The Rising Entrepreneurial Stars of Wallonia - What has made the region start-up friendly?

The Rising Entrepreneurial Stars of Wallonia - What has made the region start-up friendly?

Père Olive has come a long way since it was launched over 20 years – in the garage of a house in Andenne in Wallonia. The couple that launched it, Christine and Erik Maes, hoped their specialised skill – conditioning olives and fresh Mediterranean produce – might find a gap in the market. That was back in 1993 when the Walloon region was still recovering from the decline of its traditional coal and steel industries.

For Pére Olive, though, it was the start of what was to become a wonderful business success story, one replicated in now-booming Wallonia.

The company soon stopped selling olives in bulk to hypermarkets and turned to production in plastic dishes, initially producing some 200 such dishes a day. Two years later, Pere Olive had moved into a 400 square metre facility, where it installed an automatic packaging line.

The company that emerged from that very modest beginning has grown into a major agro-food business, employing 130 people with an annual turnover of some €35m.

It now operates in several countries and is widely recognised as a European leader in the fresh olive market. Père Olive exports products under three brand names: Père Olive Aperolive and Signor Cempo. It offers nine varieties of olives from Greece, Spain, Morocco and France in 120 different recipes and is also developing products based on processed olives and dried tomatoes.

Another big success story is Andenne-based Glutton Cleaning Machines, founded in 1988, when it specialised in the sales of motorised garden equipment (lawnmowers etc.). Limited by the seasonal aspect of the business, its founder and current CEO, Christian Lange, decided to develop an urban waste vacuum cleaner.

Today, it no longer produces motorized garden equipment. It now focuses on electric vacuum cleaners for cities and industry, and is recognized as a worldwide leader in such technology. With over 5,000 towns signed up as customers, Glutton is currently used in more than 60 countries and across 5 continents. And with growing demand from local authorities and the growth of the industrial market, this, says Lange, “is only the beginning”.

A major step and key factor in its successful development was when Lange decided to invest more in inventing and developing a Glutton, which is 100 per cent electric (the first ones used a petrol-powered motor). To make that happen, he determined that the company needed an in- house, dedicated R&D department.

Looking back, he says, “Our success has been down to finding green solutions, together with a huge investment in R&D, quality and commitment”.

Glutton, says Lange, remains committed to inventing, developing and bringing to the market new products that make the environment “cleaner and safer”, as well as improving the well-being of their residents.

According to AWEX, the foreign trade and investment agency set up to help generate new investment in Wallonia, these are but two of the many business success stories to emerge from the once-struggling region in recent years.

"They are certainly rising stars," says a spokesman, adding, "From very small enterprises, the companies have grown enormously in a relatively short space of time."

AWEX has a worldwide network of 109 economic and trade attaches. It builds on the region's industrial heritage, while supporting high tech sectors. AWEX and Invest in Wallonia run six welcome offices across the region.

Père Olive and Glutton, says AWEX, provide evidence of how efforts to encourage a culture of entrepreneurship in a region formerly heavily reliant on heavy industry, such as coal, are now starting to pay off.

Despite the crippling rates of unemployment that once bedevilled this part of Belgium, perhaps this should not come as such a surprise as a programme of financial incentives are in place to encourage entrepreneurship and also motivate new companies to set up in Wallonia.

This financial aid is available for everything from relocation and equipment to R&D within companies and employment. Aid is further supplemented by generous grants allocated within the framework of European programmes. Wallonia also has one of the most competitive tax incentive systems in the eurozone.

Indeed, as early as 2006, the Walloon government set aside economic redevelopment zones–companies based in or that relocate to these geographical areas are entitled to specific tax breaks. In these zones, investment grants can reach up to 30%.

Wallonia has also put together a system of financial incentives to stimulate business, to encourage the relocation and development of new job-creating companies. The intensity of this aid depends on the value of the project, the location of the company (outside or within a development zone) and the number of new jobs created.

Investors benefit from European and regional financial incentives that can account for as much as 50% of their investment.

Examples abound of go-ahead folk who, having taken the plunge to start a business, are making a success of "going it alone."

They include pocketknife craftsman Eric Parmentier, based in Hainaut, who uses pearl, steel and mammoth ivory to create exclusive objects. International movie star Angelina Jolie is among his celebrity clients.

Other "success stories" include Mons-based Caroline Crunelle, who turned her hobby of doing patchwork into a homemade handbag business, and bibliophile and master paper-maker Pascal Jeanjean, who makes personalised paper for companies and institutions such as the Louvre in Paris.

Elsewhere, a small Namur based firm, VolitionRx Limited, set up in 2010 with the help of a Walloon government grant worth €1.05m, is working to improve early detection of cancers. CEO Gaetan Michel said, "We started with two people, one lab bench and an office at Namur University."

Its parent company was listed on the New York stock exchange in 2015 and has a market value of €64m.

Other "rising stars" include DreamWall, a Charleroi-based animation and graphic conception studio, whose record includes series in 2D and in 3D such as “Garfield” and “Spirou et Fantasio”, along with projects such as “Lulu Vroumette” and the feature film “Approved for Adoption”.

DreamWall now holds a privileged position in the field of virtual decor conception and the use of such technology in virtual studios, thanks to its partnerships with Orad and Neuro TV. The studio also recently won a European bid and became the creator of 'virtual decor' for the European Parliament.

Elsewhere, Mons-based AMB is a private family group that was established in 1947 to design and produce special machinery for the extraction industries. Following the decline of the mining companies and the rise of the environmental sector, AMB moved into the development of new equipment and machinery to be used for recycling, recovery and processing of medical waste.

By doing this, AMB says it had contributed to maintaining a “safe, healthy environment and promoting sustainable development”. MB Ecosteryl now designs and manufactures equipment for medium- and large-size hospitals, as well as service providers for the treatment of biomedical waste.

Ecosteryl products have processed hundreds of millions of kilograms of biological waste since its first installation in France and it now has over 10 years of experience in the commercial treatment of medical waste without burning.

Yet another example is the Liège based company CE+T Power, a finalist in the Little Box Challenge, a competition launched by Google to challenge technology companies all over the world to build the world’s smallest power inverter, no larger than a soda can.

The prize is $1m plus the invaluable international visibility.

CE+T Power, global leader in modular energy systems, took on the challenge and within a period of ten months built an inverter that is three times smaller than originally envisioned. Their inverter is a device that prevents power outages, ensuring that all of a company’s electronic data remains intact. It has an output of 2 kW and has been shrunk from the size of an icebox down to the size of a packet of cigarettes.

A spokesman for the Walloon company said it is "particularly proud to be the only SME among the finalists, as the other contestants are all research centres".

SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), are companies with fewer than 50 employees. They make up the heart of the Walloon economy, representing about 95 per cent of the companies in the region. In the industrial belt between Liege and Charleroi, there are many metallurgical industry businesses. 

A survey of 14,000 people in 2014 found that 4 out of 10 Belgians say a fear of failure is what keeps them setting up their own business, while the same ratio think they have the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to set up a new business.

The survey found that 62 per cent of Belgians consider entrepreneurship a good career move while 33 per cent believe there are sufficient opportunities to set up a business. But only 9 per cent of Belgians said they intend to set up a new business within 3 years. 

Surveys, of course, tell only part of the story but regional aid is credited with playing a key role in cultivating a thriving new business climate with further examples in Wallonia including the creation of a pharmaceutical distribution centre (135 new jobs); a silicon R&D centre (75 jobs) and tourist centre (32 jobs).

According to AWEX, Wallonia is experiencing nothing short of a "renaissance", and Karelle Lambert, of Europe at Invest in Wallonia, has some thoughts on why the region might appeal to would-be entrepreneurs.

"In addition to the location, Wallonia also offers a high quality workforce that is readily available; a benefit cited also by companies that have invested in Wallonia.

"Financially, the Walloon region can also provide subsidies for investment based on the number of jobs created and the type of investment involved, whilst also offering opportunities for tax optimisation and relatively low price of land per square metre".

Some prefer to become their own boss, but to start as a self-employed entrepreneur in Belgium you need to be a national of a member state of the European Economic Area or to apply for a professional card. Exceptions to this rule are possible, for example, if you are married to a Belgian.

The mandatory capital to set up a company depends on the type of business, but a minimum amount of 18,550 euros is required to set up a private limited company.

As an entrepreneur in Belgium you are also obliged to be affiliated with a social insurance fund for the self-employed. You also have to join a health insurance fund, which is responsible for reimbursing your medical costs.

For those thinking of going it alone in the business world, a new book, "Guide to Setting up and Running your Business in Belgium" makes useful reading. It contains tips, such as tax structures, for those who want to open a business.

Its co-author Louise Hilditch said, "I want to encourage people to set up their business here. I know there is always talk of the complex tax system and heavy Belgian administration, but on the whole, I am positive about it".

With so much help at hand and entrepreneurs flying the flag, business looks set to boom in this part of Belgium in 2016. 

By Martin Banks

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