'You don't win a war with a defensive strategy'
For years the West Flemish loom manufacturer for capets and velvet Van de Wiele has been the world’s undisputed market leader without much need for recognition or fame. When they recently took over the British tufting machine manufacturer Cobble, Vande Wiele’s CEO and for 20 years owner of the enterprise, Charles Beauduin, granted an interview. He was quite astonished by all the attention around the takeover as Cobble will only add about 15 million euros to a company that earns an annual turnover of 407 million and spends 60 million euros in growth each year, of which 10 percent in research and development. Their home base in Marke near Kortrijk is an impressive site, with building cranes all over the 25-hectare business premises. When Brussels-born Beauduin joined Vande Wiele in 1993, the company was struggling with succession problems and Beauduin bought all the Vande Wiele family shares. The Beauduin family had made their fortune as a shareholder of Tiense Suiker, which was subsequently sold to the German Südzucker. Since the takeover the group’s growth has trebled as a result of international growth and local investments. Charles Beauduin explains: “The industry’s problem in Europe is a lack of investments. Look, I could easily doubled my profit by reducing my investments in research and development and by cutting down on automisation. That would give me five years of positive figures, but then it will all collapse. Growth is not a given. It’s a long-term investment. Every two to five years we develop a new type of machine and take as long as five to ten years to develop new technology. To add to that, Vandewiele operates in a highly cyclical industry. In 2009 we practically halved our turnover, but thanks to our strong capital base we never ran into trouble; partly because we earn only half of our turnover from looms. They also produce servomotors for trucks, pneumatic pumps for bus doors, air-conditioning drives etc. These are all technologies driven by machines, but every division that develops its technology also sells it to a third party. Despite profound product automisation, no jobs will be lost, with company growth resulting in more job creation. He says jobs will only be shed if there is no more growth. Vande Wiele expects its staff to remain mentally flexible by keeping abreast of the latest technologies and always prepared to learn. “At the end of the day everything stands or falls because of its people,” he says. Companies are primarily responsible for their success, he believes. But he does take time to meet with employers’ organizations like Agoria and Voka to ensure a positive entrepreneurial climate; not so much to his own benefit, he insists, “but because I feel it’s important to make it possible for the next generation of businesspeople. Businesses must make a profit to be able to invest. They must be stimulated to grow. Nowadays people always opt for a defensive strategy, but you don’t win a war with defence”.