As Brexit deadline looms, Export Lion award comes into sharp focus


Flanders Investment & Trade’s annual award celebrating growth in export figures has come into its own with an urgent need to find new markets in the face of Brexit

Sioen and Luminex big winners

With the Brexit deadline looming, Flanders’ Export Lion award seemed all the more urgent this year, with its focus on excellence in export products and services. Brexit is expected to hit Flanders harder than almost any other region in the world because of the amount of export products that go directly to the UK.

This has left companies scrambling to improve export figures to other countries and to find new markets. The annual Export Lion awards, sponsored by Flanders Investment & Trade (Fit), recognises two businesses – one with less than 50 employees and one with 50 or more – that have made outstanding progress in the area of export.

Luminex Network Intelligence of Genk won the Export Lion for a small business. Luminex manufactures equipment most of us have witnessed first-hand: Lighting, audio and video components for concerts, stage and other productions.

Launched in 2002 by Bart Swinnen and Jan Renckens, Luminex has grown quickly, developing digital sound and lighting products for an industry that has completely transformed over the last decade to meet digital demands. Its first product, an Ethernet to DMX converter with web interface, made its debut at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.

“It all began for me in the Dommelhof Theater in Neerpelt when I was just 15,” says Luminex CEO Swinnen. “I was a volunteer technician. Later, I developed software to make the lighting technician’s job easier, and that’s basically what Luminex does today.”

Buyers of Luminex products are lighting or audio technicians and other creatives in the entertainment sector. “But they’re not necessarily IT-oriented,” explains Swinnen. “We make sure they have what they need to allow new technologies to work together, developing products that fill in the gaps.”

The mix of being a listed company with a strong family history has given us the advantages of both

- Sioen commercial director Jan Mortier

Luminex is active in 45 countries and has established offices in the UK, France, Montreal and Japan. “We were sort of ‘born global’,” explains Swinnen. “The Belgian market is much too small for these kind of niche products. To be a real player in the market, you have to go international immediately.”

With just 29 employees globally, Luminex has annual export revenue in the amount of €4.8 million, or 92% of its total business.

For larger businesses, the well-known Sioen Industries won this year’s Export Lion. The company in Ardooie, West Flanders, develops coated textiles and uses them in a number of technical applications, including the manufacture of protective apparel. That can be against hazardous substances, firefighter uniforms or bullet-proof vests to name just a few.

The roots of the company can be found back in 1970 when Adolf Sioen started a weaving mill in Rumbeke. More than 50 years later, his grandson founded Sioen Industries together with his wife in a fledgling technical textiles industry. The now publicly traded company is still run by the Sioen family.

Over the last decade, it has taken over several companies, including Manifattura Fontana, an Italian geotextiles producer; Dimension Polyant, the world market leader in sailing cloths for ships and boats; and Ursuit, a Finnish producer of wetsuits and drysuits for diving and other extreme environments.

“Innovation is really in our DNA,” says CEO Michèle Sioen. “My father started in 1960 by developing coatings, and my mother then began using it to make specialised clothing for industry.”

Michèle Sioen is credited with leading the company into the export market in the early 1990s. The last five years has seen a spectacular 55% increase in turnover, largely due to the acquisitions. Export makes up 91% of the business, for an annual turnover of €458 million. The company has nearly 4,700 employees worldwide.

“I think the mix of being a listed company with a strong family history has given us the advantages of both,” says Sioen commercial director Jan Mortier.

Nominees for the Export Lion “all prove how important a critical, innovative mindset is to making a difference on the international playing field,” said Fit CEO Claire Tillekaerts at the awards ceremony. “For laureates Sioen and Luminex as well as for the other nominees, this was the key to success at home and around the world.”

Photo top, from left: Sioen Industries Commercial Director Jan Mortier and CEO Michèle Sioen receive the Export Lion award from Fit CEO Claire Tillekaerts
©Courtesy Fit