Export Lions: Innovative small companies weather coronavirus storm


Nominees for the Export Lion award have come up with creative ways to overcome this year’s restrictions on trade

The Basalte concept house in Merelbeke
The Basalte concept house in Merelbeke

Adapting and improving

The contenders for Flanders’ Export Lion awards, to be announced on 23 September, are chosen for their success trading abroad. But two of the smaller companies in contention this year also demonstrate how it is possible to weather the coronavirus storm.

Basalte began 2020 on a high. It had just recorded its best year ever for sales, the vast majority outside Belgium, and was also enjoying the impact of its new flagship product, Basalte Home.

The Merelbeke company, which has the equivalent of 34 full time employees, works with architects and interior designers to make stylish home technology, such as switches and controls. Basalte Home, launched in 2019, offers people a way to control a host of different household devices, from lighting and heating, to security systems and even music, through an elegant touch screen, or via an app.

Basalte CEO Klaas Arnout

“Compared to our competitors, we’ve developed a very user-friendly system for achieving this, not only for homeowners, but also for the integrators who install and program our products for them,” explains Klaas Arnout, the company’s chief executive and co-founder.

The arrival of Covid-19 and restrictions on people’s movements clearly posed a problem for a business that involves going into people’s homes. So in April it launched Basalte Live, a cloud-based system that allowed its partners and integrators around the world to work from home and still help customers program their household systems.

“Where they previously had to be on site, now they could do all this safely from anywhere,” Arnout says. “And in July, a version followed for end-users, who can now control their homes from anywhere, via the app. That timing was good, since travel was becoming possible again.”

Compared to our competitors, we’ve developed a very user-friendly system for controlling household devices

- Basalte CEO Klaas Arnout

The one part of its business where Basalte has less control is the construction sector, and here the long lead times are starting to stretch. “Some of those projects have been on hold, so delays makes sense. Fortunately, we are not seeing any cancellations yet.”

Arnout is optimistic about the rest of 2020. “We have a whole series of new products ready for order in the autumn, including a high-end designer switch fully tailored to the American market, and a designer remote control with which you can operate all of a house’s functions.”

The company has also recruited a new member of staff to be its ambassador in Los Angeles, to build on the honour it has already won of being chosen to supply iPad docking stations to Apple’s Cupertino HQ. “There is still a huge open market in the retail and hospitality industry. The future is bright!”

Caeleste’s Elfis sensor, used for space missions

The organiser of the Export Lion awards, Flanders Investment & Trade (Fit), is keen to see more companies develop exports in areas of high technology. The advantages are clear to see in the case of Caeleste, which designs and builds custom-made image sensors for use in the medical sector, space applications and industrial processes.

Almost everything that Caeleste does involves a foreign customer: Last year, 97% of its €6.3 million turnover came from exports. But this is not a business that is easily knocked off course.

“Historically, the micro-electronics business is only mildly sensitive to this type of global crisis and recovers through its relentless adaptability,” says chief executive Geert De Peuter.

It also helps that Caeleste’s projects tend to have a long perspective, lasting from one to up to four years. “This carries us across any short-term ripple in the market.”

We have to come up with new solutions to ever-growing complex problems that have yet to be solved

- Geert De Peuter

Yet it still had to adapt. When the lockdown began in March, the company managed to keep its laboratories in Mechelen open, with appropriate safety measures. But it also demonstrated a creative approach to working from home.

“We even equipped partial labs at our test team members’ home offices,” De Peuter says. “Our folks have done a great job in securing a nearly 100% continuity of our regular activities.”

Looking forward, he sees plenty of opportunity for profitable growth in the rest of the year. “This doesn’t happen by itself, but will only continue to materialise thanks to our continued efforts. We have to maintain our motivation to come up with new solutions to ever-growing complex problems that have yet to be solved.”

Fertikal’s exports are good for 99% of its sales

Alongside Basalte and Caeleste, the third contender for the Export Lion Award for companies with fewer than 50 employees is Fertikal. Based in the Port of Antwerp, the company recycles 300,000 tonnes of waste material from intensive farming every year.

Fertikal turns this waste into organic fertiliser pellets that it exports to 55 countries around the world. With the equivalent of 22 full-time employees, it had a turnover last year of €17.7 million, almost all of it overseas.

This is the second in a three-part series on Flanders’ Export Lion Awards. In part one, the Fit CEO and Flemish minister-president speak on the importance of exports to the economy, and in part three, CEOs of larger business speak to thriving in a tough year for trade