Masters of buildings in steel

Frisomat

Benoît and Guy SomersIt was a pleasure to meet two of our graduates – father and son – in the offices of their family-owned firm, Frisomat. Founded in 1978 by Guy Somers (PUB[1], 1971), the company not only continues to grow but is thriving, with exports all over Europe and Africa. Guy’s son Benoît (PUB, 1997) is assuming the mantle, and is currently opening an operation in Brazil. It’s a good story, and one well worth telling.

“I still remember being taught by André Vlerick, the founding professor of Vlerick Business School and in 1972/3 the Belgian finance minister,” Guy begins. “Even in those early days he particularly encouraged entrepreneurship and leadership, and he urged his students to expand their horizons abroad.” After graduating, Guy worked for a printing company and then as a product manager at Unilever, before starting his own company, Frisomat, in 1978. “We began by selling original Romney buildings – those prefabricated semi-circular storage units left over from the war. We erected more than 12,000 of those prefabs before the authorities decided enough was enough.”

New concept

Convinced of the huge advantages of prefab, Guy developed a new construction concept: a “storage shed” made of cold-rolled galvanised steel. Success followed again, with sales abroad becoming the major focus for the future. His brother soon joined the business, leading the export drive.

Climate changes

“One particular feature of our type of construction”, Benoît remarks, “is that the most appropriate external design and shape is a technical matter that changes, depending on three important climate factors: how much snow and how much wind is allowed by local regulations, and whether or not there is seismic activity. We’ve put up buildings in all sorts of places around the world, and this experience has shown us just how important these regulations are. Africa isn’t Portugal, and Brazil isn’t Belgium, and even within the same country you usually have different wind and snow regions.”

Each building is therefore tailor-made. Designs are processed automatically and orders are dispatched within just three weeks. Benoît: “When the kit arrives on the construction site, the buildings are easily assembled as if they were a giant Meccano kit – and without using a specialist building team.”

Brazil, the next frontier

Benoît studied law at KU Leuven. After his Masters at Vlerick, he went to work for Katoen Natie, the Belgian logistics company, with 1,200 employees in Brazil. “I was lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. Fernand Huts, CEO of Katoen Natie, asked me at an informal dinner in Argentina if I’d like to join a new company they were taking over in Brazil – the dream opportunity for me as a 24-year-old graduate! I told him on the spot that I’d do it and three weeks later I arrived in Brazil, where I would work for this affiliate company for 11 years, first in Salvador (in the north-east of the country) and then in Campinas (near São Paulo).” Benoît was the commercial director for three years before becoming CEO. In September 2010, he launched Frisomat do Brasil. “It was a big decision,” he recalls, “but one I certainly don’t regret. We already had manufacturing facilities in Belgium and Romania, but because of the high import taxes we decided to set up a third site in Brazil. Besides, Brazil was too far away to get units from Europe delivered rapidly, which is a major part of our unique offer.” It took a while to establish a reputation, selling without local references and introducing their innovative and unknown concept. “To date, though,” he proudly adds, “we’ve built 36 units and have recently received our largest order ever. Oddly enough, it’s for delivery to Congo-Brazzaville.”

Some Frisomat figures

To date, more than 20,000 lightweight steel buildings have been erected around the world via Frisomat affiliates in 16 countries. A new building covering more than 600 m² can be packed into just one 40-foot container.

Masters@Vlerick

The Masters in General Management programme – our oldest and most recognised Masters programme – gives you the solid grounding you need in all core management fields to maximise your career opportunities. Both father and son Somers agree on that: “Much of what we learned has been useful in setting up our business from scratch. Vlerick taught us not just about strategy and numbers, but also about the psychology of working with people, and getting the best out of them.

[1] The former PUB (Postuniversitair Programma voorbereidend tot Bedrijfsbeheer) is now called MGM (Masters in General Management).

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