#StrongerTogether Carmeuse, an international company serving the community

Even at the height of the coronavirus crisis, the world’s second-largest producer of lime and lime-based products never stopped working. This is because its customers, in sectors ranging from healthcare to food, needed its help, and because lime is an essential ingredient in our everyday lives.

"We’re proud that we’ve been able to help Belgians deal with the crisis."
Yves Schoonejans, CFO Carmeuse

Limestone is probably one of Belgium’s most misunderstood natural resources. Belgium is home to some of the world’s largest lime producers, which operate mainly in the provinces of Hainault, Liège and Namur.

They include Carmeuse, which has 80 production sites all over the world.

Lime is everywhere

The unique chemical properties of lime and lime-based products mean that they are used in various sectors. They include steelmaking, construction, pharmaceuticals and the production of drinking water and food to mention just a few.

As a result, lime is omnipresent in our everyday lives. It is used to make a wide range of products (such as steel, paper, glass, leather, ice cream, powdered milk, cheese, soap, glue and sugar cubes) and forms part of many industrial processes, particularly in the environmental sector (e.g. flue gas cleaning and water treatment). These are just a sample of lime’s uses.

Helping Belgians get through the crisis

"Right from the start of the crisis, the government recognised that Carmeuse was an essential company, because it helps meet people’s basic needs," says Yves Schoonejans, the company’s Chief Financial Officer.

"So none of our factories has shut down since mid-March, and for good reason: lime-based products are used to make bleach, the detergents contained in disinfectant gels and medical equipment such as blood bags and protective gloves. At Carmeuse, we’re very proud that we’ve been able to help Belgians deal with the crisis."

Damaging effects

Nevertheless, like many other companies that have continued running throughout lockdown, Carmeuse has been affected by the crisis.

"Since mid-March, our two priorities have been to safeguard the health of our 4,500 staff members and ensure deliveries of our products to all companies whose activities were deemed essential by the government. And we have succeeded," confirms Yves Schoonejans.

"However, reduced business levels in many sectors mean that we’ve seen a sharp drop in our sales volumes. That was particularly the case in May as the pandemic spread in North America, where two thirds of our business is located."

"BNP Paribas Fortis fulfilled its role completely"

But this limestone giant is a rock itself. Carmeuse is a solid company that has been able to deal with the unprecedented situation by controlling its costs, without having to ask its financial partners for any payment holidays.

"That hasn’t been necessary," explains Yves Schoonejans, "but we owe a debt of gratitude to BNP Paribas Fortis which, at the height of the crisis, played a big part in renewing our bank loans for the next five years. The bank completely fulfilled its role in co-ordinating with our other banking partners, and we were able to refinance on very good terms despite the unfavourable overall context."

A long-standing partnership

"Our relationship with BNP Paribas Fortis is not a traditional bank-customer situation, it’s a real partnership," continues Yves Schoonejans.

"Without trying to predict how the pandemic will develop in the next few months, we’re confident that we can, and will continue to be able to, call upon BNP Paribas Fortis if our financial needs change."

That confidence is especially strong since, although no two crises are the same, the two partners have already overcome one, 12 years ago. "Fortis Banque and BNP Paribas Belgique were already two of our main banking partners in 2008. Their merger at the time further strengthened our relationship: despite the fall in our order book, caused by the economic conditions at the time, BNP Paribas Fortis didn’t try to scale down its commitments towards us and acted as a real partner from the start. That episode obviously increased the respect and trust between us."

Confidence in the future

After a difficult May, Carmeuse is looking ahead with relative optimism, even though the economic consequences will take many months to work through fully.

"The way the pandemic has been handled in Europe means that the manufacturing sector is gradually getting back to work. So I think that the worst is now behind us. We’re pleased that we’ve managed to fulfil our responsibilities towards our customers and all of our fellow citizens, and we will take pride in continuing to do that," concludes Yves Schoonejans.


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#StrongerTogether BNP Paribas Fortis helps Lites to calm the storm at underwater studio

When it comes to cameras, film equipment and lighting installations, Lites is at the cutting edge. In 2019 the company invested €23m in - inter alia - a huge underwater studio in Vilvoorde. However, the coronavirus crisis put a stop to all planned activities. A bridging loan plus repayment moratorium are now giving the firm some breathing space.

"The orders are now starting to trickle back in and a number of productions are once again scheduled for the next few months."
Wim Michiels, CEO Lites

The brand new underwater studio installed at Lites premises is unique in the entire world. Wim Michiels, an underwater cameraman by profession who is the Lites CEO, tells us: "We’re able to carry out all kinds of water shoots, both under the water and on the surface – storms, tsunamis, meters-high waves, clear, murky or coloured water, 20-ton underwater sets, mist, rain and wind – you name it, we’ll make it a reality with our technology. Shooting in water calls for a huge amount of preparation and it’s therefore very expensive. When shooting at outdoor locations, you’re also dependent on the weather conditions and the water is much colder. In our underwater studio, we’re able to work with very short preparation times because all water effects are built in. This offers more opportunities from a creative viewpoint and it’s much more cost-efficient."

An unexpected storm

"Following their heavy investment and the successful start in 2019, 2020 should have been the year for Lites and its underwater studio," says BNP Paribas Fortis Relationship Manager Sara Smets, adding: "But they couldn’t reckon with the coronavirus crisis, which has stirred up a very different and entirely unexpected storm."

Lites had ten production slots booked for the first six months of this year. Then in March, the company was forced to put everything on hold. Says Wim Michiels: "I contacted Sara immediately to see how BNP Paribas Fortis might help us out of this difficult situation.

"Thanks to the bridging loan the bank has given us to cover the first period, plus a deferment of capital repayments until the end of October, we’re keeping our heads above water for the moment."

"The orders are now starting to trickle back in and a number of productions are once again scheduled for the next few months. However, some of our staff are still partly on technical unemployment because we’re not yet back up to full speed."

Monitoring and regular assessment

"Sara Smets, our Relationship Manager at the bank, is pretty well aware of all the ins and outs at Lites," confirms Wim, explaining: "She’s following events closely and always looking for appropriate solutions. At the end of every month I provide her with a summary of the current situation and outlook and we assess how things stand financially. We hope to get back to bringing in an adequate income very soon but this has been a heavy drag on the company. Nevertheless, I’m quite happy with the measures that the government and the banks have put forward."


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#StrongerTogether Novolab supplies protection & tests in the fight against Covid-19

Novolab is an independent, family-owned laboratory equipment distributor based in Geraardsbergen, Belgium. The coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult to keep up with demand for facemasks, disposable gloves, and testing and other equipment, and the company needed to get this to Belgium quickly.

"There are a lot of things we can no longer get in Europe, Covid-19 sampling and testing equipment were in particularly short supply."
Bram Gernaey, Business Manager Novolab

Business Manager Bram Gernaey says: "We normally work with European manufacturers, but this time we looked to Asian companies to meet demand for protective equipment. “There are a lot of things we can no longer get in Europe as a result of the pandemic, and Covid-19 sampling and testing equipment and other products were in particularly short supply."

As a stopgap solution for facemasks, the company developed a small filter that fits into a cotton facemask. "We got the filter certified, and it’s selling fast," Gernaey says. "We launched it on our own account, with help from a number of local companies. We should be fully restocked by the summer."

Cash injection

Novolab urgently needed finance for its purchases of huge quantities of protection and testing equipment at the height of the crisis. "Our clients are often government bodies, and they're not in the habit of paying their invoices upfront, so we contacted BNP Paribas Fortis."

"They very quickly helped us with an instalment loan, which gave us the cash injection we needed to prepay foreign manufacturers. We couldn't have done it without this extra credit line."

100 percent digital

"The entire application process was digital," adds Renzo Struyve, Relationship Manager at BNP Paribas Fortis' Business Centre Connect in Courtrai. He communicated with Bram Gernaey via Webex. "The bank set up the BC Connect service about a year ago, to meet customers' digital needs. Everything takes place much quicker, because we don't need a face-to-face meeting, and this has worked very well during the corona crisis."


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#StrongerTogether Chacon starts up again with renewed vigour & strong belief in its future

The crisis struck Chacon SA just as it was growing strongly, dealing a hard knock to Europe’s smart home market leader. “But it was just an accident,” says Frédéric Pont, Chacon’s Managing Director and CFO at the AwoX group. "We’re back on our feet and moving forward again, thanks partly to the professionalism of our main bank BNP Paribas Fortis."

"We continue to move forward, with a motivated team that has managed to cope with the difficulties."
Frédéric Pont, Managing Director Chacon

The start of the lockdown came at a delicate time for Chacon, a Wavre (Walloon Brabant)-based firm which is part of the Awox group, the European market leader in the ‘smart home’ sector. At the moment when the lightning struck Europe, Chinese suppliers were opening up again one after the other on the other side of the world. Equipment deliveries originally scheduled for months ago began to flow into Belgium and business was in full swing.

"We started the year 2020 with the wind in our sails, with 10% sales growth in the early months," recalls Chacon Managing Director Frédéric Pont. Then in mid-March our distributors – mainly DIY shops and mega stores – shut down abruptly, one after the other, in most of the dozen countries where we do business."

The main priority

Before thinking about stock or turnover however, there was one major priority. "Our people of course!" underlines Frédéric Pont, explaining: "During those first days of the crisis, safety took precedence over everything. We set up a crisis cell to organise remote working wherever possible and also figure out what was permissible under the employment legislation in the various countries where we have staff, in terms of partial and/or temporary unemployment. We then talked to our suppliers in order to postpone deliveries and re-negotiate payment schedules. Meanwhile, we continued with R&D on new connected products and did what had to be done so that when the moment came our production chain would be able to start up again. And we got in touch with our bankers. We certainly needed them."

A hard knock

between 13 and 30 March, Chacon’s turnover was close to zero. Nevertheless, Frédéric Pont always remained optimistic. "Our business is profitable, it’s growing, and we have a great product range," he underlines, telling us: "The crisis has hit us hard, but however tough the situation may be, it’s only an accident. We’re going to cope with it and get going again. We needed some cashflow to get through this and set off again as quickly as possible. BNP Paribas Fortis, our main bankers in Belgium, fully understood this."

The Bank lost no time in offering Chacon a 6-month deferment of its scheduled repayments. "This was a first gulp of oxygen for our client," stresses Sébastien Wéron, Relationship Manager for Chacon at BNP Paribas Fortis, pointing out: "but the company also needed a new line of credit in order to continue to finance the business while waiting for the fine weather to return."

A sound company in spite of the crisis

Frédéric Pont and his staff submitted various different scenarios – ranging from worst-case to best-case – to the Bank. Sébastien Wéron takes up the story again: "Based on this information, we would have liked to say ‘Yes’ to our client right away because the company is healthy and the basics are sound. But one vital element was still lacking: the certainty of obtaining guarantees from the central Belgian government and the Walloon regional authorities. Our client understood the constraints we faced and really appreciated our openness on this issue. A few weeks later, Chacon became one of the first companies in Wallonia to be granted a new loan underpinned by the two aggregated government guarantees."

Creative solutions suited to the need

"BNP Paribas Fortis proved to be really receptive and responsive to our needs," acknowledges Frédéric Pont.

Underlining: "The Bank did its job. They were there when we needed them. And this wasn’t the first time they had offered us creative solutions suited to our needs. A good example is a recent factoring arrangement, which enabled us to reduce our short-term borrowings to less than one third. I really want to thank our contact persons at the Bank for their highly professional approach."

Going forward

Chacon never actually shut down, and now business is gradually taking off again. Frédéric Pont shows both a philosophical and optimistic attitude: "We continue to move forward, with a motivated team that has managed to cope with the difficulties. We do have some delay with our schedule but we’re still standing. We’re going ahead with our business and we’re confident of our strengths."

Chacon in the Awox group

Chacon is a Wavre (Walloon Brabant)-based company that became part of the French group Awox in 2018. The company sells electrical gear such as cables, extension leads and switches, and video-security equipment, plus also a universal standard 433Mhz radio frequency and WiFi (DIO Connect) connection system that enables smart management of the home. Based on the Awox (specialising in connected lighting) and Cabasse (leader in high-end sound systems, known especially for its Pearl speakers) brands, the group is today the European market leader in the ‘smart homes’ sector.


#StrongerTogether Make sure to support our companies after the lockdown.
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#StrongerTogether Rubbens distillery switches from gin to hand sanitiser

When the coronavirus crisis broke out, a Belgian distillery quickly made radical changes to its production line.

"When the first hospital called to ask if we could deliver 1,000 litres of sanitiser, everything happened very quickly."
Hendrik Beck, Rubbens

Rubbens is a well-known family-owned gin distiller and wine distributor in Wichelen, in the Belgian province of East Flanders. It is managed by Dirk Beck and his son Hendrik.

"My father took over the distillery twelve years ago, when I was still a student," Hendrik says. "I joined the company seven years ago, and my wife has been in charge of group distillery tours, the brasserie, and the banqueting rooms. So we really are a family business."

Stronger together

"A week after the lockdown began, I read online about a small British distillery that was using its alcohol to make hand sanitiser," Hendrik Beck recalls. "Shortly afterwards, a hospital called to see if we could supply 1,000 litres of sanitiser. After that, it all happened very quickly. My late grandmother’s motto was to always be ahead of the game, and it’s a good summary of our philosophy as a business. We’re energised by change. We’re now producing 20,000 litres a week to help protect our fellow citizens against public enemy number one."

"Rubbens is very much an example of stronger together. During the first few days, our sales reps helped to fill drums, the brasserie workers operated the bottling line, and even the office staff stepped well outside their comfort zone. And we’re also very grateful to the government – they had people working on a Sunday afternoon to help us get the necessary documents together."

Helping a business to grow

"Our bank, BNP Paribas Fortis, also stepped in to the breach straight away. They’ve always shown 100 percent confidence in our business, and they’ve displayed a great deal of flexibility, expertise, and customer focus. Very soon after the crisis began, my relationship manager called to ask if there was anything they could help with. I appreciated that."

Hendrik’s relationship manager is Stephanie Salomez, of the bank’s Business Centre Connect Antwerpen. "When the crisis began, we immediately called all our clients," she says. "Hendrik told me about their rapid change of direction, and the huge demand for hand sanitiser. He asked if the bank could finance his advance corporation tax payment, and we immediately agreed, so Rubbens could continue using its own resources to continue growing. Shortly afterwards they also needed an extra truck for all their deliveries, and again we funded this so Hendrik could use his own working capital."

"We even placed a big order for hand sanitiser with Rubbens after Herman De Belder, our business centre’s relationship manager, passed on their details to our facilities department. Hendrik was very grateful for that. Yes, it’s a really good relationship."

"We immediately agreed to provide funding so that Rubbens could continue using its working capital."
Stephanie Salomez, Business Centre Connect Antwerp, BNP Paribas Fortis


#StrongerTogether Make sure to support our companies after the lockdown.
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