Belgian companies in Ukraine: ‘When the war is over, we are back at full speed’

There was once our ‘tenth province’. Even today, Belgian companies such as Solvay, AB InBev and Melexis are active in Ukraine. How do they survive the war? ‘I’m impressed with the work ethic.’

Since the departure of the Russian soldiers, life has resumed in the Ukrainian capital. Despite the scorching heat, it is busy. Shoppers can go to stores of all major clothing brands, even if the very latest items are only delivered sparingly. A torment for the fashion-conscious inhabitants of Kiev. The internet is everywhere, most people pay with their smartphone. On the sidewalks you stumble across the electric scooters.

Souvenirs are also appearing on the streets again: T-shirts with the image of President Zelensky, toilet paper with Putin’s face, trendy gas masks.

It’s not the only thing that reminds us of the war. Armed patrols, groups of tattooed mercenaries and soldiers brag to each other about their weapons exploits. Sandbags are located in front of the doors of buildings, as well as in front of the entrances to the subway, where residents sought refuge during the occupation. Here and there, steel tank barriers are ready to be set up.

Several times a day, cell phone screens light up with messages from the government warning residents of yet another air strike. The sirens sound regularly.

In parts of the country under Ukrainian control, economic activity is slowly rising again. Several factories and shopping malls have been razed to the ground. Branches of twenty Belgian companies in Ukraine have also been hit by missiles. Those involved are often silent. Three months after the invasion, there is still danger.

Solvay stands firm

In Hostomel, a city northwest of Kiev near an airport occupied by Russian and Chechen soldiers, residents are in shock. They describe the soldiers as ‘animals’. The factory of the Swiss packaging group Vetropack, a partner in the chemical group Solvay, has been torn up by a rocket. Some employees are still hanging around, they do not want to talk.

Andriy Plakhotnyk, Solvay’s commercial representative in Ukraine, agrees to a meeting. “The Vetropack plant has been hit hard,” he said from his Dnipro office in central Ukraine. ‘Fortunately, we have another partner who is still fully operational.’

Solvay focuses its activities in Ukraine on the sale of soda to the glass industry, which accounts for less than 1 percent of the group’s revenue. “Nowhere in the country is it safe,” says Plakhotnyk. “Here in the Dnipro we have also been attacked, but at the moment we are out of range of the artillery. We do everything we can to keep things going. ‘

From the beginning of the invasion, Solvay took care of its staff. Those who wanted it were given protection and wages were paid. This solidarity seems to exist among all Belgian companies in Ukraine. Unlike some local businesses, which come into force to avoid having to pay wages.

‘Our employees are abroad,’ says Plakhotnyk. ‘We even sent an entire family home to Brussels, including the 65-year-old grandmother.’

Plakhotnyk himself has never given up his job. “Solvay has suggested I go. Colleagues have asked me to come to Greece or Poland, but I have decided to stay here.”

Since the front has moved east, things are going better. “We have restarted our activities together with local partners. I’re realistic enough to realize that we are not going to hit sales before the invasion, but we are doing our best. ‘

“When the war is over, everything will be up and running again. But for that, Ukraine needs more support from Europe. It is not only to our advantage. It benefits the whole world. If Ukraine falls, it will be the Baltic states or Poland’s turn. ‘

Cranes close to AB InBev

The Russian invasion has brought an abrupt end to the activities of the brewing giant AB InBev in Ukraine. From this week, Chernigivske, a popular local beer, will be brewed in the United States. Chernihiv, where it is normally produced, is inaccessible after it was hit by cruise missiles on Monday.

“Our breweries in Chernihiv, Kharkov and Mykolaiv are still not operational,” a spokeswoman for AB InBev said. “Our offices in Kiev and Kharkov are closed.”

AB InBev employs 1,800 people in Ukraine, where, under normal circumstances, the Turkish beer Efes is also brewed. “Security is our highest priority. 700 of our employees have been rescued in Prague, Bremen and Belgium. We offer them shelter and financial support.”

In the liberated zone, we are ready for companies moving from Russia. The Belgians are welcome here.

Oleg Niemchinov

Ukrainian Minister

After the world’s largest beer group withdrew from Russia, the Ukrainian government has proposed to continue its activities in Ukraine. ‘In the liberated zone we are ready for a move. The Belgians are welcome here, “said Oleg Niemchinov, a non-portfolio minister in the Zelensky government.

Abriso climbs up

“We were attacked several times in February and March,” said Aleksandr Pruglo, CEO of the Ukrainian subsidiary of the Flemish packaging company Abriso. ‘The factory in Brovary, near Kiev, was hit by rockets, which meant that there was no possibility of further activity. Production has been restarted since April 22. ‘

The biggest problem is the lack of isobutane. This raw material is difficult to obtain in wartime. After the stocks were depleted, Abriso did everything to find an importer. ‘No one dared risk bringing the gas to Ukraine. Fortunately, we managed to get it delivered by tanker, “says Pruglo.

“Recently, the factory has been running at 50 to 70 percent of its capacity. She was supposed to produce continuously, but the curfew forces us to shut everything down at night. ‘

The thirty workers from Abriso have been brought to safety. ‘We got support quickly. On February 24, I called the CEO of our parent company and a week later the help came. All employees also received their salaries, “says Pruglo. “When the war is over, we will be back to full production.”

Sibelco closes its clay quarries

»Our clay quarries and factories are only 7 kilometers from the front. They are guarded by security services. The situation worries us a lot, “says a representative of the Belgian mineral giant Sibelco. He expects no improvement in the situation in the short term.

The clay pits and factories located in the Donbas have come to a standstill. Only Sibelco’s headquarters in Kiev are still in operation. The losses are limited. The activities in Ukraine account for a turnover of 10 million euros at Sibelco.

The company employs 450 people in the country. A large part has been transferred to neighboring countries. About 150 others are working in a quartz quarry in Kharkov, the Russian-speaking city that is under constant bombardment.

Melexis continues online

The doors are closed at Melexi’s headquarters in Kiev. The Belgian semiconductor manufacturer has helped many of its workers in Kiev find refuge in Lviv. Other employees were withdrawn from Ukraine.

‘The men who were entitled to fight have not been able to leave the country. The women and everyone over 60 have fled to Sofia, “said Melexis CEO Marc Biron via video call. They continue to work online from Lviv or Sofia. Those who have remained in Kiev can work from home.

“We have isolated the site in Kiev and made backups so we can shut down the servers in an emergency,” says Biron.

We have isolated the site in Kiev and made backups so that we can shut down the servers in an emergency.

Melexis has transferred much of its product development to other countries. The site in Ukraine specializes in the production of pressure sensors for the automotive industry.

The situation drives up the cost of research and development. “It has an impact,” Biron says. ‘But I am impressed with the work ethic of the Ukrainians. They wanted to quickly re-establish contact with customers. It is our intention to return to normal operation as soon as possible, but this does not allow the situation so far. Missiles landed near Kiev yesterday. ‘

Flights in Etex Plaster

The Belgian company Etex, which specializes in building materials, has 250 employees in Ukraine, of which 200 are active in Bakhmut in the Donbas. The factory and the quarry, where gypsum is mined, were shut down a few days before the invasion.

“Our factory has been bombed repeatedly. The front is only 10 kilometers away,” said an Etex representative. “First and foremost, we are concerned about our staff. During the attacks, the workers sought refuge in the quarry. ‘

About fifty employees have remained in Bakhmut. ‘All the others have been received at the Polish border, in Belgium, Germany and Italy. The company takes care of them and makes sure that the children can go to school, “he says.

“The parent company has never doubted that for a moment. Our people have been bombed and have lost friends and family. The company takes care of everything, including psychological counseling. ‘

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