What typifies Aartsen? How does this family business set itself apart? In our recurring feature ‘Typical Aartsen’, we zoom in on the company’s characteristics. In previous articles, we discussed factors such as quality assurance, product range, talent development, brand policy and quirkiness. This time, we look at how Aartsen is carving out a name internationally; more specifically in Belgium, where we are an active player and do business in our very own Aartsen way.
When Aartsen opened a Belgian location in St. Katelijne-Waver in 1995, our arrival was greeted with plenty of scepticism. What business did a Dutch company have there? The venture was sure to be short-lived. However, we proved the naysayers wrong. Thanks to Aartsen’s approach and the efforts of our team, the company has been growing year on year. We sat down with two experienced pros, Peter Hazenberg (location manager) and Wim van Loon (salesman and with us from the start), to talk about what powers Aartsen.
St. Katelijne-Waver is the home base of what was formerly VMV (Vennootschap Mechelse Veilingen), now better known as BelOrta, one of the largest produce auctions in all of Europe. Various importers are established near the auction, operating jointly under the name Frugro. When Aartsen wanted to join Frugro in 1995, the local companies refused, even mockingly suggesting that Aartsen wouldn’t last a full year in Belgium. So Aartsen never became a member of Frugro, but the company has always steered its own course and that fact proved fruitful in Belgium as well. Whereas the first few years witnessed a fierce rivalry between the existing companies and Aartsen, these days relations are strong and all have become Aartsen customers.
Aartsen Belgium opened in an existing building on the periphery of the Frugro grounds. While the site has not changed, the building itself was renovated and expanded in 2008, doubling the floor area to 5,000 m2. Since then, the initial team of six has grown to twenty-three, along with several jobs that are open.
De eerste jaren hadden we veel klanten die bij ons kwamen voor producten die ze elders niet konden vinden of te duur waren. Het grootste deel van hun producten haalden onze klanten bij concurrenten of op de veiling. In België kunnen namelijk alle groenten- en fruitzaken gewoon op de veiling kopen. Na een paar jaar kantelde dat en werden we de belangrijkste leverancier voor onze klanten”, vertelt Peter. Hij vervolgt: “We hebben steeds meer vertrouwen gewonnen met onze producten en werkwijze. Belgen willen de handel graag zien. Alle verkopers liepen in eerste instantie een rondje met de klanten om alle producten uit te zoeken. Nu krijgen we voornamelijk bestellingen via telefoon en e-mail en komen ze hun groenten en fruit ophalen. Klanten weten precies wat ze bij ons kunnen verwachten.” Wim haakt daar op in: “Dat is niet overal het geval, er zijn nog steeds zaken waar de klanten zelf hun producten willen uitkiezen en dan blijven ze zelfs bij hun producten staan om ervoor te zorgen dat de goede pallets worden ingeladen. Maar bij ons dus niet. We verkopen ook via WhatsApp. Dan maken we een fotootje voor een klant zodat hij een indruk krijgt van de producten en vervolgens kan beslissen.
‘All of our customers know that we are a Dutch company. While this fact worked against us in the early years, it later turned to our advantage. They know that we have everything in hand, which sets us apart’, emphasises Peter. ‘Everything is neat and tidy here’, adds Wim. ‘Most customers say that they have never seen anything like it. Even the grass is trimmed, the hedges clipped and no rubbish is left lying around. Although that situation is definitely not the norm, we are noticing that more and more companies are making the effort. Maybe we are inspiring them.’ In a sense, the Dutch flag has come to represent a mark of quality – for customers as well as for our own employees. The reason is that quality, clarity and transparency define Aartsen as an employer as well.
‘It is customary in Belgium to negotiate prices, but we do not do so at Aartsen. We state our price and the customer responds yes or no. It is as simple as that’, says Wim. ‘While that process of course took them some getting used to, we just do not have the time to haggle over all our products. Clarity is our watchword.’ By the same token, Aartsen never concludes contracts with Belgian customers. ‘It does not work effectively – it does not fit the Belgian mindset. Businesses still want to go back and renegotiate the terms’, explains Peter, ‘so contracts would serve no purpose.’
Belgians are known for appreciating the finer things, including when it comes to gastronomy, so in how far is Aartsen’s range tailored to this standard? ‘Some years ago, there was a rise in demand for clementines with leaves on them’, Peter recalls. ‘If there is no leaf, Belgians say that it is a mandarin orange. Later on, they became popular in the Netherlands as well. Similarly, we started selling luxury d’oro grapes in Belgium first and only later in the Netherlands.’ Wim affirms, ‘Everything that is high-end initially sells best in Belgium. For example, there is a continual demand for air-freighted pineapples, which have a better flavour because they’re vine-ripened. There’s also a huge demand for large nectarines. That market is always a bit slower to catch on in the Netherlands.’
‘At this location, the largest potential for growth is in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium. Although many Walloons have a smattering of Dutch, it is obviously nice to serve customers more personally and talk to them in French. While Jeffry was already fluent, Matti took a business course in French a few years ago and now speaks it perfectly. They both have a combination of experience, product knowledge and French capacity, which makes them ideal salespeople; they are both part of the company and offer our French-speaking customers a perfect service.’
Of course, the key to Aartsen’s growth and success lie in the things that distinguish our company from the competition. This fact also holds true in Belgium. Steering your own course pays off. ‘We have grown virtually ever year, but we have really taken off in the last five years. Things are going so well that we are even thinking cautiously about the possibility of expansion’, Peter says. Ambition and drive. That’s typical Aartsen as well.