The international ambitions of Heylen Group

Heylen Group


Acquiring, clustering and growing companies. That’s the strategy of the industrial holding Heylen Group. The top executives of this family-based company, businessman Wim Heylen and CEO Didier Clerx, primarily invest in stable companies in traditional sectors. “ We steer clear of cutting-edge technology that is beyond our comprehension.”

The headquarters of the industrial holding Heylen Group are located on the fourth floor of the Frame 21 building along the E313 motorway in Herentals. This business centre, featuring co-working and event spaces with a contemporary design and layout, is one of the group’s real estate projects. “Real estate is only one of our activities,” says CEO and co-owner Didier Clerx, 48. Heylen Group is a Belgian family business with participating interests in various sectors in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy and Finland. “We have a buy-and-build strategy and focus on the long term,” explains Wim Heylen, 47, founder, majority shareholder and executive chairman of the holding.

Heylen Group experienced substantial growth in 2018. Turnover exceeded 500 million euros and the EBITDA doubled in three years’ time to 40 million euros. The core team of the corporate holding has fifteen members, while it has a portfolio of 24 companies in eight sectors, with a total of 550 employees. The best-known participating interests are Connect+Group (together with the Lanckriet family) with the electronics chain Excellent, the Royal Dutch Mint, the Italian kitchen lifestyle brand Boretti, the food company RV Food, DRU International and Aste Finland, two manufacturers of promotional cooling units for major companies like Danone, Carlsberg and Heineken. “We love a tangible product with a healthy balance sheet,” emphasises Heylen.

Innovation is crucial

“We have experienced continuous growth over the past ten years. Organisational growth is positive, but slow. That’s why we’re aiming for a healthy combination of organic growth and takeovers,” explains Heylen. He began in the 90s with the Amizoo chain of pet shops, which he sold to Delhaize in 2000. Heylen brought in contemporary Didier Clerx, his former banker, as CFO. Since 2011, Clerx has been CEO of Heylen Group. The duo invests in companies that fit in the clusters in which the holding is already active, as well as in new sectors. “It needs to feel right. We don’t invest in biomedical applications or other high-tech developments, since we have no knowledge about these things,” says Clerx. Start-ups are not on their radar either.

“We don’t keep running these companies with a traditional approach because we invest in so-called traditional sectors. Innovation is essential. We bring together our partner managers to share ideas and best practices in various sectors. The most important asset we manage is not our financial income, but our people,” adds Heylen. “To achieve healthy growth, you need to continuously attract the right people.” The human aspect also plays a role in the group’s acquisition deals. “We’ve taken over quite a few companies without replacing the managing director. Instead, we give the company wings,” explains Heylen. “A burden is lifted from the shoulders of the managing director, who then has the opportunity to redirect his focus,” adds Clerx.

According to the company, Heylen Group is interested in well-managed, stable companies with a continuous cash flow. “We don’t run the companies. We define the direction to be taken and provide management with assistance. We hold monthly meetings. You give them a well-equipped boat, a push towards the water and let them set sail,” says Clerx. Heylen Group is not concerned about the sluggish economy, Brexit or trade war between the United States and China. According to Heylen, there are no longer any ‘easy’ sectors. “You can also achieve growth in difficult sectors,” says this experienced entrepreneurial investor. “If you have the energy and strength to persevere, you can accomplish more than most in a difficult sector.”

Coins for the world

An unusual business cluster of the group is the Royal United Mint, which produces coins. In 2016, Heylen Group took over the Royal Dutch Mint in Utrecht in the Netherlands. Early this year, the coin cluster was strengthened with the acquisition of the tool company Tools&Dies of Brecht, representing a vertical integration. “We produce euros for Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. We also make Mexican pesos, Jamaican dollars and coins for countries in South America, Africa and Europe. Royal United Mint supplies to fifty mints around the world,” says Heylen.

The group also produces collector coins with images of, for example, the Rode Duivels, K3, Harry Potter and the DJ Afrojack. The Harry Potter ‘mirror coin’ was created on behalf of Warner Bros and features a special surface treatment that reveals an image when a light is shone on it. “The coin has been approved by J.K. Rowling and features cutting-edge technology,” says Clerx. “We innovate in that market with new technologies and new products. The collector coins have enabled us to tap into new markets.”

Heylen Group is investing 20 million euros in a brand-new 10,000 square metre production facility for the Royal Dutch Mint in Utrecht. “The relocation is scheduled to take place at the end of the year. Our goal is to be the world’s largest private mint,” says Heylen. The next step for the coin cluster is a production facility on the American continent. “It’s a heavy product that needs to be transported. And Americans buy American,” claims Heylen.

No wild prices

Heylen Group considered more than 70 possible acquisitions last year. “We review lots of possibilities, but it’s not like we take over ten companies each year,” says Clerx. The acquisition market is operating at full capacity and wild prices are offered to take over companies. “If you want to invest, you have to consider market developments to some extent. As long as we keep growing, we can look for promising targets. We invest for the long term and retain the companies in order to expand them. Our goal is not to sell them. It doesn’t matter whether the payback period is five or six years. Naturally, that doesn’t mean we’re willing to pay wild prices,” says the CEO. “It’s not an exact science. What’s too expensive? You usually don’t find out until afterwards. After all, a multiplier is only one way to determine value. Waiting a year for a better deal also costs money,” says Heylen.

According to Heylen and Clerx, the investment criteria are crystal clear. “We’re interested in companies that strengthen our clusters or let us start up a new cluster. There’s no point in appealing to companies at random. They need to be financially healthy, have independent management and international ambitions. Our companies are to go global. A company that has a limited local market is not a good fit for the group,” explains Clerx. He’s particularly interested in the Far East. “Our companies need to look towards China, for instance, a country with a market that is maturing rapidly.” The first steps have already been taken. “Our Finnish subsidiary Aste is working to launch European-Chinese activities,” says Heylen.

Largest Belgian property developer in the Netherlands

Heylen Warehouses, part of the industrial holding Heylen Group, was the largest Belgian property developer in the Netherlands in 2018. The property branch of this family-run business has entered into a fifty-fifty joint venture, for example, with AG Real Estate, the real estate division of the insurance company AG Insurance. Heylen Warehouses developed more than 660,000 square metres in the Netherlands, of which 360,000 in 2018 alone. It specialises in logistics real estate for retail and e-commerce companies like Bleckmann, Vtech, MediaMarkt and Tommy Hilfiger. The group has logistics campuses in Almelo, Venlo, Heerlen, Roosendaal and Etten-Leur and more than 360,000 square metres still in the pipeline.

In its home country, Heylen Warehouses has developed 410,000 square metres. A recent example is a 110,000 square metre logistics hub in Grobbendonk, where logistics professionals like Bleckmann and Ceva operate. According to Didier Clerx, CEO of Heylen Group, the advantage of the Netzherlands in terms of e-commerce logistics is not only related to labour costs and flexible working styles. “The advantage is primarily found in the level of entrepreneurship. Not only is this high at companies, but also on the government level. The Netherlands is far more advanced in this area than Belgium.”

Source: Trends Magazine 07/02/2019 – KDC – Picture: Debby Termonia