Export Lions: Awards celebrate success in hard year for exports


Flanders’ annual export prizes are particularly significant this year – as the corona crisis has driven international trade figures down drastically

‘A heavy impact’

Each year Flanders celebrates its most inspiring companies trading abroad with the Export Lion awards. This year is no different, as far as the awards are concerned: There are six impressive contenders, and the winners will be announced at a (socially distanced) ceremony in Ghent on 23 September.

But everything is different this year when it comes to exports. “Flanders is one of the most globalised economies in the world,” says Claire Tillekaerts, chief executive of Flanders Investment & Trade (Fit), which organises the awards. “Export is the driving force behind our employment and prosperity, so the corona crisis is having an unusually heavy impact.”

The figures tell a dramatic story. Exports fell by 7.4% in March, relative to the same month in 2019, by 28.3% in April and by 28.8% in May. The last two figures are the severest drops in exports since records began in 2002. The previous record was set in May 2009, in the wake of the global financial crisis, with a drop of 22.9%.

Even at the height of the crisis, exporters demonstrated initiative, an appetite for risk and an innovative mindset

- Fit CEO Claire Tillekaerts

Flanders is not alone, of course. Preliminary figures for May show German exports falling by almost 30% relative to 2019, while France experienced a decline of nearly 38%. The Dutch fall of 22.3%, a catastrophe in any other year, looks like good news in comparison.

The one silver lining to the Flemish figures is that they show an enduring spark at the heart of the economy. “Even at the height of the crisis, exporters remained operational,” Tillekaerts says. “They demonstrated initiative, an appetite for risk and an innovative mindset. These are qualities that will not harm them once global trade picks up again.”

Conditions are expected to improve in the figures for June, due to be released this month, although they will still be down on 2019. “Fortunately, many export restrictions have now been lifted, and international trade is restarting. In mid-June, Fit expanded its Corona Exit plan and adapted services with additional support measures for international entrepreneurs.”

Fit CEO Claire Tillekaerts

The companies being feted this month achieved their successes in happier times, but Tillekaerts does not think this diminishes their achievement. “In these difficult times, we are more convinced than ever that we need to celebrate these export success stories and put them in the spotlight.”

The contenders for the Export Lion award for companies with fewer than 50 employees are interior design specialist Basalte, sensor company Caeleste and organic fertiliser producer Fertikal. Above 50 employees, the nominees are food slicing specialist FAM, network software company Lansweeper and sport surface designer Sports and Leisure Group.

The awards will be presented by Flemish minister-president Jan Jambon. “Flanders has so many world-class players, who all too often operate behind the scenes or in very specific niches,” he commented. “We can rightly be proud of them and of their contribution to prosperity and job creation in our region.”

Technology is crucial for the creation of prosperity, well-being, jobs and a healthy economy

Tillekaerts thinks these companies also set a good example in how to approach the present export crisis. “Define a clear business model and export strategy. Do not depend on just one or a limited number of export markets, but deliberately diversify your exports towards different countries. Do not plan to internationalise overnight, but prepare well and, once you begin to export, closely monitor your export processes.”

And it is no co-incidence that so many of them are technology companies. “Technology is crucial for the creation of prosperity, well-being, jobs and a healthy economy,” she adds. “And it is our goal to make Flanders one of Europe’s most innovative regions.”

To support exports in high-tech sectors such as digital, climate and health, Fit is more than doubling its number of science and technology offices overseas from the present four – in New York, Palo Alto, Singapore and Tokyo – to 10. Additions will include London, Paris, Munich, Copenhagen, Mumbai and Guangzhou.

Tillekaerts: “They will offer even more support to enhance the value of Flemish innovation abroad and put Flanders even more firmly on the map as a technology-driven region.”

This is the first in a three-part series on Flanders’ Export Lion Awards. In part two, we talk to nominees in the small business category, and in part three CEOs of larger companies speak to thriving in a tough year for trade

Photos, from top: Courtesy Fit, ©Bart De Waele/Bepublic