Belgium‘s multilingualism with three official languages and a host of dialects and “minority languages” fuels the country’s creativity, a value which was repeatedly underscored at an evening meeting of the Belgian American Chamber of the South Aug. 30 held at the Atlantic Station law offices of Burr Forman LLP.
William De Baets, Belgium’s consul general based in Atlanta, led off the panel discussion supported by the World Trade Center of Atlanta in which participated officers of U.S. and Belgian firms as well as officials from Belgium’s regions of Flanders and Wallonia.
The event was titled “Belgium: Innovative Springboard to Europe,” with the innovation theme unifying the remarks of company representatives from diverse industries including pharmaceutical, flooring and ceramic steel manufacturing as well as package delivery and supply chain management.
Mr. De Baets underscored that Belgium despite being only the size of Maryland, with about the same population as the state of Georgia and a gross domestic product slightly below that of Georgia, maintains its status as the 11th largest economy in the world. “Not bad for a population of 11 million,” he added.
The country’s diversity may be considered as somewhat of a burden domestically because “everything has to be negotiated,” he said, adding that nevertheless its diverse population and language skills provide an advantage when dealing with the rest of the world.
Nico Reynders, head of global talent partnering in the Americas, at the Belgian pharmaceutical firm UCB S.A., took up Mr. De Baets’ themes saying that his country didn’t necessarily seek “to be the biggest, but wants to have the biggest impact.”
With over $5 billion in revenue last year and 7,500 employees around the world, UCB doesn’t have to make excuses for its size. But the company’s mission to have a major impact, Mr. Reynders said, is through the medicines it envelops, which can have a positive impact for people experiencing early-stage symptoms of a variety of diseases such as Parkinson’s and osteoporosis.
Mr. Reynders, a human resources professional, also backed Mr. De Baets’ claim that creativity in science can emerge from combining the experiences of professionals with different skills and experiences.
Although he didn’t mention it, UCB scientists currently are working with researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in a “Solution Accelerator” to use machine learning to find the right medicine for epilepsy patients as well as improve traditional diagnostic practices.
Frank Boykin, the chief financial officer of Calhoun-based Mohawk Industries Inc., was equally enthusiastic about the innovative work ethic his company has found in Belgium since it bought out a Belgian flooring company in 2005 for $2.5 billion.
A leading global flooring manufacturer for the residential and commercial markets, Mohawk over the past decade has transformed itself through strategic acquisitions from a U.S.-based carpet and rug manufacturer to the largest diversified flooring company in the world.
Mr. Boykin cited the the hundreds of millions of dollars in licensing fees that its Belgian operations have generated by the creativity of its employees. “We’re happy with our returns,” he added, but stressed that the company needs to increasingly rely on its creativity. “We’ve just about done everything that we can do in flooring,” he said, adding that now the company is branching out into new areas dependent on its inherent capabilities to innovate.
Shawn Collins, vice president of global architectural sales at PolyVision Corp., a Norcross-based subsidiary of SteelCase Inc., manufactures and installs visual communication products.
Mr. Collins also praised the innovation exemplified by its workforce in Belgium and credited Polyvision‘s success with educational and design products to the creativity of Belgium-trained engineers. The company’s large ceramic-steel murals of modern artworks may be found at metro stations in France and Belgium.
Brandon Lease, a senior manager of international marketing for United Parcel Service Inc., said that UPS’s rapid expansion throughout Europe benefited particularly from Belgium’s central location and the capabilities of its transportation networks including its ports. He also credited the work ethic of Belgium’s workforce and multilingualism as advantages in the company’s growth.
Yves Dubus, the Belgium trade commissioner in Houston, who is responsible primarily for fostering trade and investment relations between the Wallonia and Brussels regions of Belgium, spoke of the advances in a number of creative fields that the region has experienced in recent years.
Wallonia during the industrial revolution was second only to the United Kingdom in industrialization, capitalizing on its extensive deposits of coal and iron. Following World War II, however, its economy collapsed slipping behind Flanders, Belgium’s region to the north, in productivity. Today, however, according to Mr. Dubus, Wallonia is making a comeback through creative endeavors in a wide range of fields including the development of new tourist attractions as well as high tech innovators and manufacturers.
The advantages of diversity were underscored by Conny Van Wulpen recently arrived in Atlanta after having served as an economic representative for Flanders in Lyon, France; Montreal and Casablanc
To learn about other programs of the Belgian-American Chamber of the South, click here.