Article

22.02.2016

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."

Article

22.02.2016

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."

Article

22.02.2016

Essentiel: London calling

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."

Can a fashion company be successful even if it forgoes the excesses of fast fashion? Definitely, as Jean Chabert proves with Stanley/Stella, which produces custom-made clothes from organic cotton.

“We want to be a game changer,” says Jean Chabert, CEO of Stanley/Stella. "When I was born 62 years ago, 2 billion people were living on our planet. Today there are 8 billion. That’s the reality, so we need to stop depleting resources. Human activities always have consequences, but we must constantly strive to improve. That’s our commitment, and we enshrined it in a charter in 2022. We monitor our entire ecosystem and focus on people and trust."

Clothing as a means of communication

The B2B company from Brussels sells clothing that serves as a means of communication. Stanley/Stella customers have T-shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies printed or embroidered and they offer these personalised items to their own customers. "We're in a giveaway industry, and our prices are at least 50 per cent above the average. But we offer superior quality and respect for people," says Chabert.

Organic cotton: half the water

15 of the 220 Stanley/Stella employees are directly or indirectly involved in Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) activities. For example, they check that agreements on working conditions and safety at the production sites are respected. The company buys its organic cotton, produced without Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or pesticides from India, Tanzania and Turkey - it uses 70 per cent less water than conventional cotton. Stanley/Stella has also made long-term commitments throughout the production chain to minimise any negative impacts on people and the environment. For example, 90 per cent of containers arrive at the warehouse in Germany by inland waterway, the least polluting form of transport.

Considering all the impacts

“Of course, we have to remain realistic,” Chabert adds. "Companies that want to be viable must also remain profitable. By definition, we use resources to make textiles. So, we consider all the impacts. For example, we continue to operate our textile decoration business in Europe, even if it's more expensive. Wastewater containing inks and dyes is treated and reused. At the moment, we can't avoid electricity being generated by gas in Bangladesh. We check how willing a country is to make progress in this area. And in the meantime, we offset what we can't avoid."

Trust and humanity

“Trust is at the heart of any good relationship,” says Chabert. "I used to have a cash flow problem. I relied on my own equity and for years, had no loans. I was the only shareholder for a long time. Eventually, I opened my capital to 40 per cent and applied for loans from BNP Paribas Fortis. Today, we know each other well, and I don't have to explain my company's limitations; they know the industry. They co-finance the stock, offer an invoicing solution, support our development in the United States thanks to their international network, and much more."

Today, it’s full steam ahead for Stanley/Stella. In 2023, turnover more than doubled to EUR 170 million. The company also hopes to enter Japan and South Korea soon. For Chabert, one thing is clear: "Our most important wealth is not on the balance sheet. It’s our people."

Stanley/Stella is ready to change the world. Discover more entrepreneurial stories.

 

We monitor our entire ecosystem, focusing on people and trust.

Our prices are at least 50 per cent higher than the average. But we offer superior quality and respect for people.

The young Belgian Cohabs renovates town houses and turns them into well-equipped, comfortable and stylish cohousing projects. The social and environmental aspects are also important in their story.

"The real estate market has been very tight for a few years. Finding a house or flat in the city is not easy. The economic situation is not ideal for new housing projects, but demand for housing remains high”, explains Youri Dauber, CEO of Cohabs. “The challenge? To curb parcellation and concreting by densifying cities. We also need to make buildings more energy efficient and, last but not least, find solutions to loneliness, which many people suffer from across generations.”

Cohabs has 2.500 rooms, spread adcross 150 buildings in Brussels, Paris, New York, Madrid and Luxembourg. The rent includes all costs such as internet and a Netflix subscription, as well as a cleaning service and the use of the gym, a cinema room, the garden and a coworking space. To make living together easier and avoid any frustrations, Cohabs supplies a number of basic products in all houses, such as toilet paper, washing-up liquid, olive oil and salt and pepper. The Cohabs residents of a city keep in touch through an app and can meet each other at a party held every month.

Not just young professionals

"When we started out in 2016, we had a target group of 25-35-year-olds in mind. But we immediately received a lot of applications from people over 50,” says Dauber. "My own parents, who are 75, pushed me to open up the concept to their generation too. We realised that cohousing is not just for young professionals. There are also people in very different stages of life who are going through a kind of transitional period. This is often accompanied by loneliness, as in the case of a divorce or someone who has lost their partner. We also think about what we can offer families. They need larger communal spaces and well-defined conditions. Like any young and innovative company, we’re evolving as we go along. We learn by trial and error.”

Solidarity and social coexistence

The young managing director is regularly amazed by the social adventure that coliving can be. "We had a 45-year-old Syrian refugee who saw something in cohousing. We thought living with a group of twenty-somethings would never work out. But we were wrong. The relationships built there proved so rich that we’re now working with the French NGO Singa. In the meantime, we offer solidarity rooms in some forty of our houses.”

Design, upcycling and an app

The young company is firmly committed to design. To that end, it works with Lionel Jadot, the Belgian pioneer in upcycling. His approach fits perfectly with Cohabs’ environmental philosophy, which itself also uses recycled materials for renovations. Solar panels and rainwater recovery are also part of this story. "Achieving an EPC score of B or C is our goal. This is exceptionally good for old buildings,” Dauber adds. "We are carbon neutral and a member of 1% for the Planet.”

Ready to push boundaries together

Cohabs was able to count on the support of BNP Paribas Fortis for investments and the purchase of new buildings. “They’ve been part of our story since our third property. Back then, we were just a small company, but we were asking for significant sums of several tens of millions of euros. But they supported us and granted us loans, which allowed us to grow abroad as well. It’s really a collaboration. They put their trust in us and believe in the potential of our concept."

Cohabs is ready to change the world. Discover even more inspiring entrepreneurial stories.

Quotes

“In forty of our cohousing houses, we offer solidarity rooms for people who want to reintegrate into society.”

“My 75-year-old parents pushed me to open up the concept to their generation as well.”

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