The ideal son-in-law. That is how Jean-Pierre ‘Pirre’ Wuytack (65) can safely be called. Constant Vandersanden is the founding father of the success story from Bilzen, son-in-law Wuytack developed Vandersanden into the largest family facing brickmaker in Europe. He increased his sales by 40 times to 200 million euros and set the course for a world without the classic brick.
Wuytack, an engineer, had not been working at the BBL for very long when his father-in-law asked him to work for the company in 1981. ‘I then secretly checked the balance sheets on the microfiches of the bank. It looked very healthy. ‘
The corona crisis? The crisis lasted four years in the 1980s. Then it was much worse.
That turned out not to be an unnecessary luxury. Less than six months later, Wuytack was in the biggest post-war construction crisis. In the mid-1980s, half of the brick bakers went bankrupt. “The corona crisis? Due to the lockdown, our turnover decreased by 35 percent this year in April, and there was already a full recovery in June. The crisis lasted four years in the 1980s. It was much worse then. ”
Net profit: 14 million euros.
Dividendpolitiek: 10 percent.
Number of factories: 11 in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.
Main competitors in Belgium: Wienerberger, Nelissen and Van de Moortel.
Bmain markets: market leader for facing bricks in Belgium, market leader for paving stones in the Netherlands.
Ttotal production capacity: 585 million bricks per year.
Vandersanden’s roots go back to shortly after the First World War. The government encouraged the establishment of brickyards to allow for the reconstruction of the country. The brothers-in-law Jaak Vandersanden and Alfons Nelissen started in 1921 the brickworks Nelissen-Haesen. In 1924 Vandersanden fled to Spouwen for ‘divergent business interests’, where the brickworks are still located.
The second generation took office after the Second World War. Constant, the youngest, bought out his brothers and sisters. He himself had eight children, seven of whom were daughters. None of them took over operational management. Three sons-in-law, including Wuytack, took over.
Never a loss
Under Wuytack, the company did not lose one year. However, it was not always easy. Founding father Constant Vandersanden only left his company at the age of 84. Constant was ‘careful and deliberate’, Pirre stood for ‘dynamic and impulsive’. At a later age Vandersanden got more difficult with the expansion drive of his son-in-law. “The fact that things are going well in the company is no guarantee that you are in a good relationship,” says Wuytack.
Buying cheap is always a good buy. And buying expensive, even if it goes well, remains expensive.
His in-laws had a hard time with his big leap forward in the Netherlands, with the takeover of the factories in Hedikhuizen (2007) and Spijk (2009). The Netherlands experienced a major construction crisis from 2010 to 2014. Fortunately, the Belgian market survived. Today Vandersanden grows and flowers in the Netherlands. It is the market leader for pavers. ‘I learned one thing then: buying cheap is always a good buy. And buying expensive, even if things go well, remains expensive. ‘
Due to smaller houses, fewer open buildings and more apartments, the demand for facing bricks in Belgium has decreased by 35 percent in ten years. Nevertheless Vandersanden continues to grow. The company offers 250 products, none of which are in the cheap segment. Vandersanden (40%) has a larger share of the facing bricks on the Belgian market than Wienerberger (30%).
Larger, non-family groups must close factories that have not been invested in for years. We continue to invest. This is how we gain market share.
The panacea? “Bringing the right people together and continuing to invest in quality, aesthetics and increasing sustainability,” says Wuytack. Larger, non-family groups have to close factories that have not been invested in for years. We continue to invest in our eleven brick factories. 40 million euros this year. This is how we gain market share. ”
Investing in a brickyard requires courage. The brickworks sector is very capital intensive. Only after 25 years have you recouped your money.
Between 2017 and 2021, Vandersanden invested 35 million euros in four factories to make the stones water resistant. ‘Due to the smoothly workable mortars that have been introduced in recent years, 80 percent of the facades have a gray color. They plaster permanently. The only solution is to make them water resistant. Now that the last factory has been adapted, we can fully campaign for long-term beautiful facades. What does that bring us? Nothing, but it is necessary to survive. ”
Wuytack is convinced that the sustainability of production will make a difference in this sector, which has a bad reputation in this area. Vandersanden has been working on an ambitious long-term sustainability plan since 2011 (see box). First, the facing brick will go on a diet, then, by 2050 at the latest, production will become completely CO2 neutral. Isn’t that term very long for an SME? ‘At Vandersanden we don’t think in years, but in generations. The classic ceramic stone will have had its time. We will survive. Our facing brick keeps up with the times. ”
The next generation change is well prepared. In the short term, there will be a successor for Wuytack and Guy Wauters (64), the two brothers-in-law who have been at the top of the company for more than a quarter of a century. It is not immediately that it becomes someone of the family. Only eight members of the family sit on the eight-person executive committee. Only two of Constant Vandersanden’s 21 grandchildren work in the company.
The family company’s values and long-term philosophy were ingrained in the family charter in 2016, for which she received a Family Business Award. The board of directors mainly consists of brothers-in-law. Shares can only be sold in the Vandersanden bloodline. “Management, including myself, cannot be rewarded with shares.”
Family harmony is cherished. Since 1979, the whole family, three generations together, has been skiing for a week every two years. ‘We were 58 this year. It’s unique, so much fun and so connecting. And because I birthday on December 20, I always treat champagne immediately on the bus. ‘
From large polluter to CO2 neutral
Classic brickyards are big polluters. Although Vandersanden has come a long way, it still emits 60,000 tons of CO2 in Belgium and 90,000 tons in the Netherlands. That is a major concern for the company.
That is why Vandersanden is starting a pilot project for the production of CO2 negative stones. These are stones that absorb CO2 during production. The stones are made on the basis of carbinox, a recycling product from the steel industry. The carbinox sludge is dried, pressed and hardened by the absorption of CO2. The 10,000-ton pilot factory is being built at the Vandersanden brick factory in Lanklaar. Vandersanden wants to scale up when the production process is perfect. It is looking for European support for the construction of a large Carbstone façade factory with a capacity of 200,000 tons, which can absorb 30,000 tons of CO2 per year.
Vandersanden also puts the classic facing brick on a diet. A standard facing brick is 10 centimeters deep. Today there are more and more stones from 6.5 to 8 centimeters. Vandersanden opened the only pilot factory in Europe in Maasmechelen in 2017 for baked strips of 16 millimeters. The amount of raw materials drops by 80 percent compared to the traditional facing brick. Energy consumption drops by 50 percent. The emissions from the transport are also greatly reduced. Vandersanden plans to build a new fully-fledged factory for even thinner 12-millimeter brick strips before 2022.