Kester Eddy in Crnomelj, Slovenia -
Crnomelj is a small, picture-postcard town in rural, southern Slovenia, the forested hills nearby home to bear and wolf: it is an incongruous place to associate with world-class engineering. Yet in a newly established plant on the edge of town, a 600-strong workforce produces what many believe are the best automotive exhaust systems on planet Earth.
“We have customers that are crazy about Akrapovic [exhausts],” George Armenante, a self-confessed 'gear geek' at RevZilla.com, a popular US-based motorbike-gear retailer, tells bne IntelliNews. “If someone buys the best motorcycle from a respected brand or segment, it is often the case that an Akrapovic purchase is sure to follow.”
Germans seem to agree. Motorrad, a leading biker magazine, has voted Akrapovic the 'Best Motorcycle Exhaust' every year since 2006.
Started in a garage
Bespoke pipes are the essence of an €80mn business founded in 1990 by Igor Akrapovic, who started out, appropriately enough, in a garage in the village of Ivancna Gorica, 20 miles south-east of Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital.
Akrapovic, during a modestly successful career racing motorcycles, had become a self-taught motorbike tuner, with a speciality in exhaust systems. The fact that his qualification as an electrician taught him nothing about gas-flow theory appeared to matter not one whit. “For me, for my bike, I always used my own exhaust. I just bought some bent tubes, from a small company, and made some prototypes and tested them on the road: it was potentially dangerous, but at that time there was much less traffic than now,” he chuckles in an interview with bne IntelliNews.
“When you are tuning an engine, you can see the power characteristics, and you can really modify the characteristics a lot with the exhausts. It has a huge influence. I saw some design mistakes that some [manufacturers] were doing, and I had ideas to improve them. And this was the beginning,” he says.
The young Slav also paid attention to the sound of his machines – a vital aspect of the biking experience – and raps the careless journalist who mistakenly enquires about the 'noise' from his pipes. “It's not noise, it's sound! It's the sound that's important,” he growls.
Sound, noise or roar, establishing a business can be a harrowing experience at the best of times: it is all the more fraught when your country is disintegrating around you, as Yugoslavia was at the time. Akrapovic felt this acutely. “It was the beginning of Slovenia's independence. Things [financially] were blocked, and I was without money: it was not easy. At first, I just used stainless steel, but quite early on, I began using titanium tubes. These were handmade in Italy, and really expensive.”
Yet the move to titanium, despite the financial strain, proved to be a visionary masterstroke. 45% less dense than stainless steel, as the titanium content of his designs was increased, Akrapovic could save up to 4-5kg on a superbike exhaust. “Every gram on the race track is important. It affects fuel consumption, efficiency, handling – everything,” he says.
In 1993, the Kawasaki racing team tested and adopted Akrapovic pipes. Four years on, so fitted, the team won its first World Superbike race: not many months later, astonishingly, all the Japanese factory teams – Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha – were using custom-made exhaust systems designed, tested and produced from a village in Slovenia. “This was quite awkward, because this [divided loyalties] is not how the Japanese think and work,” says Akrapovic, “but it was really good for us.”
In 2000, American racing ace Colin Edwards, on a Honda 1000cc V-twin sporting Akrapovic pipes, won the World Superbike Championship: it was just one decade after the Slovene electrician had taken on his first employee, a welder, in his garage start-up.
Bikes to cars
Naturally, production needs had long outgrown these humble beginnings, and by the end of the millennium the company had expanded to a new site on the edge of his home village, replete with well-equipped research and development facilities.
Yet even as the orders poured in for the latest in titanium exhaust technology from moneyed bikers around the globe – the top line systems retail at around €2,400 – Akrapovic was looking for a broader base. “In 2005, I knew that to have just one leg, motorcycle exhausts, was potentially dangerous. So we had to go elsewhere, and cars was quite obvious,” he says.
Perhaps even more than motorbikes, car exhaust systems offer even more potential for efficiency and weight gains, given the right attention. “The exhaust system has been largely ignored, people think it's just a tube you put somewhere to take away the gas,” says Uros Rosa, who, as chief executive, is the man now charged with day-to-day running of the company.
Once again, the team delivered, with research and innovation into specific systems delivering results on the racing circuit – most notably, Akrapovic-fitted Porsche 997s won the prestigious Nurburgring 24-hour endurance race in 2008 and 2009.
As with motorcycles, the auto industry sat up and took notice. Today, about 25% of turnover comes from sales of exhaust systems designed for the likes of Porsche, Audi and BMW, with the promise of more in the pipeline.
Indeed, following a dip in sales after the global recession in 2008-2009, the company has been struggling to expand production facilities – resulting in the move to consolidate production at the new facility in Crnomelj starting last August – in order to meet demand.
With the Slovenian town suffering the worst jobless rates in the country at the time – almost one in five of the population was registered unemployed – the creation of 600 jobs has been a lifeline for the region. “Akrapovic was the first light in Crnomelj after many years of decline. We are the most [deprived] area of Slovenia: even Prekmurje [another disadvantaged province in north-east Slovenia] has a motorway,” Katja Geltar, a student from the town tells bne IntelliNews.
25 years on, the days of Igor Akrapovic testing his hand-honed pipes on the open road are long gone. The Ivancna Gorica plant boasts state-of-the-art research facilities and employs physicists with PhDs to analyse sound spectra emanating from the test rigs.
Yet the founder insists, there is nothing like the human touch to complete the job. “Yes, we have all these [computer] simulations, and you can come to maybe 93 per cent of the answers, but there are so many parameters in an exhaust, you have to test on the dyno [dynamometer] in practice,” he says, adding, in an allusion to the kind of music he appreciates: “You can't make a Stradivarius violin from a computer.”
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