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‘I see the future of the VDL Groep more as a player which controls the chain. The old paradigm of the linear economy, that is, solely a product supplier, will make way increasingly for circular business models. As a matter of fact, we have been working on that for years. It is just not part of our nature to parade that.’
Lucien Joppen

Willem van der Leegte, president of VDL Groep, represents the third generation in the Van der Leegte family. His grandfather Pieter founded a metalworking company in 1953 and started developing and producing oil heaters in the 1960s.  ‘My granddad wanted to make beautiful things. My father Wim steered the company into a stable position, expanded it and also wanted to earn money from it. What kind of Van der Leegte am I? That is up to others to determine. The ideal would be a combination of my granddad and my father (laughs).’ However it may be, the youngest scion (35) has a huge job running a multinational with an estimated turnover of five billion. Besides the three MINI models, VDL Nedcar in Born has recently also started producing the popular BMW X1 series. The other activities are also growing and developing successfully. ‘This doesn’t happen by itself. We have to define all aspects of our business operations properly.’

Willem, VDL Groep is developing very well as far as turnover is concerned. That will jump from 3.2 billion in 2016 to 5 billion euros in 2017. A rocket launch start for you?

‘This growth is explained by the increased supply from our companies which sell to the high tech industry. Of course, VDL Nedcar, our automotive factory in Born, is also a major growth motor. It is wonderful that in addition to the three MINI models we now also make the BMW X1. That says something about the trust of our client BMW in our collaboration. We are investigating whether we can find a second producer which would be interested in Born. That is to reduce the dependency on a single client. Vehicle assembly forms around 40 percent of our turnover. But over the years we have built up a diverse portfolio of companies so that we have been able to spread the risk well.’

In terms of your portfolio, it does seem to be a patchwork of businesses which are active in numerous sectors. What is the common denominator binding them?

‘Funny that you should ask that. A while ago the board of directors of BMW visited us. In the first instance they also thought that there was no central thread. After visiting a few VDL businesses it was clear to them: there is a great deal of mutual cross-fertilisation between our companies. VDL operates in metal and plastic. We supply to producers like BMW and ASML, and we also produce ourselves, for instance buses and coaches and other end products like suspension systems, automated production lines for automotive factories, heat exchangers and container handling systems. We see this synergy back in real terms. VDL subsidiary companies supply to each other for a total of 200 million euros a year (editor’s note: excluding bus/coach). We have also completed many projects in which different subsidiary companies are involved. For example, we have a cluster that designed and built an Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) for the container terminal in the port of Rotterdam. This is a hybrid (editor’s note: electric-diesel) vehicle in which we have applied the knowledge from our bus/coach division in the area of automated guided systems. Another VDL company took care of the container handling and (process) automation. There are now 80 of these vehicles driving in the port. And there are many more examples like this in our company.’

‘We do not use them much yet. There are discussions with a specialised company with which a subsidiary of ours, VDL Fibertech in Hapert, wants to cooperate if the opportunities arise.’

Willem van der Leegte on the use of renewable raw materials such as biocomposites

Willem, as said earlier, the VDL Groep is experiencing significant turnover growth. Is this a confirmation of your direction? And doesn’t it form an obstacle at the same time to putting the company in the right position for the future?

‘We are on the right track. It is not my intention to totally change course. It is a fact, however, that the world is changing rapidly. That is why we need to prepare for the changes which are also irrevocably heading for us. If you talk about sustainability, for instance, we have been working on that for a good ten years already. It is simply not part of our nature to parade that. We prefer to tackle things that allow us to operate in a more sustainable way and that are good for the company. They go hand in hand in our business. The continuity of VDL Groep is paramount. In the end, it is about the result. Turnover growth alone won’t pay the bills, is what we say here. But with no turnover growth you can’t pay any bills at all (laughs).’

Can you give an example of a circular model you already have experience with?

‘The concession contract for the public transport in Almere which we won in 2009. We took back the 220 buses driving there and refurbished them: new engines and a thorough overhaul of the interior and exterior. This made these buses fit for service for another ten years. After that we will do roughly the same again to prepare the vehicles for export. We give the guarantee for taking the buses back and are responsible for the maintenance and infrastructure (editor’s note: charging stations, among other things). With the development and manufacture of the buses we therefore need to ensure that the technical life span is as long as possible and that the maintenance can be kept to a minimum. That is an economic incentive. If this allows us to offer the customer a better price, they will be more inclined to choose us. That has to do with euros and not with sustainability. We would like to produce fully sustainably, but we do have to remain competitive. We also hold our suppliers responsible for the life span of their products. Years ago, for example, we had problems with the adhesion of the paint and had customers calling us. We then came to an agreement with the paint supplier that he would guarantee the life span and inspect whether we were applying the paint correctly. There have been no further problems with the paint quality since then.’

In the Ravelijn lecture (editor’s note: held on 8 May 2017) you argued that circularity is enforced in practice and that it therefore does not have to be stimulated by the authorities.

‘That’s right. The 93 directors at all the VDL subsidiary companies all have to fend for themselves. Reuse of raw materials and the reduction of waste is good for the bottom line, so it is an economic incentive with the added bonus that we show the market that we want our production processes to be as sustainable as possible. In practice, economic interests and sustainability go hand in hand. A good example is the use of residual heat to heat a nearby swimming pool. I believe that the greatest profit is to be found in responsible material use and the reduction of energy consumption and emissions. The first factor is a matter of recycling and the technical life span of products. We can also reduce waste in the production, for example through 3D printing. This technology enables us to construct parts as a single piece instead of milling them from a larger whole. In the production of certain plastic products such as the sustainable Dopper drinking bottle, we process residual material in other applications. The ideal would be to bring products into a cycle. That is easier with capital goods. For consumer products like the Dopper it is more complicated. In the long run I expect to see more circular models come about in which consumers exchange old products for new versions whereby they receive a discount, for example. It is up to the producer to convert the old models into new products or find another purpose for them. Producers are at the service of the consumer. We should not be so arrogant that we believe we can impose something on the consumer. The consumer is more conscious, articulate and smarter than ever.’

You mentioned electrification as a spearhead. Does this apply to the entire VDL Groep?

‘Yes, electrification is part of smart mobility. We switch as much as possible to technology that causes the least possible nuisance, like noise and emissions. The demand for electric buses is growing. We respond to that. In December we supplied the city of Eindhoven with 43 electric city buses, the largest fleet of electric buses in Europe. Hydrogen is another option. There are now two buses in Eindhoven which run on hydrogen. This technology is too expensive for now, but in the long term it can definitely become big. As I said earlier, automated guided vehicles are a textbook example of smart mobility. It is not only more efficient because the vehicle can run driverless in manned areas, but because it also offers possibilities for using these vehicles as efficiently as possible.’