the pulp over the mould. On a platform above sits a bank of 40 reels of security flex that thread the metal strips into the paper like giant cats' cradles.
The pulp is squeezed of excess water and then dried by steam imported by a pipe from a refuse incinerating plant 6km (3.7 miles) down the road. The entire process takes a mere eight minutes.
The paper cascades down a huge white back-lit screen where it is checked for flaws before being turned into shoulder height rolls of paper.
There is a small, empty desk in the corner with a discarded magnifying glass on it. "Sometimes" says Mr Ziethen, "paper-makers like to double-check their work".
At this point the money is totally worthless, but Mr Ziethen says: "Most of the security features are in the paper by now - so we don't want to lose any of it!"
The final journey for the paper is the cutting section. The rolls of paper are loaded onto a machine and fed through a guillotine that cuts them into sheets.
Here they are also injected with a traceability marker, so that it is clear which mill made each note.
European Central Bank rules state that each sheet must be checked again for mistakes. It is painstaking work for the two men who sit behind a set of computer screens, their eyes glued to the paper passing before them.
If there is a tiny flaw in one corner of a note, the whole sheet will be rejected.
Before Mr Wasilenkoff's company Fortress bought the mill, this job was done by dozens of women who sat at desks in the corner of the room.
The sheets of paper are then stacked onto pallets and packaged, ready to be sent off by armoured vehicles to the printers.
Mr Ziethen quickly works out that each pallet has 18,000 sheets of paper on it. Each sheet will eventually be cut into 54 notes. That is an impressive 972,000 notes on each pallet.
The mill runs 24 hours a day and it takes half an hour to make a pallet. So, overall, the mill can turn out around 46,656,000 notes per day.
If they are making 500-euro notes that day, the amount of money passing through these doors is simply mind-boggling.
The large amount of output is thanks to the modernising efforts of Mr Wasilenkoff.
"It's a multi-decade project that requires a lot of capital," he says.
As a "contrarian type of investor", Mr Wasilenkoff bought the Landquart Mill at a time when the forestry industry was struggling to perform and failing to attract investors.
The mill had been making thousands of different commodity products from one very small machine - so simply was not able to compete globally.
Fortress streamlined production so the mill focused solely on security paper for passports and visas, as well as bank notes.
It went from producing less than 1,000 tonnes of paper per year to 10,000 per year.
Mr Wasilenkoff says that by investing in research and development, Landquart is able now to stay ahead of its competitors.
"We have the latest, the greatest and the most state-of-the-art machinery," he says.
Mr Wasilenkoff does admit that it is pretty tough to be a company exporting from Switzerland at the moment.
Landquart posted weak second-quarter results this year - due in part to the strong Swiss franc.
"Appreciation hurts... our operating costs are escalating and most of our sales are based in euros, so we're not able to pass that cost on," says Mr Wasilenkoff.
But there is some good news for Mr Wasilenkoff and Fortress.
As economies like those of India and China expand, their governments need a company that can produce a great volume of banknotes.
What is more, they are looking for companies that can keep up with the increasing amount of banknote fraud.
Counterfeiting has prompted a 4% growth rate in the banknote industry.
National banks used to update their currency every 15 years. They now have to change their notes every seven to eight years just to stay ahead of the counterfeiters.
With the advent of colour printers and scanners, the security features in bank notes need to be robust and state-of-the-art.
Fortress hopes that the Landquart mill can help banks to "stay ahead of the curve" and of course - make some money in the process.