This summer, the Antwerp fashion house had a unique opportunity to set up in London. The challenge: setting up a British unit in just a couple of days.
Essentiel's colourful, jazzy creations have been part of the Belgian fashion landscape for many years. The brand is also becoming popular in other countries, including France, Spain and the Netherlands and, more recently, in Great Britain, thanks to the intervention of Trade Development. An interview with Erik Vercauteren, CFO at Essentiel.
Why did you decide to enter the UK market?
Erik Vercauteren (EV): "Some years ago we had a presence in the UK through an agent, but we eventually decided to withdraw from that arrangement due to falling sales figures. But a return to the market was never ruled out entirely, provided that the circumstances were right.
Rather paradoxically, our new UK venture began in France. Last year, we opened an outlet in the 1st arrondissement in Paris, in the heart of the fashion district. As our result, our brand had a high profile with fashion lovers and professionals, and also with importers and department store buyers. Harvey Nichols soon approached us with an offer to sell Essentiel through their shop in London."
And that was an opportunity not to be missed?
EV: "Indeed. Harvey Nichols is a multi-brand concern that works on concession: in exchange for a certain percentage of the revenue, we have a counter in their store staffed by our own people and with our own reporting, visual merchandising, etc. That means we can display our wares in Knightsbridge, a prestigious location with a high footfall. To get in on this attractive system, we just had to set up a unit in the UK. We didn't have much time to reflect, because counters at Harvey Nichols are snapped up."
How did you get in contact with Trade Development?
EV: "That was on the advice of our relationship manager at BNP Paribas Fortis. We had already had a close relationship with the bank for many years and we were in regular contact to discuss our strategic plans, potential financing or other matters. The proposal from Harvey Nichols came up at one of our discussions and our relationship manager immediately suggested getting Trade Development involved."
How did it work in practice?
EV: "Our main concern was to set up an entity in the UK as soon as possible, and to opt for the most appropriate legal form. Trade Development's role in that was primarily that of 'matchmaker', putting us in contact with a local partner, Frenger International. They advised us to set up a limited company with start-up capital of 10,000 pounds; this is rather more than the legally-required minimum, a clear signal that Essentiel was serious about entering the UK market. We agreed to this proposal. Once the decision had been made, things moved very quickly: the limited company was set up in a matter of days.
Although contact is now direct with Frenger – which is also responsible for VAT, accounting and tax matters – Trade Development is on stand-by to assist if problems should arise."
What was the advantage for you?
EV: "First and foremost, we saved time in finding a partner, opting for a legal form and getting things off the ground. We also had easy access to local contacts with a very good knowledge of local rules and regulations. Our experience on other markets had taught us that this local knowledge is essential, both with payment norms and business practice."
Is Essentiel doing well in London?
EV: "Our counter has been operating since mid-August and the initial results are very promising. If that continues, there is certainly the possibility of working with Harvey Nichols in other UK stores."
Trade Development saves you from teething problems in foreign markets
Rob Van Veen, Trade Development Manager at BNP Paribas Fortis, explains how his department can help you tap foreign markets.
Why a separate department?
Rob Van Veen (RV): "Trade Development was set up as part of the Global Trade Solutions Competence Centre in Brussels in response to a two-fold customer requirement. Firstly, medium-sized enterprises tend to assign their business development to staff who are also responsible for a number of other tasks. As a result, it is difficult for them to find time to consider a foreign growth strategy or to prospect for new customers. Secondly, they don't have local contacts or the requisite knowledge or resources to capitalise fully on an opportunity abroad."
So they need something that goes beyond standard banking services?
RV: "Indeed. A bank can provide businesses with practical assistance with their plans for expansion by opening accounts, providing guarantees and offering payment services, but customers need much more than that. They want their bank to consider their strategy and help them establish a prudent and efficient market approach. And that's where we come in."
What precisely is the service you provide?
RV: "In a nutshell, we put customers in contact with people who can assist them with their foreign projects from beginning to end. Initially we focus on listening to their requirements, sounding out their plans and examining the various possibilities.
Then we provide the customer with a report containing all the relevant information – including a clear estimate of the costs and projected results – to enable them to make a considered decision that fits with their strategy. This makes the decision-making considerably easier and quicker, because the company doesn't have to do research or establish contacts itself. And if the project gets the go-ahead, we provide the logistical support necessary for bringing it to fruition."
How does that work in practice?
RV: "It all depends on the project, the country concerned and the customer's actual requirements. Our own staff or co-workers in foreign branches provide a number of services. As a matter of fact, Trade Development services were recently set up in France and Italy to that effect. We can also call upon partners on the spot for matters that require specific local knowledge. This might be market research, recruitment, administration, audit services and legal, tax or operating advice.
This approach gives the company the assurance that they have the right people on board. We work with a network of permanent, reliable contacts who are assessed by the customer after every project. In this way we are able to guarantee quality service. However, the main advantage is that our contacts are very familiar with the local rules and practices and are used to working within that framework."
Does that mean you focus mainly on ‘exotic’ countries?
RV: "Absolutely not. Many customers call on us to tap into European markets, often the neighbouring countries. For instance, we are currently working on many cases that involve Germany, which is an attractive growth market for a variety of sectors, but it is very difficult for 'outsiders' to get established there.
And sometimes a company will initially look too far afield. Management may have ascertained an opening in their market coverage or heard from another company in the sector that market X or Y is 'hot', so they want to enter that market as quickly as possible. But they need to consider whether the market concerned does in fact fit with their business strategy. And they also need to be aware of the market's specific characteristics and rules – prime examples are the unique market circumstances in India and China or the high import duties in Brazil."
Is there a fee for the service?
RV: "Yes, customers do pay a fee, but this should be viewed primarily as an investment. And a very attractive investment at that, because it can save a lot of time and a number of other costs that in many cases prove to be pointless.
We need only think of a scenario where a business person prospecting somewhere in South America spends thousands of euros on their flight and accommodation and then has to set about working in an unknown environment, often without the requisite contacts or a clear idea of the potential costs and income. There is every chance that the trip will turn out to be a damp squib.
We can't, of course, give our customers a guarantee of success, but we do ensure that everything is in place to give their projects the best chance of succeeding. And there is also the advantage of continuity: once we have worked with a company and know its strategy, we can act very quickly if it comes to any future projects or projects involving other markets."
Ideal Felt: potential in Poland
With a concrete strategy, specific offering and – more importantly – the right contacts, the Belgian felt manufacturer established a foothold in Poland.
Ideal Felt is a Belgian supplier of technical felt for a variety of industrial uses and coloured felt for decorative purposes. They also manufacture made-to-measure filter sleeves, heat-resisting seals and protective components for industrial use.
The company operates mainly in the Benelux countries, France and Germany at present. Since Ideal Felt has virtually exhausted the potential for growth in these markets, it is now looking further east. We asked Henry Symons, Director of Ideal Felt, how Trade Development helped him approach the Polish market.
Why exactly did you choose Poland?
Henry Symons (HS): "The decision was dictated by our market approach: Ideal Felt is a niche operator with a highly specialised product range. We work with an extensive portfolio of customers in various industrial sectors and they place small orders from time to time.
As the name implies, a niche market is limited: in recent years we thoroughly tapped the market in the Benelux countries, Germany and France and don't expect to turn up many more potential customers. We can therefore assume that companies that want to work with us in those countries are already doing so, or at least know us. As a result, it will be difficult to achieve any further significant growth in those countries. We therefore sought out new outlets, preferably in countries with a lot of heavy industry. Poland came out on top of our list."
Did you go prospecting yourselves?
HS: "We did go to Poland a while ago, but returned empty-handed. That was primarily due to the fact that it was extremely difficult to find the right contacts. Because of our specific range, we rarely – if ever – negotiate with a central buying department, but rather with technicians and specialists on the shop floor. And in many cases those persons were not familiar to the company's general contact, let alone at reception. And when we did get to meet someone, we still had to contend with the language barrier."
So what prompted you to try again?
HS: "During a meeting with our relationship manager at BNP Paribas Fortis, our plans to expand came up again. He immediately advised us to contact the Trade Development department. They in turn put us in contact with Valians International, their partner for Eastern Europe."
Can you describe the actual process involved?
HS: "We worked in stages. Initially we provided the people at Valians with comprehensive information on our company, activities and products. This gave them a better idea of the market, so that they could focus on seeking appropriate prospects and contacts.
Together we then clearly demarcated the target market. It couldn't be too small, otherwise the profitability of potential business with Poland would be compromised, due to the transport costs. We were therefore looking for companies in potentially interesting sectors that could order significant volumes.
We drew up a very specific questionnaire to help Valians identify suitable companies. Based on that, and taking account of the profile of our 'ideal customer', Valians then drew up a shortlist. We whittled the list down further, and eventually we had ten or so 'must see' companies plus a few other 'possibles'."
And then you visited those?
HS: "That's right. There were three of us: our contact at Valians, who acted as interpreter when necessary, our commercial representative for the Benelux countries and myself. We were able to make seven site visits during our week in the country. Because we had selected various sectors and industry in Poland is very geographically spread, too much time was wasted in travelling to manage any more.
Nevertheless, the difference from our first visit was enormous. The major advantage was that the prospects were expecting us, so they took the time required to talk to us and show us their company. One of the company tours actually gave us some ideas for a new application for our products. And this time language was not a problem."
Can you already gauge the results?
HS: "Most of the companies we visited have asked us to provide test material and draw up a tender. It was drafted in Polish, again thanks to intervention by Valians, which is also responsible for the follow-up. So far that has generated one order, and other negotiations are under way.
Establishing a lasting business relationship is not easy, especially for a Belgian niche operator in Poland. Our potential customers had for years been working with cheaper local suppliers, most of them offering lesser quality products. So it will take a long time to convince them that our products are well worth the extra cost.
I remain optimistic, especially since our contact at Valians is now totally familiar with Ideal Felt's offering and can recommend it to other potential customers in Poland. Working together was also a very informative experience that provided us with a wealth of knowledge that will be useful in investigating other markets. As business people, we are constantly on the look-out for sustainable, profitable growth."
Leeuw van de export anniversary edition presents three awards
Competition was very strong during the 20th edition of the Leeuw van de Export Awards. Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT) rewarded three rather than two companies for their strong export results this year. Congratulations to Molecubes, Sylva and Locinox!
This edition of Leeuw van de Export was once again streamed live and was also special not least as it was the 20th anniversary of the award. For the first time, two companies took home the prestigious award in the category of companies with up to 49 employees: Molecubes and Sylva. Locinox won the award in the category of companies with more than 50 employees.
Molecubes' scanners off to a flying start
Molecubes is based in Ghent and develops and builds compact scanners for molecular imaging. Molecubes is a Ghent University spin-off and got off to a flying start in 2015. The company immediately attracted a lot of attention abroad. Molecubes scanners are currently being used in 14 countries already. The Ghent-based company also supplies renowned academic institutions and companies in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries all over the world. And international demand is still high. “The Middle East is still wide open to us”, co-founder Ewout Vansteenkiste says. "Together with our partners, we look at how we can further differentiate our product range and explore many other areas of application. This award is a wonderful recognition of our young team and partners."
Sylva family business sends plants around the world
Plant grower Sylva also received a Lion award. The Lievegem-based company has an impressive family tree that goes back seven generations. Its internationalisation strategy took shape when the current generation took over the company's management in 2003. Today, the company ships 25 million plants yearly to 40 different countries, including several distant markets. "Our strong focus on technological innovation puts an end to the traditional reputation of horticulture and ornamentals”, general manager Tim Van Hulle says. “Winning this award is an incredible boost for us and for the entire Flemish horticulture and ornamental sector.”
Locinox builds gates in all corners of the world
Locinox develops and manufactures mechanical, electromechanical and access control products and components for fences and gates. In such a specific industry, the Waregem family business felt that internationalisation was obvious from the outset. Today, they are the European market leader and 90% of its turnover comes from exports. North America is also an important market. Locinox's complex, state-of-the-art components require continuous innovation. Every innovation also must pass a sustainability test.
Locinox experiences significant growth of 10 to 15% annually. There was no dip due to the coronavirus. The company grew by 35% in the first half of this year. In order to sustain this pace, Locinox intends to double its workforce over the next decade. A new 40,000 m2 plant is in the pipeline to achieve this. “Our ambition is to make sure every quality gate worldwide has at least one Locinox component”, CEO Mik Emmerechts says. “We are proud and pleased that this award gives us the opportunity to show who we are and what we have to offer potential employees.”
A partner who supports your international ambitions
BNP Paribas Fortis sponsored the Leeuw van de Export Awards for the second time. Didier Beauvois, Head of Corporate Banking: "We are very proud of the three winners. Exporting companies are a driving force behind the economy. All the nominees showed a great international track record. They all prove that our knowledge, innovation and craftsmanship can conquer the world. Our bank is committed to helping companies with their export plans from the first steps to expanding into new markets."
Are you inspired by the winners of these three Lion Awards? We offer you the peace of mind you need, with a wide range of solutions to optimise, secure and finance your import and export activities.
Source: Wereldwijs 2021
Which company will cash in on its nomination for the Leeuw van de Export Award?
On the evening of Wednesday 29 September, FIT will be presenting its Leeuw van de Export Award for the 20th time: the highest award for Flemish companies achieving outstanding export results. Will it be Camco Technologies, Container Technics, Locinox, Molecubes, OTN Systems or Sylva?
Every year, Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT) awards a Leeuw van de Export to two companies that have recorded notable achievements in the field of exports in the past year. We briefly introduce the six nominees below. Be inspired by their stories of expansion abroad and find out which companies are voted the strongest exporters on 29 September at 6pm via a livestream at www.leeuwvandeexport.be.
Nominees in the category 'Companies with up to 49 employees'
Container Technics from Wijnegem
Container Technics has been a specialist in cargo securing technology for nearly four decades. The company sells materials to secure cargo on ships and has established a strong reputation in the shipping world. Since there are hardly any Belgian shipping companies, Container Technics has always been an international SME. Today, they are an all-round partner to shipowners around the world.
CEO Wim Ledegen: "For now, we're managing our central stock from our home base, but we're also considering decentralisation. Italy, the USA or Dubai are suitable candidates. The closer we are to the large ports and shipyards with our materials, the greater our response speed and flexibility."
Molecubes from Ghent
Molecubes develops and builds compact scanners for molecular imaging. All hardware, software and technology are from Flemish soil. The devices visualise organs, tumours or the actions of drugs. During research on COVID-19, the company supplied the only type of scanner that can be used in highly secure virology lab environments. Molecubes scanners are already used in 14 countries, with the United States at the very top of the list.
Co-founder Ewout Vansteenkiste: "Far-away destinations are definitely something we're aiming for, with China and South Korea being the 'icing on the cake'. We're a young company, and there's still so much untapped potential. Together with our partners, we'll look at how we can further differentiate our product range and explore many other areas of application for our devices."
Sylva from Lievegem
Sylva is a plant grower and has been a family business for seven generations. Today, 25 million plants are shipped annually to 40 different countries, including a number of overseas markets. Over the years, the company has steadily developed into an established player in the field of forest plants and hedge plants, and has also been servicing the international market since 2003. Today, Sylva has six local representatives and is in the process of tapping into promising, far-away export countries such as Russia and China.
General Manager Tim Van Hulle: "North America is beckoning. However, given the phytosanitary legislation in place there, it's currently not possible to import plants from our country into the US and Canada. But we're now ready to exploit this huge potential as soon as the market opens up for plants from Belgium."
Nominees in the category 'Companies with 50 or more employees'
Camco Technologies from Heverlee
Camco Technologies is a pioneer in terminal automation. The company specialises in container identification and tracking solutions. After the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Finland, they managed to gain a foothold in the United States. Process automation, the latest camera technologies, micro-location, artificial intelligence... Technological innovation is a must for Camco Technologies.
CEO Jan Bossens: "In Europe, we're gradually approaching the ceiling in terms of terminal automation. But there are many large-scale projects on the table in Eastern Europe, Russia and China. And the African continent still offers a lot of potential."
Locinox from Waregem
Locinox is a family-owned company that develops and manufactures mechanical, electro-mechanical and access control products for manufacturers and installers of fencing and gates such as locks, hinges, hydraulic pumps, electric motors and access-code keypads. Two-thirds of the added value is derived from the product range itself, while the rest is derived from services. The company is fully committed to technological innovation and sustainability.
CEO Mik Emmerechts: "Exporting is in Locinox' DNA. As a manufacturing company in such a specific industry, you simply have to expand your reach. Today, 90% of our revenue comes from exports, and we're the European market leader in our niche industry."
OTN Systems from Olen
This technology provider deliberately targets energy and transportation with its applications, two industrial sectors that are currently undergoing rapid transformation worldwide. Their technology makes it possible to migrate outdated telecom infrastructures and then efficiently manage new networks. OTN Systems is now active in more than 70 countries and on every continent.
Chief Product Officer Jurgen Michielsen: "Our technology isn't very different from that of the giant telecommunication providers, other than that we develop and implement fully customised solutions for our industrial customers. We continuously look to innovate and stand out from the major market players. We do this by coming up with clever ideas and through our human-centred approach."
Find out who will be crowned winners of the Leeuw van de Export Award 2021 during the livestream on 29 September at 6pm. Register in advance at www.leeuwvandeexport.be or visit the website on the day itself.
Are you ready for your first international adventure or do you want to expand your international activities? We offer you the peace of mind you need, with a wide range of solutions to optimise, secure and finance your import and export activities.
Source: Wereldwijs 2021