Do you ever wonder where the potato on your plate comes from? Tracking the exact field may be quite a challenge, but chances are that the tasty tuber was harvested by a Dewulf machine. The family business from Roeselare, the ‘Texas of Flanders’,has been run by the third generation since the early 2000s. Since then, the company has made great leaps forward. An interview with CCO Willem Decramer.

‘The economic situation is so good in West Flanders that, in many areas, there are almost no unemployed to fill all the job vacancies,’ we read in an article published by the Nieuwsblad newspaper last week. Indeed, West Flanders is doing well and is one of the strongest economic regions in Europe. Willem Decramer, CCO of Dewulf, also agrees. ‘The area around Roeselare is not called the ‘Texas of Flanders’ for nothing; there is huge industrial activity here.’

The acquisition of the Dutch Miedema in 2014 is typical of Dewulf’s growth ever since the 2000s. ‘The R&D is mainly in Belgium and the Netherlands,’ specifies Decramer. ‘In the first years following the acquisition, we took the time to get to know each other better and to discover our strengths and weaknesses. During the last few months we have been raising the pace of [not just] central production but also central management. All coordinating activities will be housed at our headquarters in Roeselare. Like us, the Dutch have more than 70 years of experience. Our R&D managers brainstorm and collaborate extensively when it comes to co-engineering and they participate in each other’s development processes.’

‘We’ve also had a foothold in Romania ever since 2006. Personally, I lived there for three years to get everything on track. After sustained investments, the company now employs 70 people, and focuses on the production of parts. These parts are then shipped to the Netherlands and Belgium to be processed and assembled. Production therefore is and remains in Belgium; we would not have it any other way. Why should we, anyway? Our Flemish employee mentality is very strong. We are often too modest, even though we should by no means feel inferior to our German colleagues. The level of our people is high in terms of general knowledge, independent work and involvement. That’s certainly a reason to be even prouder.’

Precision agriculture is a major trend. What is your contribution?

‘Smart farming, precision farming... all these fancy buzz words. Naturally, we are working on the corresponding technology. Precision farming allows you to maximise and optimise production. Nowadays, satellite imagery and drone technology can map everything: the weak spots on the land, where there are more or less nutrients, soil compaction, how the soil retains moisture, and so on. All of these factors affect the way the fruit or plant grows.’

‘Once this data is available, it is possible to take measurements, which has an impact on machine builders. We can use the extracted data to create value by building machines that can fertilize selectively, or will plant crops closer or further apart. In short, machines with high-tech control systems.’

‘When we develop new machines, we listen to our customers above all else: what are their specific needs and expectations? For example, the terms predictive maintenance and Big Data are now incorporated in our development department and we investigate how this can provide added value to our customers in new developments.’

‘The emission standard imposed by the EU also plays a key role. The EU is imposing these standards on the automotive industry. But from an economic point of view, meeting the new standards may not be feasible sometimes. As a manufacturer of agricultural machinery, we fall under the ‘off-road’ segment, but emission standards are constantly being imposed on us as well. Our engines are being developed by Scania and they, too, are under huge pressure. Their latest engine is not yet mature that they have to start developing a new engine. One standard follows another too fast, which creates additional pressure on the machine builder. You have to remember that a new engine has a huge impact on the machine, and a facelift won’t be enough. Instead, the whole machine will have to be redesigned.’

‘Fortunately, there are organisations like Agoria or CEMA that unite us as manufacturers, support us, and take care of the necessary lobbying. We have certainly had many positive experiences and achieved results with their help.’

The economic situation of the agricultural machinery sector is recovering after a downturn. What is the forecast for the coming years?

‘We certainly hit a wall in 2015. In 2005, we had a turnover of 10 million euros, and we kept growing by about 15 percent each year until 2014. Of course, this also caused some problems because strong growth has the effect of repeatedly shifting the bottleneck: to production, to capacity, etc. In 2015, we faced a dramatic slump and our turnover dropped by as much as 15%. For a company that constantly invests to secure its growth, this was a very cold shower.’

Is your ambition to become the world’s number one?

‘Our ‘KICKBOKST’ project is designed to find ways to work even more optimally and efficiently, in the workplace and in our procedures. The underlying philosophy should enable us to better cope with economic downturns. In other words, we are forced to become leaner and more flexible.’

‘This month, we started a strategic review with a team of 15 people from Belgium, the Netherlands and Romania. All segments are being assessed: the general market, demographics, dietary patterns, sales, etc. And every time, we question everything: how will we sell our product? In the future, what will justify the existence of a dealer? They, too, will need to redefine themselves. Just look at Tesla, which only sells online, without dealerships. How do we keep talent and organise the ‘war on talent’? We are expecting a first draft of this plan by the end of October.’

‘Do we want to be number One? Of course. But above all, we want to run a healthy and profitable company that will remain in existence for many years to come and which will benefit all direct and indirect parties: customers, suppliers, stakeholders, employees, and so on. We’ve been around for 70 years, and we’d like to add another 70 years for the next generations.’

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