On the road in Brussels, Belgium
S.A. Delhaize "Le Lion"
Finding the head office of supermarket giant Delhaize "Le Lion" requires riding several miles from downtown into a older, somewhat rundown area of Brussels.
Headquarters looks to be located in one of their distribution centers as I see company trucks entering and exiting the premises. It's a fenced/walled-in complex about two blocks long and two blocks wide. The site is buffeted on all sides by low-rent housing. Riding up to the guard gate the guard motions me to wait along the side of the road as a constant stream of big trucks go in and out. Evidently the guard knew who I was when riding up and had made a quick phone call because I haven't even dismounted from my bike before Mark Verleye, director of personnel, and Willi Tenaerts, head of company security, are out to the security gate giving me a warm welcome.
Though furnishings in headquarters are spartan and definitely no-frills, I have a great visit due to Verleye and Tenaerts.
My questions are answered sitting in the company's boardroom on the second floor of the two-story structure. How old is the building? Old enough not to have elevators. The 125-year old company has been on the site since 1892.
Delhaize operates supermarkets in France, Czech Republic, Greece, Belgium and the United States. In the USA they operate the Food Lion and Cub Foods chains. With over 1,000 stores and sales for the first half of 1995 of US$3.8 billion, Food Lion is one of the biggest chains in America. I tell Verleye and Tenaerts about my visit several years ago to Food Lion's office in Salisbury, North Carolina. Though I was given a cordial welcome at Food Lion I kept getting the feeling something was amiss. Sure enough, the Sunday after my visit I found out: The television show "60 Minutes" ran a devastating story on Food Lion with hidden cameras documenting incidents such as meat cutters mislabeling, recycling and repackaging bad meat sold in stores when it should have been tossed.
Stepping across the hall from the boardroom puts me in CEO Gui de Vaucleroy's very modest second floor corner office. It's definitely no-frills. There's a plaque on a wall which reads: "The customer is king". Ironically, hanging on another wall there's a framed picture of a king, not just any king but, the King of Belgium (now deceased) shopping in a Delhaize food store. So, what's the view from Vaucleroy's office? It's situated right above the sole road going in and out of the place which means he can keep tabs on employees leaving early or getting in late.
Over 400 employees work here. As with most big supermarket chains the company has it's own private label brands of goods. Conference rooms are named after these brands.
Considering it's location in a less-than-desirable area and obvious lack of space, I ask Verleye and Tenaerts why the company doesn't up and move to a bigger and better location. To answer that question I'm led out the office building to a large structure across the way (which I assumed was a distribution center). Turns out this place is Delhaize's wine bottling facility. Over 700 varieties of wine are bottled here. Through it's stores, Delhaize is one of the biggest (if not biggest) sellers of wine in Belgium. I'm given a tour of the facility which includes going underground to the catacombs where thousands upon thousands of bottles of wine are stored. We're talking lots of storage space-the size of two football fields. Anyway, the reason the company won't be moving from here anytime soon has to do with the row after row of giant steel wine drums encased in concrete. It's one of those situations where they can't just up and leave because the massive steel drums can't be retrieved and moved.
Displayed on the dock outside the wine plant entrance there's a company bicycle used in the 1920's for delivering customer's groceries plus, there's also a fire engine from the late 1800's.
Revenues for 1994 were US$ 11.6 billion, profit US$ 120 million.
Looking for my hotel I mistakenly come across Solvay's headquarters tucked away on side streets several miles from Brussels's city center. The company-owned, concrete-clad buildings definitely have the pre-World War ll. look to 'em.
One of the two security guards is very helpful (the other says I have to have an appointment and isn't willing to call up to find out who my contact person is so I can make an appointment). I'm put on the phone to a woman assistant in public relations who says it isn't possible to track down my letter and I should mail in another letter explaining what I'm doing. Nuts to that as I leave some material behind and decide to come back in several days. I pick up a company employee magazine on the way out and note the article titled, "First Impressions Count" about Solvay winning the 1994 Belgian Telephone Trophy. It's awarded to the company whose staff had the best telephone manner when greeting callers over the phone. A portion of the story reads, "The initial contact with the company, the simple telephone call, must leave a positive impression with the customer, supplier or external partner. However, the corporate image also depends on promptness in replying, and as much thought and attention should go into greeting people by phone as goes into an advertisement or an annual report." Hmmph, thanks to the less-than-helpful response from the public relations woman my first impression of the company isn't very positive.
Returning later in the week proves to be a smart move as I hook up with Paul Muys, External Relations Officer. I don't know if it's just a Belgium "thing" but, Muys's last name on his business card is in all capitals. Ditto for the fellows at Delhaize.
Though he's been with the company only a few weeks, Muys does his best in answering questions. We're in a five-story building and across the street in a similar looking pre-War building are offices for Solvay Belgium. Approximately 500 work in the two.
Solvay, with 1994 revenues of US$ 8.2 billion, is the world's 20th largest chemical and pharmaceutical company. Solvay's the world's largest producer of soda ash, digestive products and hydrogen peroxide. It's also the world's second largest producer of salt and laxatives.
Checking out the boardroom proves to be an adventure because Muys hasn't been there himself. After a series of wrong staircases and dead-end corridors in the block-long building we find the boardroom down the hall from Baron Daniel Janssen's office, who's President (they don't use the term CEO). The large boardroom, a grand high-ceilinged affair, is currently undergoing recarpeting. The ugly green is out, replaced by off-blue carpet. The walls are lined with display cases housing company memorabilia such as old books and pictures including various photos of Solvay family members.
Janssen's in a meeting in his second floor middle office but I sneak a peek as we walk by. Looks pretty normal but, his ugly green carpet as well as the visibly worn-out green carpet in the hallway has to go.
SIDEBAR* Visiting several other companies I learn my contact person, Paul Muys, until he took this job with Solvay, was Belgium's leading television newscaster. I didn't catch him reading off a cue card once.
Electrabel and Tractebel
Well, seeing the United States Embassy down the block tips me off this is a prestigious and high-rent district. Electrabel, which generates 94% of electricity used in Belgium, occupies a block-long, eight-story structure clad in granite and darkened glass. Beginning in the impressive eight-story atrium, Ingeborg Verstraete from Public Relations starts to show me around the place which is actually two separate buildings (wings) connected by the atrium. This has been home to the company since 1991 with 500 to 600 employees working here. Revenues in 1994 were BEF 205 billion, profit BEF 26 billion. About halfway through the questions I'm surprised to learn Electrabel, Belgium's largest industrial company, is merely a subsidiary of Tractebel. Making a quick check of the companies I'll be visiting in Brussels I note Tractebel's name on the list. So, I bid Verstraete an early exit and head for Tractebel's office. Of course since it's been raining heavily all day and still is, you can imagine my glee in finding out the head office is right next door.
Tractebel's six-story headquarters is a good-looking neoclassical edifice. The marbled lobby area is filled with a walk-through display celebrating the company's 100th anniversary this year. The receptionist, more interested in her personal phone conversation, acts perturbed that I've interrupted her.
Francois Desclee de Maredsous, Company Secretary, turns out to be my contact person and I'm directed upstairs via an elevator hidden behind a door. Maredsous says King Leopold II of Belgium originally built this building as a hotel in 1934. Back then and to this day visiting the King's palace from here isn't much of a trek because the backside of the palatial digs sit right across the street-less than a Frisbee toss away. With the United States embassy down one end of the street and the King's palatial palace practically next door, this is quite the prestigious location.
Over 180 employees work here. I can't see Managing Director Philippe Bodson's third floor office because "he's busy". However, the boardroom's very impressive. It's located street level in what used to be the hotel's former dining room. The long table (five sections of wood) seats 26 and two 15 x 20 foot very old Belgian tapestries line the walls. What's interesting is the boardroom's location. Situated street level, people can walk along the public sidewalk out front and look into the room. Maredsous assures me the windows are bombproof.
This is like that picture of a fish eating a fish, which in turn is itself eaten by a bigger fish, which in turn is eaten by an even bigger fish. Maredsous informs me Tractebel is controlled by another company, Societe Generale de Belgique, which has it's headquarters about two blocks away.
Tractebel's revenues in 1994 were US$9.1 billion, profit US$ 320 million. Besides Electrabel, Tractebel operates in other areas including engineering services (over 2,500 engineers), natural gas, communications and real estate.
SIDENOTE*I always ask companies if there's anything unusual about their headquarters such as there being a helipad atop the building or it's situated on a former cemetery site. When asked, Maredsous answered with it being a former hotel built by a king. Well, it turns out the place has more history to it than Maredsous let on. At least a half-dozen other companies visited asked me if Tractebel mentioned the fact that the German Gestapo had their headquarters in the place from 1940 to 1945.
Societe Generale de Belgique S.A.
Phew, I think my search is over and I've finally located the mother company to Electrabel and Tractebel. Looking at Societe Generale de Belgique's annual report I see this holding company has controlling interest in no less than FIVE companies I was going to visit in Brussels. Besides controlling Tractebel via its 36.8% of shares, it has a 29.7% interest in Generale Bank (Belgium's largest bank and the 59th largest in the world according to assets), 70.1% of Recticel (polyurethane foams, bedding and motor vehicles), 50.2% of Union Miniere (mining concern) and 19.2% of insurer Fortis.
So, if I were Belgium's king and was living in the King's Palace and was sitting out on the front porch rocking away in my rocking chair I'd see a large square across the street with a park in the middle. I'd also see various identical size, four-story Georgian-style buildings fronting three sides of the block long by block wide park. Why? Because more than 100 years ago an earlier Belgium king laid out the area and that's what he liked.
I mention the above because my contact person Katryn Nassens, communications, says it explains why Societe Generale de Belgique tore down it's Georgian offices across the street from the King's palace in 1972 and rebuilt it in the same style: out of respect to the long gone king's wishes.
Though the king's palace isn't open to the public, visiting Generale de Belgique's offices makes me think of palatial palaces. Once past the receptionist and security guard, two large antique traveling trunks greet you before entering a long, impressive marbled corridor. Four huge 17th century Belgium tapestries hang from the corridor walls and several glass displays contain company memorabilia, including a ledger and share of company stock, both dated 1822 (that's when Generale de Belgique was founded).
Roughly 100 people work here and having a meeting in one of the conference rooms is quite an experience. Nassens answers questions sitting in a high-ceilinged meeting room called the King's Room. Jeez, if the fancy, formal furnishings don't make me feel underdressed, the large oil portraits hanging on the wall of past Belgium kings (King Leopold 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) do.
Wow!, walking into the first floor boardroom the words grand, sumptuous, power and history come to mind. The room is BIG and the boardroom table is looonnng. It seats 60. The wood floor complements the 18th century chandeliers and several more huge 17th or 18th century tapestries hang from a wall. Ivory plaques of executives from 1822-1961 are displayed. Definitely has the possibility of making my international listing of 10 Best Boardrooms.
Can't see CEO Philippe Liotier's office because "he's new and isn't here yet". Oh no!, guess what Nassens reveals to me. Liotier replaces former CEO Gerard Mestrallet, who's now CEO of Compagnie de Suez SA, a French financial and industrial Goliath, which AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!! CONTROLS Societe Generale de Belgique.
Considering it's one of Belgium's biggest international companies I'm surprised to find PetroFina's head office located on a quiet side street about a mile from city center. The oil/gas/chemical concern with 1994 revenues of BF 358 billion, profit BF 10 billion, occupies a low-key, block-long structure. A small plaque near the front entrance is the only way of knowing you've found the place. I mention this because it's raining cats and dogs and I passed the place twice because I couldn't see the puny-size name plaque.
The two friendly receptionists, looking real sharp in their matching blue blazer outfits, give my contact person Hans Daems, public relations and communications, a call. Normally, the receptionist hands you a visitors badge to wear but not here; you get to type up your own via the computer sitting atop the receptionist's countertop.
Looking over Daems's business card I notice his last name in all capitals which is proving to be the rule rather than the exception. As I mentioned in my The Netherlands stories, the rule there was to only put the first initial of your first name and then your whole last name on your business card. Here, you put your first name and last name but, the last name gets all capitals.
The seven-story building, which fronts the public sidewalk, is actually comprised of several buildings added on to over the years with the first built in the 1950's and the last in the 1980's. On the backside there's an enclosed courtyard garden. About 600 people work here.
Big news around here, besides being the company's 75th anniversary, is the new, soon-to-be-completed cafeteria. Making our way around construction crews, Daems eagerly shows off the place. It's gonna be real nice, with it's high ceilings, sun roofs and view of the courtyard garden.
Looking into Managing Director's Francois Cornelis's office I note the fresh flowers, lack of computer, family pictures and paintings of Boston and New York City (he worked in those two cities).
The boardroom table consists of eight pieces of wood pushed together and the 20 hardback chairs look very uncomfortable. There's also an oil portrait of Laurent Meeus, who founded the company.
Disappointing reception at Kredietbank NV, one of Belgium's biggest banks. The five-story head office sits smack in the middle of Brussels's downtown financial center. The building fronts the sidewalk and since there isn't a reasonable safe place to secure my bicycle I enter the loading dock area where the guard let's me park it inside. I'm then directed to wait in a room near the loading dock area which looks like it's where messengers get to wait- meaning it's not very plush.
Managing Director Wilfred Janssen's secretary greets me in person and says she's not familiar with what I'm doing but will find someone to meet with me. Mark Weytjens, senior area manager-international banking division, gets the call. Though a nice guy, the extent of my visit is the crummy room and a walk up to the main banking hall of the bank. I'm not allowed in the executive area because "it's a secured area".
From the street the building doesn't look that big but, Weytjens says it goes way back and over 800 employees work here. Built sometime after World War 11 it was the former home of Deutsche Bank.
Nothing worth noting about UCB SA headquarters. The pharmaceutical/chemical concern leases floors 14-23 in a 24-story reflective glass tower several miles from downtown Brussels. Don't know why the reflective glass tower has the name Blue Tower when the glass looks more black than blue. Revenues in 1994 revenues were BF 52 billion, profit BF 2.3 billion. Over 300 employees work here.
Things seem to be unorganized at Cockerill Sambre, a steel producer with 1994 revenues of BF 167 billion, profit BF 807 million. Address I had for headquarters was in Seraing, a blue collar city of 300,000 people 50 miles east of Brussels. Show up at building next to one of huge, grim-looking steel plants only to be told headquarters was in Brussels. Cockerill occupies the second and third floors of a non-descript seven-story building about five miles from downtown Brussels. No name on outside of building. No-frills, chaotic feel about the place. Barbara Hupin, external relations, isn't much help. roughly 55 employees work here.
S.A. Cimenteries CBR
Right next door to Cockerill Sambre sits the eight-story concrete headquarters of S.A. Cimenteries CBR, who together with it's main shareholder Heidelberger (German firm owning 50%) is the 5th largest cement company in the world. Very bizarre visit. After waiting in the lobby almost an hour Marc de Middeleer, Director-Group Communications & External Relations, steps out and say he hasn't time for me. I then ask for an annual report and he disappears. TWENTY MINUTES later he reappears with an annual report, a handwritten one page paper listing company highlights and a totally useless brochure on the building because it's written in French. Unbelievable, he doesn't have time for me yet, he just spent 20 minutes hand-writing a one page summary while I sat in the lobby twiddling my thumbs!
The concrete-clad building has large egg-shaped windows and the large expansive reception area contains nine white leather sofas and 11 white leather chairs to clash with the tannish-yellow carpet.
More on the road in Brussels and Antwerp
Almost bikeless in Brussels
Brussels, besides being the capital of Belgium, is home to the European Union. Big massive buildings (not so much tall as bulky) seem to abound around town and from what I can gather from trying to read their signs out front, all have some connection with the EU and each looks like it could hold several thousand bureaucrats.
It's a beautiful compact city and for a few days I thought I was in New Orleans. Why? Riding around town I kept passing shops with signs saying "pralines". New Orleans is famous for their molasses-like pralines and I hadn't heard that of Brussels. I finally stop and wander into one of the shops. What an idiot! I learn praline is Belgium for chocolate.
My two-week stay in Brussels is marred by having to leave the city on both Mondays and Tuesdays because all the hotels are overbooked. After visiting companies on one Monday my bike and I caught a late train to Brugge, a historic city roughly 60 miles east of Brussels. I could get hooked taking my bike on trains here because it's so easy. I don't have to unload the panniers or place the bike in a box, I just lift it onto a baggage car and the conductor gives me a baggage tag. Getting back to Brussels proves to be a different story. Bicycles cannot be unloaded at Brussels's Central station; there's a station stop about a mile east and a mile west of Central station. I told the baggage handler I wanted off on the stop east of Central station. So, the packed commuter morning train first comes into west station, stops, and starts taking off toward Central station. I'm reading a paper and just happen to look out the window. Oh my god! there's my bike sitting on the track platform, the baggage guy unloaded it at the wrong stop!! The train goes about a 100 feet and stops, apparently waiting for clearance to head into Central station. Me, I'm frantically going through various railcars trying to find a conductor to let me off. No luck, all I can do is look out the window and see my bike looking forlorn on a busy train platform. It's a VERY long five-minute journey to Central station where upon arrival I immediately jump on the first train heading back to the west station. PHEW!!, believe it or not my bike is still standing in the same spot.
DHL Worldwide Network s.a.-n.v.
I take pride in my ability to arrive into a new city (as I'm constantly doing) and finding my way around. Sometimes though, I'll get completely lost and confused trying to find a company's headquarters. I don't know how many times I've been fortunate enough to run into a UPS, Federal Express or DHL driver who's helped me out. However, with every DHL driver I always ask this question: What do the letters DHL stand for? Over 80% of the time they don't know. I know because I visited DHL's USA headquarters in Redwood City, California several years ago. DHL was formed in 1969 when the company's three founders Adrian Dalsey, Larry Hillblom and Robert Lynn established a courier service and formed its name from the initials of their last names. DHL pioneered the international cross border door-to-door air express industry.
DHL Worldwide Network occupies one and a half floors in a white, five-story building several miles from downtown Brussels. Built in 1988, there's a small fenced-in park connected to the rear of the building. Open to the public during the day the park looks like a great place to eat your sack lunch. The building's main claim to fame being it houses the Luxembourg embassy.
A large framed picture of DHL planes parked at Brussels's airport highlights DHL's small reception area on the second floor. Susan Wilson, Compensation and Administration Manager, gives me a warm welcome and shows me around the place which is home to 105 employees. The Brussels airport lies a half dozen miles away and is DHL's biggest hub, which explains why the head office is located in Brussels.
There's parking for employees in the underground parking garage but, it's first come, first served, meaning if CEO Patrick Lupo's the last one in he has to hunt for a parking spot like everyone else.
Lupo's middle office contains all kinds of DHL items including a framed story from the Financial Times newspaper hanging on a wall whose headline reads, "Federal Express Retreats From Europe". Also on a wall there's a picture of two hikers on the summit of Mt. Everest holding up a DHL banner and another recent picture showing President Clinton's plane, Air Force One (a 747), on the tarmac at Brussels's airport strategically parked in front of a DHL hanger. I count eight model DHL planes and one model Japan Air Line plane (JAL and Lufthansa each own 25% and Japanese trading company Nissho Iwai 7.5% of privately-held DHL). Lupo has a computer, four real plants and four family pictures.
International Pigeon Federation
My main reason for visiting the International Pigeon Federation is more out of curiosity than anything else. Why the heck is this organization based in Belgium? Will pet pigeons be caged like parakeets on workers desks? And lastly, will I find pigeons and piles of their droppings living happily on the outside ledges of the International Pigeon Federation?
Offices are in a three-story former townhouse several miles from downtown. It's a snazzy area with the whole block being crammed with similar townhouses but the rest look to be for strictly residential use. A small discreet plaque near the driveway entrance lets me know I've found the place. Getting inside requires walking up the driveway and entering via a door on the side of the house. Wow, I see a big backyard and parking for about a half-dozen cars. From the street it didn't look like any of these townhouses had a backyard.
Entering I encounter a glass display case filled with dozens of nik-naks, all having IPF stamped on them such as watches, pins, pens, lighters, key chains and books on pigeons. My first visit ends quickly when it's explained to me the organization only deals with "external matters" between 9am and noon. The afternoon is for "internal matters" only. Since it's now 2 PM and I'm an "external matter" I'm told to come back in the morning. I return the next morning and the morning after that only to be told each time "we're busy". Hmm, this is really starting to intrigue me. On the fourth visit I make an appointment to meet with Andre Vancoppenolle, Director General, the following morning. I show up on time but, end up waiting outside his office door for more than an hour. I easily deduce Vancoppenolle's a smoker because the fumes from his cigarettes are coming out from under the closed door. The meeting is finally over and his door opens. Vancoppenolle's first words to me are "what's your problem?" as in, why are you here?
I'm invited into his small office, he closes the door and proceeds to light up a cigarette without asking if I mind. The 50-something year-old Vancoppenolle admits to being a chain-smoker (three packs a day) and seems quite proud of it.
So why is the IPF in Brussels? "We have more members here than anywhere else in the world, over 40,000" says Vancoppenolle. Turns out pigeon racing is a big deal here. Just last week, various members from Belgium trekked to Spain and let their pigeons loose. Why? To see who's gets back to Brussels first.
Vancoppenolle has been running this organization for 20 years and you get the feeling it's his private fiefdom. About a dozen employees work in this elevatorless structure built in 1944. Looking around Vancoppenolle's office I count three pigeons: one's in an oil painting hanging on a wall (a former world class champion flyer I'm told), another's a plain-old ceramic pigeon sitting on a mantel and the third is this month's centerfold on a wall calendar.
Walking past several tall trees and shrubbery to the rear of the property Vancoppenolle shows me several very large pigeon coops where wayward homing pigeons are kept. These are the homing pigeons that weren't or aren't too swift and couldn't find their way back home. Getting a closer look I can see they each have identifying bands on their feet aren't the normal dumb-looking pigeons you find loitering around anywhere there's food. Vancoppenolle says, just like famous race horses, homing pigeons are bred for winners.
Oh, and before bidding adieu, I look up upon the window ledges of the townhouse. Nope, nary a pigeon is to be found nesting anywhere and nope, no screen, mesh or little spikes in sight.
Riding five miles from downtown brings me to Royal Belge's massive 10-story, oxidized steel headquarters. Built in 1970, the gold reflective structure is home to 2,500 employees and backs up to a heavily wooded forest. A large man-made pond takes up most of the front grounds and I can see fishes in the water.
The lobby, about the size of a football field, is humongous! The ceiling, at least 25-feet high, makes it easy to hang tapestries on the walls and Royal Belge, Belgium's second largest life insurer with BEF 73 billion in assets, has big ones on display. Four to be exact, each 20 foot by 20 foot. These are 16th century Belgian tapestries with biblical scenes. An 8 foot by 8 foot oil painting by Cornelius Huysmans (1648-1726) of a forest scene also hangs on a wall.
Kristine De Mulder, communications director, gives me the royal tour. A trip to the basement proves interesting. It's down here in the bowels of the building in an area about the size of a city block, where company files are kept. Dozens of lucky employees get to work down here all day seeing nothing but the cold gray slabs of concrete walls. Well, actually it's not that bad. Why? Years ago the company hired a painter to liven up the walls and he did quite a good job. The gray slabs of concrete have been transformed into various brightly painted frescos. For instance, one whole wall has been colorfully painted to look like the Swiss Alps with dark blue skies, ski chalets and white puffy clouds in the background.
The food in the large first floor cafeteria is excellent. There's a section cordoned off for guests and it suits me fine because instead of having to stand in the busy lines-we get served at our table by waitresses. The stuffed salmon, creamed broccoli and potatoes gets two thumbs up and so does dessert: vanilla ice cream topped with a delicious creamy raspberry sauce.
When using the cafeteria employees don't pay cash. They have a credit card-like card, which keeps tabs. When done eating employees take their trays to the dirty dishes area. Nearby on a wall hangs a machine which lists four entree's for tomorrow’s lunch. Employees insert their credit card like-card and press which entree they want for lunch tomorrow. De Mulder isn't too keen on the machine because what if you punch fish and chips and the next day you develop a craving for chicken instead?
There's a great view of the surrounding forest from President Jean-Pierre Gerard's middle office on the 10th floor. Don't see a computer. Nothing special about the boardroom though, the table is black and the chairs are red.
Bank Brussel Lambert n.v.
Remember earlier when I mentioned Tractebel and Electrabel being in a prestigious area just down the block from the American embassy and practically next door to the King's Palace? Well, it's on the same block but across the street where I find the headquarters for Bank Brussel Lambert (BBL), in terms of total assets the 27th largest bank in Europe and 88th in the world.
Until seeing the BBL lettering on the nine-story marble-clad structure I thought it a museum of sorts. The several metal and wood sculptures placed near the entrance could easily cause someone to make that mistake. I like the metal sculpture of a woman in a sack with a hula hoop around her.
Willy Bogaerts, public relations, and Eric Fauconnier, personnel, answer questions and walk me around the place, which is home to 1,500 employees.
The company has an extensive international contemporary art collection of over 2,000 pieces including paintings, sculptures and drawings. I mention the collection being international because the overwhelming majority of companies visited so far in Europe have been very territorial or nationalistic. By that I mean the art collections of say, Norwegian companies, consists of works only by Norwegian artists. Dutch companies have only works done by Dutch artists and so on. Why does BBL have such an extensive art collection (including "Flowers" by Andy Warhol in the executive dining room and Henri Moore sculptures)? BBL came about as a result of a merger between the Bank of Brussels and Lambert Bank with the later headed by Baron Lambert. Current headquarters (a Skidmore Owens Merrill designed building) was built in 1961. In 1969 a matching connecting building was added giving the complex the shape of the letter "H". Anyway, for years after the merger Baron Lambert lived on the ninth floor of this building and was a very avid and well-known collector of art.
The ninth floor now houses the executive dining rooms, which has a grand view of downtown, the King's Palace and Tractebel across the street. In one of my earlier stories I mentioned Tractebel's offices being the headquarters for the Gestapo during their occupation of Belgium in World War II. Several years ago this incident happened here: one of BBL's executives, a Jewish man, was sitting down to have lunch, as usual, in the executive dining room. While waiting for his food he gazed out the window only to be horrifically startled by what he saw across the street. What was it? A Nazi flag flying atop Tractebel's flagpole. It later turned out a war movie was being filmed and Tractebel's headquarters was being used in the movie.
Fortis AG/Fortis AMEV
With 1994 revenues of US$ 19 billion, profit US$ 650 million, Fortis AG/Fortis AMEV is the world's 10th largest diversified financial services company. Formed in 1990, it's one of those companies with dual head offices (Utrecht, The Netherlands and Brussels, Belgium). While in the Netherlands I bicycled by the spiffy new 18-story head office in suburban Utrecht.
Belgium headquarters lies in the center of downtown Brussels in three separate buildings. Executives occupy space in a six-story turn of-the-century structure. An 1820 fire engine (pulled by men) holds center stage in the lobby. However, I'm more intrigued by the eight-foot tall, walk-in safe painted blue to match the blue U-shaped sofa which sits off to the side of the glassed-in reception area. While waiting to meet with Emmanueel Clement, external relations, I try my luck turning the combination lock to the huge safe. No luck. The security guard looks over and says the safe is still used for storing items and gives me one of those "keep your hands off" looks.
My visit doesn't last long and it's obvious by Clement's cold manner that he would rather be doing something else. My request to see the Chairman and CEO's offices is quickly quashed. Suprisenly, Clement agrees to walk me a block away to see their newest building, a brand new structure housing the cafeteria, fitness center and various conference rooms (which are named after scientists).
Looking over the annual report of Fortis, it's the first company I've visited to publish it's financial figure in ECU's (European Currency Units). As of year-end 1994, 1 ECU= BEF 39.06= NLG 2.13= USD 1.23.
On the road in Antwerp
I like old buildings and old churches and Antwerp, Belgium's second largest city with over 500,000 people, has a lot of 'em. Shipping is big in Antwerp and it's the third largest port in Europe after Rotterdam and Hamburg. Antwerp does take first place in something: it replaces Amsterdam as having the wildest red light district I've come across. Arriving in Amsterdam I had heard of the city's infamous red light district but was surprised to find it's not limited to one area of the city. My first night in Amsterdam I was staying in a very nice hotel in a nice part of town and went for a walk after dark to grab a hamburger. Rounding a corner in what I thought was a well-to-do residential block, I was completely taken aback by several VERY scantily-clad women sitting in little storefront booths with big picture windows. Sex is no big deal in Amsterdam and I've got proof: you know McDonald's,, which advertises itself as a wholesome family-oriented fast-food chain? One of their stores near the downtown area has a sex-shop as a next door neighbor.
Anyway, getting back to Antwerp's red light district. I was riding my bike near the downtown waterfront area along narrow winding streets looking at old buildings when I found myself stuck behind a line of cars and trucks cruising along at a snails pace. A block up ahead I found why; in a five block by five block area there're are dozens and dozens of storefront booths filled with scantily-clad women sitting behind picture windows trying to entice men to come inside for a visit. When one of these women gets a customer, a curtain is drawn across the window to let other potential customers know she's occupied. As I bicycled by the women I thought I was hot stuff because many were waving and whistling at me to come in. My bubble was quickly burst when I found they whistled and waved at just about any male passing by.
CMB's good-looking, company-owned, six-story headquarters fronts the Schelde River that passes by downtown Antwerp. I'm not surprised since its main activities are directly or indirectly related to the shipping industry. CMB (Compagnie Maritime Belge) transports dry cargo, crude oil, gas, and refined oil and operates terminal activities in Antwerp and Zeebrugge. Revenues for the 100 year-old company in 1994 were BEF 39 billion, profit BEF 1 billion.
The small, two-story lobby contains two impressive oil paintings that completely overwhelm the room. Both done in 1795, one's a 20 foot by 20 foot painting showing downtown Antwerp and the larger one (26 foot by 15 foot) shows a shipping scene in Antwerp. Sitting on one of three brown sofas waiting to meet with Jacques van Damme, a company director, I thumb through three piles of magazines on the coffee table. The wide range of magazine titles include Global Finance, Institutional Investor, Knack, Chief Executive, European Communications, Banking Review, Cigar Aficionado, Outlook, Sea Trade Review, The Shipping Professional, Leaders, Treasury, Corporate Finance Europe and, the ever popular Site Selection.
About 600 employees work here but, there isn't a cafeteria only break-rooms containing microwaves and refrigerators. The 60-something year old van Damme gives me a great reception and has a good sense of humor. He mentions how everyone always asks if he's related to Jean-Claude van Damme, the action movie hero. He's become so tired of saying no that he know answers, yes. The company's art collection consists primarily of oil paintings having to do with shipping plus, there's a neat collection of old shipping advertising posters framed and hanging on hallway walls.
CEO Marc Saverys has a fifth floor office with a straight out, unobstructed view of the river. A large framed picture of his four boys hangs on one wall as well as a large map of Colombia and two pictures of company cargo ships. I also note the dartboard, the mini-refrigerator and one plant (real).
The sixth floor, called the Penthouse, is sort of a lounge area for executives. I count six comfy-looking sofas and several antique globes (one dated 1863).
Ackerman & van Haaren
Originally a dredging firm founded around 1880, the company is now an industrial holding company with interests in a variety of businesses engaged in civil engineering, services to the oil industry, packaging, distribution, shipping and financial services. Revenues in 1994 were BEF 24 billion.
Headquarters, a neat old building built in the 1850's, lies about a mile from the center of downtown Antwerp and has been home to the company since 1900. The red brick structure has a black, three-story cupola sitting atop. Next to the 12-foot tall wooden entrance doors there's a small plaque with Ackerman & van Haaren's name on it.
Judith McCarthy, receptionist, calls around and is told to tell me "everyone's busy". From her I find out 16 employees work in the place and that there was a Mr. Ackerman and a Mr. van Haaren.
Before leaving I ask McCarthy about the elevator. It's REAL old. It's one of those where you open the metal mesh to get in. McCarthy says it still works but for insurance reasons visitors aren't allowed to use it.
Gevaert NV SA
The day before visiting Gevaert, a financial holding company, I rode around Antwerp trying to find a self-service launderette. In some countries they're plentiful and some they're not. Next to getting a haircut (it's not fun having a new person experimenting on your hair each time), doing laundry every week is the least favorite part of my traveling. Since I move around almost every day it's hard to have a hotel do it (plus they charge TWO arms and a leg). Most of my clothes are cotton requiring no dry cleaning. Earlier this year I remember passing through Stockholm, a city of 1.5 million people, and found only ONE self-service place in the whole city (and the owner said she was barely staying in business). How was she surviving? By doing laundry for hotels. Matter of fact, during my several months touring Sweden it's the only self-service Laundromat I found! Why? The Laundromat owner said, "we're a prosperous country and everyone has their own". Oh, and the price tag for those two small loads I DID MYSELF in Stockholm: $25.00!
I rode five miles from downtown Antwerp and found a self-service Laundromat on the main street of Mortsel, a quiet community. It's a nice small-town street lined with mom & pop stores on the ground floor and three and four-story apartments above. Of course I was in hog heaven because two doors down was a tasty pastry shop (which reminds me: I think I lost five pounds in The Netherlands because they have lousy bakeries and I've been putting it back on thanks to Belgium bakers sumptuous treats).
Well, there's a reason I told you about doing my laundry in Mortsel. The next day I go looking for Gevaert's headquarters and find it located two blocks BEHIND the Laundromat in a gigantic, sprawling factory complex I couldn't see from the Laundromat because the apartment buildings on the main street hid it.
Hmmm, this is odd. Across the street from the massive factory complex there's a block-long, six-story office building and the name AGFA on it. AGFA, which I know produces photo film, also can be seen on some of the factory buildings. I wonder, does Gevaert own AGFA?
Entering the building you encounter a receptionist. Behind her is the large glassed-in lobby area. You don't get to the lobby unless she buzzes you in. I don't get buzzed in. Why? The receptionist connects me with Christine De Boeck, secretary to Managing Director Marc Francken, who states "no one's available to meet with you". I'm given an annual report but that doesn't explain Gevaert's relationship with AGFA. Gevaert does however, have holdings in over 20 big companies including: 3.9% of insurer Aegon, 7.5% of KNP BT, 18% of shipper Hapag-Lloyd, 1% of airline Deutsche Lufthansa and 1% of Bayer. I ask the receptionist to explain the relationship with AGFA and she ends up calling over a guy who hands me a press release from AGFA. Here's the story:
In 1890 Lieven Gevaert set up his own workshop for producing calcium paper. In 1920 Gevaert Photo-Producten N.V. was founded. In 1964 Agfa AG, a subsidiary of Bayer AG, and Gevaert Photo-Producten N.V. merged. Two working partnerships were created Agfa-Gevaert N.V. (Mortsel, Belgium) and Agfa-Gevaert AG (Leverkusen, Germany) in which both parent companies, Gevaert Photo-Producten N.V. and Agfa AG, each had 50% of the shares. In 1981 Gevaert Photo-Producten N.V. exchanged its shares in Agfa-Gevaert AG and Agfa-Gevaert N.V. for a package of Bayer shares. In this Gevaert Photo-Producten N.V. became purely a holding company without any further participation in the partnerships within the Agfa-Gevaert Group. Later the name of the holding company was changed to Gevaert N.V. To summarize: Agfa-Gevaert is the industrial concern, producer of chemical and electronic imaging systems owned by Bayer. Gevaert N.V. is a financial holding company--the ones who haven't time to meet with me. The press release goes on to say, "today both firms don't have any direct relations". But, they do have an indirect relationship because Gevaert's offices are inside the block-long Agfa-Gevaert building. Oh, and incidentally if you're wondering what Agfa stands for here it is: AktienGsellschaft Fuer Anilinfabrikation.