IFSJ Exclusive: Data over opinion with Fomtec

Share this content


John Ottesen, CEO and Founder of Dafo Fomtec AB, sits down with IFSJ Editor Iain Hoey to talk about his life, his company and why the fluorine-free foam pioneer is focused on a data-driven approach

Fomtec has been around for 22 years – can you tell me about your background in the firefighting foam industry and what led to the founding of the company?

I’ve been in the industry for 30 years now. I started my career in the fire industry at Tyco back in Norway in the early 1990s. I spent almost 10 years at the company in various positions, but everything I did related to foam – that is how I became connected to the foam industry.

I found that there is a lot of good things about working in a corporate environment, but I thought there might be an opening for more agile customer-focused company, where decisions could be made more dynamically and quickly and with strong customer focus – that is how the idea for Fomtec came to life.

Going back to 2000 something big happened in the industry – 3M exited the foam market, leaving a significant gap. This was a natural opening for how we came to enter the market, and I have now spent 22 years at the helm of Fomtec.

What were your initial plans and goals for Fomtec back in 2001? Has this changed in the intervening years?

I wanted Fomtec to be an agile, customer-focused, and innovative company. It was about creating the marriage of the product focus and the customer focus: putting the product in perspective as to how it is being used in the system.

We are a fire protection company that makes foam concentrates and hardware, not a chemical company blending a product. The idea I had was to be strongly customer and product-focused and offer in-depth insights into how our products are being deployed in a holistic approach.

My overarching goal was to have the company playing in the ‘Premier League’. You never know when you start something where it will end, but my ambition was always to be coming to a point where we have that kind of position in the market.

The industry has in many ways stayed the same, but there have been many changes over the past couple of decades. When I started back in 2001 and you looked at the UL listings – which is very important in our industry – there were only a small handful of companies with UL-approved products. Today there are many, so in that way, it has become very competitive on the approved-products side of things

After the PFAS story started when 3M exited the sector, the forever chemicals narrative has been impacting our industry ever since and has been strengthening our ambitions year on year to the point where in 2023 we are standing in front of a major phase-out of PFAS products.

How has the industry changed over the course of Fomtec’s lifespan?

Even though we had the internet and emails back in 2001, the internet is today very different from what it was, whether that’s marketing, finding customers, or even down how you deal with people online – it has changed the way we conduct our business. The mediums that we use to communicate and the role the internet plays in how we are visible to the market is a huge transition.

On the chemistry side, obviously, the impact of PFAS restrictions is big. This forces the industry into product development and innovation, it brings in new players into the market, and it challenges us in all aspects of what we do.

Product-wise there have not been any huge changes to the systems. The only thing that has really grown over the years, apart from the chemistry, is CAFS [Compressed Air Foam Systems] has become more of a product than it was back in the day. It was not a big thing back in the early 2000s, but now it has become something more significant. Other than that, it is pretty much the same except for the conditions which are around us. It can be a very volatile market from time to time, just as we are experiencing right now.

What are the biggest milestones/achievements for you and the company to date?

When we set out to do this, I wanted to play ‘Premier League’ when it comes to being one of the top companies in the world when it comes to product offerings and approvals and our overall position. I must say that when we got our first FM approval in 2007 it was a huge thing for me because FM does not approve products, it approves systems. Fomtec is not just a product offering, it is a system – that was a big thing that really lifted the position of the company.

The next big milestone for me was when we got our Military Specification (MIL-SPEC) in 2014 –  there are very few companies on the Qualified Products List (QPL) for the American military, and that was a hugely significant step for Fomtec. At the same time, we made a very smooth transition to C6 – we finished with the transition to C6 in 2014, which I’m proud of.

C6 is short for Short-chain fluorochemistry, and the move from long-chain (C8) chemistry to short-chain (C6) fluorochemistry was a big push by our industry to take steps to introduce more environmentally responsible chemistry. The industry had a voluntary deadline of January 2015 to make this transition from C8 to C6. These days C6 is being regulated as well, and that leads to the transition away from fluorochemistry (PFAS) altogether.

The thing that I’m most proud of is that we were the first company to bring an FM-approved fluorine-free sprinkler foam suitable for both hydrocarbon and polar solvent fires to the market. Being the first to introduce something to the market, to me, stands out as a fantastic achievement.

Those are my three – if you look at it, it’s 2007, 2014, and 2021 – it’s a seven-year cycle between these things.

We’ll have to check back in 2028 to see what you’ve done next!

That was my thinking too.

What is the current focus for Fomtec for the years ahead? What do you foresee being the main focus for yourself and the company?

It’s all about innovation now. It’s really important to be innovative and to continue to drive innovation at this time. We want to bring first-class products to the market. In the way we conduct our business and our innovation, what we talk about is to inspire the industry to focus on data, not opinion.

This transition [to fluorine free foam] is a major technological change and it affects not only the concentrate, but the whole system and the way the products are being used. We who take part in this early transition carry quite a heavy burden because we are setting the stage for what this is going to be. Is the future of foam going to be based on data and facts or are we going to take a short cut by making assumptions based on old truths?

In future generations, when people 10-20 years from now base their system designs and approach to fire protection, they’re going to look back at what was done in the early transition, just as we did. We have relied on the PFAS and testing that was carried out in the 70s and 80s – these we know now are old truths. We are making the new truths, and it is really important for us to do that in the correct way. That is the main focus for us now: to base everything on data, not opinion, to be innovative, and to continue being customer focused, which is key.

This is what I do. I have been doing it for my whole career, and for me, it is about carrying on what I have done and trying to keep that spirit we have had from the very beginning – to be customer focused, innovative, and never lose sight of where we started.

Has the response to your approach been positive?

I think so – I cannot speak for others in the industry, only for us, but it is a commitment to say data not opinion, because it puts a lot of responsibility on our shoulders. We have to really generate data and stick to data, and sometimes that is a heavy burden – you can do something wrong out of ignorance because you really do not have data, but if you do know and you still take the shortcut then that is a heavy responsibility. Our approach has been well received, and customers and users appreciate that, but it comes at a cost – it is not for free.

You have been in foam for most of your career – if you were not doing this, what do you think you would be doing instead?

That is a difficult question because you never know where you’ll wind up! Often it is a pure coincidence, and I think in my case it was a coincidence winding up in the fire industry altogether. But I have always said that if I was not making foam, I would be brewing beer.

Do you have any word of advice/wisdom for the readers of IFSJ?

I just want to reiterate that what Fomtec is all about these days which is: data not opinion. That is really key for the audience and everyone involved in foam and fire systems – that their design and approach to fire protection is data not opinion. It is really important. Fire systems, for most users, are an overhead – it does not contribute to the bottom line of the company who buys the system – but the day it needs to work, it definitively needs to work, which is why the data is absolutely critical. That is my wisdom to share: base your decisions on data not opinions.

This article was originally published in the March edition of IFSJ. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

Receive the latest breaking news straight to your inbox