Very few Belgian companies can point to the kind of sparkling growth achieved by Odoo, a world leader in business management software for small and medium-sized firms. Underlines Odoo CEO Fabien Pinckaers: “We need a bank with real backbone. We count on BNP Paribas Fortis to support our development.” Watch the video interview.
In the space of barely fifteen years, Odoo has carved out a prime position in its sector. Basing its products and services on open source development, this young company, headquartered in the Walloon Brabant municipality of Ramillies, today does business on several continents and employs over 1,000 people worldwide. Odoo doesn’t do things the same way as other firms – and that includes its approach to banking.
BNP Paribas Fortis recently came up with solutions to two essential requirements for Odoo’s growth: carrying out a restructuring of its shareholder base; and making sizeable real estate investments in local farms in Brabant – one of the hallmark features of the company, which focuses a considerable part of its business there – plus also a major extension project at Louvain-la-Neuve.
"Odoo is a disruptive company that tends to shake up the norms on all fronts. This prompts us to think about our business as bankers,” says Jean-François Pierreux, Odoo’s Relationship Manager at BNP Paribas Fortis. He points out: "The company has a positive attitude. It keeps moving forward, it sees the big picture, and it hires people. It’s also pursuing its impressive growth in spite of the health crisis. So it’s our job as bankers to find innovative solutions to the firm’s financial needs and provide them with real added value.”
Robovision: “Within five years artificial intelligence will have become omnipresent”
Robovision has emerged as the best-known AI player in the Benelux countries. However, this young firm has an even more extensive vision. “Healthcare, agriculture, the environment… within five years artificial intelligence will have become omnipresent,” foresees CEO Jonathan Berte. BNP Paribas Fortis is an important partner in their growth.
Jonathan Berte, who trained as a civil engineer, smiles as he thinks back to the pioneering years at Robovision. “In fact, when I was a kid I had a really analytical mindset. In the scouts and at school I used to keep note of absolutely everything. It was really important for me to collect information. I was a kind of ‘infoholic’. But just gathering information gets you nowhere. That also goes for information that’s just stored on hard disks. The added value comes from using that information efficiently.”
How exactly do you do that at Robovision?
“Technology is evolving at lightning speed. These days just about everybody has a smartphone in their trouser pocket. Apart from anything else, these devices create a great deal of information, so we need to keep up on the algorithmic front and artificial intelligence helps us with that. That’s how we can provide governments, institutions and companies large and small with a platform for automated decision-making on the basis of visual data. In addition we constantly ask ourselves how we can democratise artificial intelligence. So in a way we’re like the Airbnb of artificial intelligence.”
What might that visual data be for example?
“In May, in collaboration with the University of Antwerp and security firm Securitas, we set up a smart camera in a shopping street in order to measure to what extent people were complying with social distancing requirements. This is important information for the decision makers in this country. Of course we don’t have to look through the images ourselves. We get them analysed using a specific type of artificial intelligence – self-teaching algorithms or what are known as neural networks. They’re designed somewhat along the lines of our own brains, though not nearly as complex.”
Which brings us to the fashionable expression ‘deep learning’. Are machines eventually going to make themselves smarter than us humans?
“Oh, that’s already underway at this very moment – in radiology, among other fields, plus also in games. Remember the legendary Go match between South Korean grandmaster Lee Sedol and a computer, which was beautifully represented in the 2017 documentary film AlphaGo? We’re also focusing on deep learning, because neural networks are very efficient at dealing with visual data. However, it will be some time yet before AI can equal a human being in intuition for instance.”
You’ve now evolved from a startup to a scaleup. Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
“The society of tomorrow will be one in which everything will be properly measured and dealt with. For instance, we’re also working in the field of horticulture, where AI can be applied in quality control – to spot fruit with an abnormal shape or colour, say. Lots of agricultural and horticultural businesses have got into difficulties over the last few months because pickers from Eastern Europe weren’t able to enter this country. Those businesses will very probably be investing in AI and automation over the next few years. In these kinds of fields, the coronavirus has taken us to a digital society almost overnight.”
What sort of partners do you need in order to succeed in your aims?
“During our growth from startup to scaleup, BNP Paribas Fortis has always been an important partner. You have really taken a lot of trouble to understand our story. Of course you do need to grasp our plans from a banking standpoint in order to be able to assess the risks. But quite apart from that, I have the feeling that you’re particularly good when it comes to supporting the whole tech and startup scene.”
Sunglasses that can help save the oceans
Yuma Labs makes sunglasses from recycled PET bottles. The Belgian firm has grown from a one-man startup into a company that manufactures items for other brands as well. But can the firm combine growth with sustainability? At BNP Paribas Fortis we certainly think so.
Yuma Labs (originally named YR Yuma) is the brainchild of Sebastiaan de Neubourg, explains his business partner Lenja Doms. She tells us: "Sebastiaan was working as a consultant, but he was itching to set up his own business. His idea was to use a 3D printer to make sunglasses from recycled plastic. He then found out at first hand why no-one had tried this before. Because it proved to be quite a bit harder than expected,” laughs Lenja.
By 2017 Sebastiaan had a workable prototype and he started a crowdfunding campaign for his sustainable sunglasses. It was an immediate hit. However, the project wasn’t first and foremost about achieving successful sales, reveals Lenja. “Sebastiaan saw the sunglasses primarily as a tool for making people aware of the basic principles of the circular economy. There’s no such thing as waste. A used Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle provides the raw material for a new product, such as a pair of sunglasses.” And to complete the circle, the customer is encouraged to trade the sunglasses back in at the end of their life, in exchange for a new pair at an attractive discount.
Sustainable manufacturing, as Yuma Labs does it, inevitably means that the final product is more expensive. “Fully twice as expensive,” Lenja points out, explaining: “We certainly don’t want to see the circular economy pigeon-holed as the province of the elite. We already take account of the entire life-cycle of a product, and we take responsibility for the recycling and re-use of the materials. And let’s be quite clear about this: that’s more costly than just putting a product on the market without worrying about what happens to it later.”
Aiming for growth
In summer 2019, Lenja Doms and Ronald Duchateau came on board the Yuma team. This provided an opportunity to broaden the focus and look further than the consumer market. This month, Yuma Labs announced a collaborative project with a major fashion company. This upscaling will enable Yuma Labs to reach out to a much larger audience.
A good mix
In order to grow, a business needs financial resources. Yuma Labs has looked into quite a number of possible solutions, says Lenja. “These days there are a lot of initiatives designed to support sustainable businesses – from banks, the government and private investors. We’ve always tried to find the right balance between our own capital and external finance, and to achieve a good mix of different forms of finance between capital, grants and loans.”
Lenja has a golden tip for other businesspeople in the circular economy: "All too often I observe that the economic side of the story is neglected because companies keep on trying to find the perfect solution or the perfect product. There’s no sense in that. You shouldn’t try to be whiter than white.”
Creating added value
At BNP Paribas Fortis, Maxime Prové is the Account Manager for Yuma Labs. He endorses Lenja Doms’ view on this. “Entrepreneurs who set out to do sustainable or social business must also have a desire to create added value, otherwise the business won’t last,” Maxime points out, underlining: “You can’t pursue a sustainable, environmental or social business model unless it’s underpinned by a profit-making scenario. That’s the only way you’ll be able to grow, hire more people and make a greater impact.”
Photo: Karel Hemerijckx
Scale-up concludes mega contract in the midst of the coronavirus crisis
The Antwerp-based scale-up IPEE transforms ordinary toilets into innovative products. BNP Paribas Fortis is more than just the financial partner. IPEE have already come into contact with the right people via the bank’s network several times.
“The traditional urinal has no brain. The infrared eye simply detects that someone is standing in front of the urinal. The result? A lot of wasted water and misery”, says Bart Geraets, who founded IPEE in 2012 together with Jan Schoeters.
The scale-up devised new measuring technology that makes it possible to detect through the ceramic of a urinal when someone is urinating or when the urinal is blocked. With this innovative technology, the scale-up designed urinals that use half as much water and toilets that can be operated without touching them.
“IPEE is an atypical scale-up that innovates in a sector where little has changed in the past few decades”, says Conchita Vercauteren, relationship manager at the BNP Paribas Fortis Innovation Hub.
Jan Schoeters: “At first we mainly focused on durability. But we soon felt that with non-residential applications, the potential water saving is subordinate to the operational aspect. We had to be able to offer added value for each stakeholder in the purchasing process.”
We opted for sleek designs to appeal to architects and end users. The simple installation attracts fitters and maintenance people see the advantages of the sleek design - that is easy to clean - and toilets that do not overflow.
Until 2015, Schoeters and Geraets, along with Victor Claes, an expert in measuring methods and originator of the IPEE technology, put their energy into product development and market research. The financing came mainly from money that they collected in their network of friends, fools and family.
They had to go elsewhere to obtain the funds for production and marketing. Geraets: “We had a product, but it wasn’t ready to sell. To take that step, we needed investors.”
Looking for new investors was a challenge. Schoeters: “We aren’t software developers and we don’t work in a sexy sector. So we miss out with a large target group of investors.”
The young scale-up attracted the attention of Ronald Kerckhaert, who had sold his successful company, Sax Sanitair, at the end of 2015. “He pushed us to think big, more than we dared ourselves. And he never headed for an exit. His express goal was to put our product on the world market”, says Schoeters.
IPEE has achieved impressive growth since then. The product range was expanded and new sectors were broached: educational institutes, office buildings and hospitals. The technology is now used by Kinepolis, Texaco, Schiphol and Changi Airport (Singapore).
“We very soon turned to Asia, because new technology is embraced more quickly there”, Geraets explains. The IPEE technology is distributed in Singapore - where the scale-up has its own sales office - China, Thailand and Vietnam, among other places. About half the turnover comes from abroad, although the coronavirus crisis will leave its mark this year.
“My biggest headache is achieving healthy growth”, says Bart Geraets. One advantage for IPEE is that in coronavirus times, hygiene stands high on the agenda. The scale-up's touchless toilet facilities meet that demand.
At the same time, the shortage of water and the need to use water sparingly is very topical. Geraets: “We notice that in these strange times we are gaining an even bigger foothold. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis we concluded a contract with the world’s biggest manufacture of toilet facilities. Now it’s a matter of further professionalising our business, the personnel policy and the marketing.”
The company’s main bank is an important partner here. Schoeters: “It is more than just a financial organisation. We have already come into contact with the right people via the bank’s network several times. Our bank feels more like a supporter that is also putting its weight behind our story.”
Not words, but actions: how can you realise your internationl project?
Gaining a foothold in a foreign country is no easy task, and some good advice alone will not suffice. Trade Development at BNP Paribas Fortis is the perfect partner to turn theory into practice!
Many companies want to try their luck outside our borders and gain a foothold in new markets. This is necessary not only to be able to continue to grow, but also to remain competitive. But if you don't know where to start, it's hard to put your money where your mouth is. How do you find the right market? How do you find prospects? How do you prepare the whole operation in all its aspects? What risks do you need to cover? And which partner can you trust? All important questions that can make or break your project. And this is how international ambitions are sometimes left on ice....
"We want to help companies achieve their international ambitions", says Rob van Veen, Head of Trade Development at BNP Paribas Fortis.
"We look at the local market into which the company wants to launch and make sure the underlying potential is sufficient." And so, the first step towards success is taken.
WHEN GOOD ADVICE IS NOT ENOUGH...
There's a deep gap between theory and practice that managers do not always dare to cross. It's essential to collect a lot of data and information, but this is certainly not enough. Talk must then be followed by action. Your growth project's first stone must be laid... preferably with the greatest possible chance of success and as few risks as possible. In such an adventure, (good) guidance is not a superfluous luxury. Even more reason to call on the support of Trade Development: a partner who can assist you with a wide range of solutions and help you establish a long-term strategic vision. In Belgium and beyond.
"In their project's first phase, companies often find a lot of information and support from the Belgian export promotion agencies", says Rob van Veen. "But they don't get all the practical answers they need to roll out their activities in a given country."
Given that growth prospects in Belgium are rather limited, companies must therefore look for international growth. But where? This is where the Trade Development team comes in. Your choice of target market is certainly crucial. A vague, poorly thought-out decision can have dramatic consequences: examples of failure abound – partly because companies don't understand the local 'culture'. Companies sometimes gravitate towards exotic markets because others have gone before them. But every international project is unique: does the market fit into your overall strategy? Are you aware of all the challenges that lie ahead (regulatory, commercial, etc.)?
"Let's take the example of a company that wants to set up in Brazil. Our first question is then: what activities have you already been carrying on in Europe? Might there be new, undiscovered opportunities there? For example, it's much easier for a company to set up in Poland than in Brazil, where taxes on imports are extremely high" , continues Rob van Veen.
HIGHLY NECESSARY 'LOCAL' CONTACT PERSONS
Your project has taken shape and you've determined your target market. The time has then come for Trade Development to roll out one of its greatest assets: access to a global network of competent and reliable partners.
"We introduce the client to local specialists who can support their project abroad from start to finish. One deals with the roll-out of activities, another specialises in legal and tax issues, and a third takes care of the administrative side of things. We prefer to work with small, local agencies, most of whom are long-term BNPPF network partners", says Rob van Veen.
These contact persons have a perfect knowledge of the national rules and customs and know how to adhere to that specific framework. The company therefore has the great advantage that it can benefit from such a skilled team: a win-win situation. "In addition, our permanent contact persons are evaluated by the client after each project. This way, we can guarantee the quality of our services!"
BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS: Save TIME AND gain EFFICIENCY
Are you looking for an effective distributor or a reliable representative? An ideal on-site supplier? Do you want to determine these contacts' actual potential or get to know possible new partners? Not easy for a company…
"Most of them are looking for a white knight. Our trade developers draw up realistic selection criteria in consultation with the client. They carry out a financial analysis of the commercial partners and check their technical baggage and their reputation", explains Rob van Veen.
First, a list of four or five serious and interested candidates is drawn up, and then the contact phase follows. "Our local contact introduces the candidates to the Belgian company to ensure that both parties are interested in a partnership. Once all these issues are clarified, the relationships can be rapidly explored in depth."
SUCCESS IN THE FIELD
Every target market has its problems and risks: from the language to cultural and commercial differences. Very specific problems that are often difficult to solve from Belgium, especially in the post-COVID-19 era. Hence the importance of being surrounded by specialists who know the country like the back of their hand. Need an example? "To be able to supply retailers in the UK, you often need to be able to invoice at a local level", explains Rob van Veen. "Our trade developer can then act and take care of the local invoicing and accounting on the company's behalf at a fixed and transparent rate for each transaction. This is a simple initial structure that does not require major investments but is very interesting professionally." The client can naturally then seek its own local partner. "That too is a task they can leave to our contact person, who has the necessary experience to do so." Need another example? Russia, where everything takes a huge amount of time... Trade Development's network of experts can also speed things up considerably here and solve problems more quickly.
- Odoo: supporting the growth of a company that’s breaking the mould
- Robovision: “Within five years artificial intelligence will have become omnipresent”
- Sunglasses that can help save the oceans
- Scale-up concludes mega contract in the midst of the coronavirus crisis
- Not words, but actions: how can you realise your internationl project?