VDL is building a non-Dutch industrial empire without losing the sense of family

The RepTrak Company researches the reputation of companies in more than 60 countries. In the Netherlands, four companies from the Brainport region are in the top six. In this series, we ask Philips (1), ASML (2) and VDL (6) where the key to a good reputation lies. This time we will be talking to Miel Timmers, head of communication and public affairs at VDL Group.

At the end of April, VDL launched an online platform (OrderOn.com) where customers can order metal products on-demand. In the metal and plastic sector, VDL is one of the first companies to offer this service. This is typical of the Eindhoven family business, which constantly stretches its own boundaries and reinvents itself. The company builds, for example, (electric) buses, passenger cars, Dopper drinking bottles and roof boxes. They also make parts for DAF trucks, they develop and produce automated production lines for car factories and they enter the electronics market. The Red Thread? Metal and plastic. But increasingly advanced applications. For example, VDL is one of the largest suppliers of complete modules and parts for ASML’s chip machines.

Family business

The activities of the five employees who worked for Pieter van de Leegte Sr. in 1953, consisted of turning, milling, drilling, stamping, welding and brazing. Van Der Leegte Groep ((VDL Groep) is now building an industrial empire that the Netherlands has not known for years and is now one of the largest employers in the Netherlands. This is now happening under the leadership of Pieter’s grandchildren: Pieter , Jennifer and Willem Meanwhile their father Wim held power for fifty years.

In 1953, Pieter van der Leegte established himself under the name ‘Metaalindustrie en Constructiewerkplaats P. vd Leegte’ in this building on the outskirts of Philipsdorp. Together with five permanent employees, he started serial stamping, welding and soldering work, initially for Philips and DAF.

Flat organization

If you ask Miel Timmers, head of communications and public affairs, VDL is a real family business. “Our shareholders are on the board, which ensures great speed in decision-making, e.g. VDL is organized flat: there are few layers between shareholders and colleagues on the shop floor.”

In 2018, VDL was in the top thirty of the RepTrak ranking for the first time, and the company has now climbed to sixth place on the list in 2022. How is that possible? Timmers: “I think it’s about the intrinsic motivation of the family business. It is especially important to sustainably pass on the family business to the next generation by ensuring long-term continuity. To do this, you will do good for the environment and the business climate: for the communities of which our employees are a part and others in these regions. It resonates throughout our business.”

Miel Timmers
Miel Timmers. Image: VDL Group

Turbulent twenties

Continuity, calm and stability: these are VDL’s core values, even in turbulent times. Timmers: “These twenties are very turbulent. As of early 2019, global political and economic conditions have changed as a result of the US-China trade conflict. The global coronavirus pandemic and then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine further exacerbated the challenges in materials and market demand. Another consequence of the trade conflict is that systems in the Western world are constantly exposed to many cyber attacks.”

“There is a shortage of everything. Glass, wood, steel, plastic,’ were the words of CEO Willem van der Leegte during the presentation of the half-year figures last year. Nevertheless, VDL continues to try to serve the same number of customers. It’s no use getting stressed, regardless of how turbulent the circumstances are, says Timmers. “The atmosphere remains calm and friendly. Everyone knows that setbacks, challenges and minor periods are just part of it.”

Young talents want peace

It also appeals to the talent, notes Timmers. “All the partners I talk to have huge challenges. It also appeals to talent, notes Timmers. “Everyone has big challenges in the labor market. Everyone wants to be the most attractive employer. We continue to radiate calm and focus on continuity at long term.” Furthermore, the possibilities in the family business are endless. The group now consists of 105 operating companies divided into five clusters (Mobility, Science Technology & Health, Energy & Sustainability, Infratech and Foodtech) in nineteen countries. “For example, we can organize internships at a VDL company in The USA, but also in Switzerland, China, the Netherlands or Belgium. The possibilities are unlimited. Regardless of whether you have been trained practically or theoretically.”

“It is important to pass the family business on to the next generation in a sustainable way by offering continuity in the long term. To do this, you will do good for the environment: the people of the region and the business climate.”

Miel Timmers

Sponsor of the local sports club

It is a big challenge for Timmers to keep his almost 16,000 colleagues informed, and for Timmers it is a challenge to keep his almost 16,000 colleagues informed about the current situation. Most of them work in the high-end manufacturing industry and don’t check their mailbox every day. “I think it is very important for your reputation to inform colleagues as well as possible so they know what is going on. If you never hear from your employer, you may feel less involved.” To stimulate this commitment, VDL is also active in its employees’ communities. “If you’re standing in line at your child’s sports club on Saturday morning, it’s nice to see that your employer supports that sports club.”

Eliminate for the common good

A few years ago, VDL also became PSV’s main sponsor, just like ASML and Philips. “When we talk about this cooperation in the Randstad, for example, we get the question why ‘the metropolitan region of Brainport Eindhoven’ is on the football shirts. Sponsors still want to see their own name there, reads the comment. They cannot imagine much in our deliberations. In the Brainport region, we are prepared to subordinate ourselves to the common interest, the greater whole. That’s how it’s always grown. This is also very strong for us: 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 well in the RepTrak rankings.”

The link between innovation and reputation is also important, Timmers believes. In 2021, the company invested 159 million euros of its turnover in R&D – placing it seventh in the R&D top thirty. ASML and Philips are in first and second place on this list. “Innovation and research are the earning capacity of the future. The Brainport region wants to make a significant contribution to an innovative and sustainable future because we believe it is good for shared prosperity and well-being. It also affects the reputation directly.”

Cover photo: For the particle accelerator at the scientific research center CERN in Switzerland, VDL produces ultra-precision accelerator parts and submodules that form the basis of the heart of the particle accelerator. Image: VDL Group.

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