Scout mentality of a global construction giant

Holland Propery Plaza (HPP) spoke to Nic de Roeck, general manager of the Belgian construction company BESIX, which also has a branch in the Netherlands. How did the former Belgian concrete company become a one-stop shop for international clients who want to build, and how does a Belgian company deal with Dutch culture?

They prefer to sink their teeth into large and therefore prestigious construction projects. Without exception, these are extremely complex due to an army of stakeholders and the need for technological innovations. When the challenges pile up (often literally) to immeasurable heights, customers soon call the construction company BESIX. This Belgian construction company with a Dutch branch in Dordrecht has grown in more than a hundred years into a global giant that has grown by staying true to the spirit of discovery. Holland Property Plaza spoke at length about this with general manager Nic De Roeck.

The roots of the current BESIX start in 1909 (!) under the name Belgian Concrete Company. How has the construction company’s philosophy evolved?
De Roeck: ‘BESIX is the story of the development of a simple entrepreneur in parallel with our increasingly complex society. We found that the better you get, the more quality work you have to deliver. Then came the realization: quality alone is not enough. Projects became larger and more complicated. On top of ‘brick laying’ came other types of projects, infrastructure and civil works. And they also required service. So we have developed from ‘Bob de Bouwer’ to … well, almost a full-service organisation.’

The ‘one-stop shop’ that BESIX has become – contracting, construction, concessions and assets, real estate – has meanwhile gone global. In addition to the Middle East, BESIX can now be found almost all over the world: in Africa (where skyscrapers are also being built in Morocco and the Ivory Coast), in Australia (where the group landed after the purchase of Watpac in 2018), in North America (Canada), South America and of course also in Europe.

De Roeck: ‘We build almost everything that is important in society: buildings, infrastructure, maritime works, sports, industry, environment. Almost limitless, literally. We went to work on different continents. For example, we have been in the Middle East for more than half a century and helped develop the desert. Think of the promenade in Abu Dhabi or the iconic skyscraper Burj Khalifa, at 828 meters currently the tallest in the world. But also take the huge mountain of waste outside Dubai from which we return converted energy to the city.’

And BESIX’s wish for expansion?
De Roeck: ‘I don’t think that word really applies. We are not looking for new sales markets, because we have been quite stable in that for decades it must be sustainable in all respects. It’s in our DNA. We are not afraid to explore. For places that are still white spots on the map. We have always done that. We have maintained a scouting mindset through several generations and always ask ourselves three central questions when we are on the move: Where do we come from? Where are we going? And: what do we take with us? As explorers, we are curious and proactive. It is important that we are also genuinely interested in the communities where we end up and that we actually involve them in what you do. We are always looking for local partners and employees. It’s about shared knowledge, resources, expertise and manpower.’ (The text continues below the image.)

De Roeck in BESIX Holland’s sustainable office in Dordrecht.

Is that role as a link something that fits well with the Flemish nature?
De Roeck: ‘It suits us. We are not afraid to go out and look at the people who live and work there and listen to them. Create on-site partnerships that become solid by doing things together. It also benefits everyone.’

And how did you deal with the local culture in Holland?
De Roeck: ‘BESIX has been in the Netherlands for thirty years now. Our ability to adapt and diversify allows us to survive anywhere in the world, and we achieve much by seeking complementarity and working together. As a citizen of the world, the Netherlands surprised me in a number of ways. Let me start with a big compliment. Politicians in the Netherlands dare to make decisions: harder and faster than in many other countries, such as in my home country. In the Netherlands, problems are identified and yet action is taken. For me, the Netherlands is at the forefront of this in Europe.

With an explorer’s or scout’s eye, we can still succeed in large, complex projects because of the complementarity. Where the Dutch are unparalleled in the process, we send Belgians very focused on the goal from the technical content. In this we are purposeful pragmatists. That mix really works very well in the Netherlands. They listen well to each other. Clients appreciate that we are able to navigate and navigate complex multi-stakeholder projects. If it’s really difficult, they call us.’

‘Sustainability’ is a recurring theme in all aspects of a construction business. It’s not a “checkbox” is it?
De Roeck: ‘We have set up a small task force internally to map everything that has to do with sustainability. How are we going to manage and staff everything? We are already working on CO2 calculations based on compliance with laws and regulations and on the electrification of all our rolling construction equipment. We must do that continuously’.

Is it financially feasible based on your competitive position?
De Roeck: ‘It’s short-term thinking. Sustainability is also the foundation of a sustainable revenue model. We make our offer sustainable, even if the customer has not asked for it. And also if he doesn’t want to pay for it because it’s more ‘nice’ than ‘need to have’ for him. Then we show what sustainable initiatives, adaptations and innovations provide. If not in the short term, then certainly in the long term. No one should be in any doubt about that now, right?’

Do you also have the innovative capacity in-house?
De Roeck: ‘As I said, we are explorers. And we work interdisciplinary so that innovation cannot be frustrated by silo behaviour. Together we decide which projects we want to go full steam ahead. Projects that will make a difference and have meaning. We strive for multidisciplinary projects where we can bring our sustainable innovations, knowledge & expertise and ideas.’

Read the entire interview on Holland Property Plaza’s website.

This was contributed by Edwin Venema, Holland Property Plaza.

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