28 September 2023
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The RepTrak Company investigates the reputation of companies in over sixty countries. Four companies from the Brainport region in the Netherlands are in the top six. This series examines how they achieved this and where the key to a good reputation can be found. In this instalment: the VDL Groep.
At the end of April, VDL launched an online platform (OrderOn.com) where customers can order on-demand metal products. In the metal- and plastics sector, VDL is one of the first companies to offer this service. This is typical of the Eindhoven-based family business that is constantly pushing its own boundaries and reinventing itself. For example, the company builds (electric) buses, passenger cars, Dopper drink bottles, and roof boxes for cars. They also manufacture parts for DAF trucks, develop and produce automated production lines for automobile factories, and are venturing into the electronics market. The common thread? Metal and plastic. Except, of course, ever-more advanced applications. For example, VDL is one of the largest suppliers of complete modules and parts for ASML's chip machines.
The work of the five employees who worked for Pieter van de Leegte Senior back in 1953 involved lathing, milling, drilling and stamping, welding and soldering. Today, the Van Der Leegte Groep ((VDL Groep), is building an industrial empire the likes of which the Netherlands has not seen for years and is one of the largest employers in the Dutch provinces of the Netherlands. This is now happening under the leadership of Pieter's grandchildren: Pieter, Jennifer and Willem. Until recently, their father Wim had been at the helm for fifty years.
If you ask Miel Timmers, head of communications and public affairs, VDL is a real family business. "Our shareholders are on the management board, that provides a lot of speed for example in decision making. VDL has a flat organizational structure; there are not a lot of layers between shareholders and colleagues on the work floor."
In 2018, VDL appeared in the top thirty of the RepTrak ranking for the first time; the company has now risen to sixth place in the 2022 list. How did it do that? Timmers: "I think it's about the intrinsic motivation behind the family business. It is especially important to pass the family business on in a sustainable way to the next generation by ensuring continuity over the long term. For that, you want to do good for the environment and the business climate: for the communities that our employees are a part of and others in those regions. That resonates throughout our business operations."
Continuity, calm and stability - these are core VDL values, even in turbulent times. Timmers: "The twenties have been extremely turbulent. From the beginning of 2019, the global political and economic conditions have been shifting as a result of the trade conflict between the US and China. The global corona pandemic and Russian invasion in Ukraïne have further amplified the challenges surrounding materials and market demand. Another consequence of the trade conflict is that systems in the Western world are constantly facing a multitude of cyber-attacks."
"There's a shortage of everything. Glass, wood, steel, plastic," were top executive Willem van der Leegte's words during the presentation of the half-year figures last year. Still, VDL strives to serve the same number of customers. No matter how turbulent the circumstances, getting stressed out is out of the question, Timmers says. "The atmosphere is still relaxed and congenial. Everybody knows that setbacks and downturns are part and parcel of life."
That also appeals to talented people, Timmers notes. "Everybody is facing huge challenges in the labor market. Everyone wants to be as attractive an employer as possible. We will continue to radiate calm and keep our focus on long-term continuity." Moreover, the opportunities at the family-owned company are boundless; the group now encompasses 105 operating companies divided into five clusters (Mobility, Science Technology & Health, Energy & Sustainability, Infratech and Foodtech) across nineteen countries. "For example, we are able to arrange traineeships at a VDL company in the United States, but also in Switzerland, China, the Netherlands or Belgium. The possibilities are limitless. Whether you are educated practically or theoretically."
For Timmers, keeping his nearly sixteen thousand colleagues up to speed is a challenge. Most of them work in the high-end manufacturing industry and don't look at their mailbox every day. "I think it's very important for your reputation to keep your colleagues as well-informed as possible so they know what's going on. If you never hear anything from your employer, you might not feel that engaged." In order to foster that sense of engagement, VDL is also active in the communities of its employees.
"If you're standing along the sidelines at your child's sports club on Saturday mornings, it's nice to see that your employer has a soft spot for that sports club."
VDL also became the main sponsor of the PSV soccer club a number of years ago - just as ASML and Philips did. "When we tell people in for example the Randstad area about this partnership, we get asked why it says ‘metropolitan region of Brainport Eindhoven’ on the soccer shirts. Sponsors generally want to see their own names featured there, is the remark. They can’t imagine our considerations. In the Brainport region, we are prepared to forego the limelight ourselves for the common good. That's how things have grown over time. If our employees feel good, our company will also do well. I think that's one of the reasons why companies from the region score so well in the RepTrak ranking."
Also, Timmers thinks that the link between innovation and reputation is important. The company invested 159 million euros of its revenue in R&D in 2021 – which helped put it in seventh place in the R&D top thirty. ASML and Philips are in first and second place on this list. "Innovation and research is the earning power of tomorrow. The Brainport region wants to make a substantial contribution to an innovative and sustainable future, because we think that is good for public prosperity and public well-being. Which also has a direct bearing on reputation."