Fazer’s Xylitol factory project is a prime example of how new business operations can be created from a by-product of one factory. What is needed is not only a company investing in environmentally friendly technology but also someone with the required expertise and courage to run with ideas that may seem wild at first; i.e. someone like Anna Nicol.

Anna Nicol, who was raised on a dairy farm in the Savo province in Finland, had an interesting and winding journey before being hired to her current position as the Director of Fazer’s Xylitol factory project. “I don’t think the idea of a Xylitol factory would ever have occurred to me if it wasn’t for my diverse background”, she says.

Anna studied Business Administration at the Lappeenranta University of Technology and before her career at Fazer, she worked as an Auditor, Business Controller, Internal Auditor and Management Consultant. Her career at Fazer began in 2007 as an Internal Auditor and, later, she worked as a Risk Management Director. “My duties included managing the Group’s insurance policies, and I worked in close cooperation with the Strategy team”, Anna says. From 2009 to 2012, she was on maternity / nursing leave, and after returning to work she continued to work in Risk Management and Internal Auditing”.

Sights on the future

In 2014, she took a sabbatical and headed for Scotland. “My husband and I wanted our three children to get to know his family and culture”, says Anna. She recommends that everyone take a sabbatical at some point in their careers: “It gives you a new perspective to life. Work is important, but there are other things in life that are even more important”.

The children keep her focused on the future, so when she was offered a position in Strategy Management after the family returned to Finland, she did not hesitate to accept the offer. In the new position, her extensive experience in the Group – all countries and business areas – was an asset. “It was extremely interesting to have the opportunity to plan the company's growth strategies”, Anna says. “My earlier job rotation helped me develop a broader perspective, and my understanding of the Mill processes was also a driver in the Xylitol factory idea”.

Xylitol from oat hulls – bold creativity at its best

The idea of making Xylitol from oat hulls was conceived in May 2017 when the company was reviewing the contribution of the Xylitol products manufactured at the Karkkila factory towards the company’s growth strategy. The company wanted to receive the Hyvää Suomesta label (the Swan Flag) for the products, however this was not possible, since the Xylitol made in Finland was not of Finnish origin. “I started looking into the matter more closely”, Anna says. Since oat hulls were quoted in many sources as a potential source for Xylose, she contacted Fazer’s Research and Development team and the Lahti Mill for additional information. “At first I thought that my idea is probably just plain crazy but decided to run with it anyway”, she says with a laugh. And it was a good thing she did!

Anna emphasises that the idea was refined through teamwork; i.e. via experts from numerous fields. The idea involved a completely new technology, which required expertise from outside Fazer. After conducting laboratory tests with a partner specialising in Sugar processes, the company concluded that using oat hulls was financially feasible, environmentally friendly, as well as a fully circular economy. After that, the company involved Business Finland. “We conducted extensive studies and tests on how the raw material behaves in production”, Anna says. “We continued developing the processes, and still do, and have filed several patent applications”.

The Xylitol factory is a circular economy innovation

The Xylitol factory is Fazer’s largest individual new investment in half a century, and the project has progressed efficiently. According to Anna, the overall time from the initial conception of the idea to its approval took just 18 months. Now the construction of the new Xylitol factory is underway, and the factory is scheduled to be operational by autumn 2020 – 3.5 years after the initial idea.

Anna is particularly happy about how the entire project supports Fazer's responsibility strategy, including the reduction of waste and emissions. Oat hulls produced as a by-product of the Mill are conveyed from the Mill directly to a production facility for further processing. The end product is high-quality Xylitol for the food, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Waste has been minimised as the new biopower plant uses the processed oat hulls to produce energy for Fazer's entire factory site in Lahti.

“It is great to be able to use production side streams efficiently through this innovation. The carbon footprint of our Lahti site will be significantly reduced”, Anna says. “This is circular economy in the true meaning of the word. Growing up on the farm taught me how important recycling and re-using everything was as I saw how much work primary food production requires. A circular economy is something I want to promote both at home and at work”.