#StrongerTogether Multi-brand fashion store ZEB takes action!

Fashion company ZEB was hit hard by the mandatory store closures. It instantly sought solutions, and was able to reopen soon thanks to its rare agility and the practical support of its primary banking partner.

 Willem 's heeren, ZEB Wilrijk

The story of ZEB begins in 1993, when a young passionate sales representative called Luc Van Mol started selling his jeans all across the country. In 2020, ZEB has developed into a trusted Belgian multi-brand fashion company with 72 stores. You can still buy your favourite jeans there, but you will also find 70 top brands showing you all the latest trends. Marketing Manager Erika Mees talks about the nightmare the company was facing. And although the Coronavirus crisis really affected ZEB's core business, there is also a positive side to the story.

Ultimate nightmare

“The lockdown suddenly forced us to close all our doors. Not being able to let customers into your stores at a moment's notice is quite a drastic measure for a company. Especially if you don't know how long and how hard the crisis will hit", Erika says. “We had just received our new spring and summer collections, and suddenly all we could rely on was the turnover of our online store. So how were we going to pay our suppliers, rents and personnel costs? We had no choice but to furlough our store employees and some administrative staff and to sit down with our suppliers and financial advisers."

Taking action

One thing was for certain: solutions had to be found quickly. “ZEB has always been an active company and we are always quick to look for solutions. But this crisis was unprecedented. We can't make it alone. Fortunately, our bank was there for us: it was open to our needs and offered us quick and practical help. This enabled us to finance our working capital in the short and long term and to postpone the capital repayments of existing loans. A partner who actively contributes and supports you at crucial moments is priceless", Erika adds.

“As ZEB's main bank, we provided a bridging loan at the time of the COVID-19 outbreak, so that suppliers and staff could still get paid despite the decline in turnover. This could be done extremely quickly because ZEB presented its cash planning immediately. As a banker, I'm quite proud of the way we took responsibility for our existing clients. ZEB has 700 permanent staff members, so it's an important local employer. That’s why it was important to give it some financial breathing space to safeguard the continuity of its activities", Veerle Huygens, Relationship Manager at BNP Paribas Fortis, adds.

Extreme agility

It soon became clear that financial agility alone was not enough. Erika: “We were also experimenting with new ways to get in touch with our customers. For example, we started focusing more on Instagram as a channel to inspire people with all kinds of videos and style advice, and we started working more closely with influencers. We certainly want to continue this trend. Even when our doors reopened, we noticed that some key customers were not returning, even though we closely followed all the measures taken by the safety committee. We had installed protective acrylic shields at the cash registers, we gave our staff gloves and face masks and we applied stickers to ensure that the necessary distance is kept in our stores. As a next step, we decided to give our loyal customers the opportunity to come and shop outside regular opening hours. This gives them the opportunity to go shopping together with the people in their bubble for an hour in a peaceful and safe environment. That was a great success, so we have now decided that everyone can make reservations with us to do this.

An insecure future

“Even now, we're not working at full capacity", Erika admits. “Huge uncertainty remains. Will there be a second Coronavirus wave? What about our winter collection? It's not clear how long it will take us to fully recover from the heavy blows we were dealt. However, we are hoping for additional government measures. The 12-month period of the current support measures seems very short to us. One thing is certain: the agility that is so typical of our company will always remain necessary. Companies can no longer survive if they can’t respond quickly to change. It is hard to tell whether the business is recovering quickly. In the last few days, we have noticed that our customers are becoming a little more relaxed. In the beginning, they were very reserved. They came to buy certain items in a targeted way. Now we’re seeing that many have started to enjoy shopping again. During the week, the turnover figures are almost back to normal, but our customers still seem to be afraid of going shopping at the weekend when things might get a lot busier. The rise of e-commerce also seems to be unstoppable. And even though trends are difficult to predict, what I do know is that ZEB will always do everything in its power to make a difference for its customers in a creative way", Erika concludes.

Willem is proud to reopen the doors of ZEB, the multi-brand fashion store. Be sure to support ZEB and all our Belgian entrepreneurs who are getting back on their feet after lockdown.


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#StrongerTogether Property developer Bostoen withstands Corona thanks to solid foundations

Bostoen has managed to minimise the impact of the Coronavirus outbreak. But they're still pleased that the bank is there to help companies in need of assistance.

 Johan De Vlieger, Bostoen

Based in Ghent, Belgium, property development company Bostoen has been operating across Belgium in the residential construction sector for quite some time now. For almost 50 years, it has offered affordable, sustainable living solutions with respect for people and the environment, from traditional brick houses and apartments to timber-framed homes.

Fear and uncertainty

Bostoen has not been immune to the Coronavirus outbreak. “We stopped our construction activities in the third week of March, mainly because the Coronavirus pandemic was surrounded by fear and uncertainty when it broke out”, CEO Johan De Vlieger says. “Perhaps we could have continued our activities with some adjustments, but the amount of social pressure and lack of information meant that we shut down our site operations completely. We had to furlough some of our office-based employees, while others were able to continue to work from home, either full-time or part-time."

The new normal

Due to the incessant reporting on the Coronavirus, it was quite hard for many companies to fully keep up with the changing situation. What was allowed and what was not? “We saw which way the wind was blowing first, and when everything became clearer, we put a lot of work into negotiations with our partners in the sector", Johan says. “When all that was completed, we were able to start up again in the last week of April. Our construction activities are therefore all up and running again, but in a different way. We follow the social distancing guidelines very closely, both at the office and on the construction sites. I have also noticed that the adjusted way of working has become 'the new normal' on our sites. The productivity losses caused by the Coronavirus outbreak are therefore already reducing. We haven't abandoned our customers. It was easy to stay in touch using digital communication tools."

“Personally, I don't think this new way of working is all that bad", Johan continues. “It is perfectly doable to work and live like this. Even if a vaccine is found and the Coronavirus disappears, I think the new habits will be maintained. People are more hygiene-aware in how they work and interact with each other, which I don’t think we should change any time soon."

Nest egg

So far, Bostoen has managed to get through this difficult period without too much difficulty. “We have all worked very hard internally to keep this ship on course. As a result, the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic has remained very limited. Of course, it also helps that in the past few years we had built up a financial buffer to be used in case of adversity. As a result, none of our payments were late, and Bostoen is emerging from this crisis as a strong company,” Johan adds.

Bostoen has therefore not relied on any assistance from the bank or government support measures. “My contact person at the bank did call me and was ready to help. But since we had everything under control, that was not necessary", Johan explains. “If you don't need any help, you shouldn't use those measures. There are other companies that are struggling much more at the moment. They are in greater need of support." 

His contact person Koen Stepman, Business Centre Manager at BNP Paribas Fortis, agrees. “We have had a good relationship with Bostoen for years. Right from the start of the outbreak, we were in touch very regularly, mainly out of mutual concern. As a loyal banking partner, we were very pleased that Bostoen was able to start back up again fairly quickly."

Johan adds: “I think the perception that some executives have of banks should change. A bank should be seen as a partner, not 'the enemy'. It is very pleasant that Bostoen can communicate and work with BNP Paribas Fortis in a partnership atmosphere. That feeling was confirmed again during the Coronavirus outbreak", Johan concludes.

Johan is proud to reopen the doors of Bostoen, the residential property development company. Be sure to support Bostoen and all our Belgian entrepreneurs who are getting back on their feet after lockdown.


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#StrongerTogether Krijnen joiners and cabinetmakers carve out their future path

Krijnen builds kitchens, bathrooms and custom interiors in-house. The company invested heavily in production machinery. Then Corona hit. Thankfully, Krijnen has a strong partner on side in BNP Paribas Fortis.

 Wouter Leysen, Krijnen

Krijnen is a family-owned company based in Malle, Belgium. It started out building kitchens, before evolving into a specialist for all interior cabinetmaking work. Although it has 57 years of experience and expertise to fall back on, even Krijnen was unprepared for the current crisis.

"We had to cease operations for a while," explains CEO Wouter Leysen. "Given that we produce interiors and perform renovation work, our activities often take us into people's homes. This wasn't permitted under the coronavirus regulations, meaning that our production team and installation service could no longer do their jobs. We also had to close our showroom – this was a government measure that affected all stores."

Adapting to the situation

It may be more than half a century old, but Krijnen's response to the pandemic was far from slow: "We immediately did everything we could to adapt to the situation. After the government set out its social distancing measures, we got to work putting them into practice and informing the workforce about them," explains Wouter. "In our showroom, for example, we arranged large desks with a depth of one and a half metres to be able to welcome our customers safely. We were also very strict with our hygiene measures, and were committed in making the switch to working from home."

Taking an open approach

"It's clear that this is a difficult time from a financial perspective. Fortunately, we could count on the support of BNP Paribas Fortis, with whom we have an excellent relationship. The bank is a true partner to us. We were able to discuss the effects of the coronavirus crisis very openly with our contact person. We then worked with him to find solutions that would enable us to weather the storm."

The firm's contact person is Stefan Lauwers at the Kempen Business Centre. "It's an absolute pleasure and a privilege to be able to work with a family-owned company such as Krijnen”, he says. "Wouter and I were in close contact during the crisis, and there were several times when we considered the next steps the company could take. The fact that we understand each other well is a major plus when you end up in a crisis like this. I am very impressed by Wouter's positive attitude and can-do mentality, not least because this is how I always try to act, too."

"We weren't content to resign ourselves to the situation. Open communication was key", adds Wouter. "This was the approach we took toward our suppliers and customers, too. Customers have many questions and are uncertain about various issues. That's why we try to do all we can to guarantee continuity and keep them informed about their projects."

People make the difference

"For me, this crisis has proven how important it is to take a human approach to business," states Wouter. "For us, BNP Paribas Fortis offers huge added value in the sense that we have a good contact person who works with us to find solutions. If the bank were too highly digitised, I don't think we would have been so quick to find solutions. I know the future is set to become ever more digital, but I still believe human contact has many benefits. This is why it is essential to strike the right balance between human and digital contact – both for the bank and for us as a company," concludes Wouter.

Wouter is proud to reopen the doors of Krijnen's specialist cabinetmaking workshop in Malle. Be sure to support Krijnen and all our Belgian entrepreneurs who are getting back on their feet after lockdown.
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#StrongerTogether For Bellerose, connections have always been crucial

When times are tough, we find out who we can really rely on. At the peak of the coronavirus crisis, Bellerose and its CEO were able to fall back on all their partner relationships, including with their bank.

 Hélise Bertouil, Bellerose Brussels

"We took action, but we also learned lessons", says Frédéric Vitre, who from the outset has seen the positives and opportunities in the pandemic. People could obviously have done without it, but for the CEO and co-owner of the clothing company Bellerose, this was no reason to feel sorry for himself.

Safety and practicalities first

The steps Bellerose took covered every aspect of health and hygiene, as well as the continuity of their work. "These were the most important points in the beginning", explains Frédéric Vitre. "We managed the health aspect of the crisis by protecting the health of our employees. Then, our aim was to continue operations remotely, by working from home." Business continuity also had to be guaranteed, by strictly preserving and managing the company's cash assets. The CEO even says they "were very insistent on this". Bellerose also maintained and increased its contact with customers, especially through relevant social media content. "We went even further with the production of our content, which we create in-house. We put ourselves in our customers' shoes, so tried to be engaging, entertaining and reassuring, as well as make them smile. Instead of communicating less, we communicated more." In actual fact, Bellerose strengthened all its connections with everybody.

Stakeholder relationships made all the difference

This is where Bellerose learned a great deal. "As the saying goes, 'you reap what you sow'. COVID-19 has accelerated and shown the quality of the relationships we've built with our stakeholders – customers, suppliers, staff, banks, etc. If you have always treated them with respect in all circumstances, they will more readily accommodate your difficulties. But if you have always been rude to them, they won't be there for you." It is these relationships that go back years and the mutual respect between everyone involved that have paid off. "It's easier, so to speak, to make it through a crisis when you are surrounded by people who respect and help each other. Our customers and employees have been incredible." Ultimately, the crisis "could have been a lot worse", Frédéric Vitre says. In particular, BNP Paribas Fortis offered support in a very specific area.

Cash is king, which is why the bank is there

 'Cash is king.' Every business owner knows the expression, whether their company is large or small. If you have cash flow problems, you are in serious trouble. "This is another lesson from the crisis", says Vitre. "Cash is still king. Always manage it with care, to avoid stretching yourself too thin." With the help of the bank, cash arrived via a government-backed loan of one million euros, which eased cash flow and financed the purchase of stock for future seasons. This guaranteed that the Bellerose business could continue. "We were quickly contacted by Marcel Seys, our relationship manager. He has always been there for us and is very involved in our company. Marcel understands it so well, that everything quickly fell into place." Marcel himself describes things in much the same way: "We contacted all our customers, aware that those in the textile industry were among the most severely affected. Together, we devised strategies based on several eventualities. It's not always easy to find customers open to that idea. We also rely on information from customers, and that's what enabled us to quickly be able to find a solution for Bellerose." Further proof, if it were needed, that relationships and trust make all the difference.

Hélise is proud to reopen the doors of Bellerose, the clothing stores in Brussels. Be sure to support Bellerose and all our Belgian entrepreneurs who are getting back on their feet after lockdown.
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#StrongerTogether Reinvention and deconstruction - how Le Botaniste adapted its offering

Like many hotels, restaurants and cafés, Le Botaniste was initially in a state of shock when its Brussels and Ghent restaurants were forced to close. However, the vegan and organic restaurant was able to reinvent itself during the lockdown to continue to be able to serve its customers, and it wouldn't have been possible without its bank's support.

 Gregory Verellen, Le Botaniste

The first lockdown measures blindsided everyone in March. It was a logical decision to contain the health crisis but the vast majority of companies, shops and restaurants stopped operating virtually from one day to the next. Le Botaniste had to close the doors of its three restaurants (two in Brussels, one in Ghent). Foodies and lovers of delicious bowls of organic and 100% vegan food had to be left disappointed.

Staff and customer safety above all

"Initially, we were in a state of shock", remembers Gregory Verellen, co-founder and Chief Development Officer of a concept that has also been set up in New York. Although the regulations in place allowed takeaways, Le Botaniste put safety 100% first: "We were completely closed for six weeks, while we took the step back we needed. I could hardly ask the staff to put themselves in danger by coming to work. And personally, as a father of four, it wasn't clear how to manage all of this either", he smiles.

Adapted service and offering since 12 May

On 12 May, Le Botaniste opened two of its restaurants' kitchens, at the same time as the country's shops opened. "People have started to go out and this led to footfall, like in the rue de Bailli in Brussels. In Ghent, we are right in the centre of the pedestrian area and we quickly made the decision to open there, too", says the co-founder. Only the Schuman location, which is very dependent on offices, has remained closed. The offering was reduced, and the provision, first as collection then as delivery, was adapted: "We reviewed our product, our famous bowls where all the ingredients are arranged on top of one another. We realised that many people order to eat at home, or to reheat meals in the evening." Everything has now been deconstructed for our customers to put back together at home. "The product lasts longer and we can also create a better experience." In addition to this, a 'grocery' section where customers can buy natural wines has also been added.

A welcome helping hand for cash flow

All this obviously has a cost, and at the same time revenue has fallen significantly. The team was lucky enough to have support when relaunching its business activities. "We have been supported by BNP Paribas Fortis since the beginning of our development and this crisis hasn't changed a thing. The support from the Liège-Verviers Business Centre and Martine Fabry, our relationship manager, have been more than useful.” Martine adds that "We quickly contacted Le Botaniste at the beginning of the crisis to gauge the pulse and put in place the necessary measures to relaunch their business activities, under the best conditions possible." Le Botaniste was soon able to benefit from banking measures, i.e. the freeze on debt repayments, as well as a loan of 250,000 euros guaranteed by the government. "This has helped our cash flow for 6 to 12 months. We face great uncertainty and no one is completely protected from what is sure to be a difficult recovery." Gregory Verrellen does, however, remain confident in the medium term. "There will be adjustments in our spaces, which are already small, and we must also regain our customers' trust", he concludes.

Gregory is proud to reopen the doors of Le Botaniste, his vegan and organic restaurant in Brussels. Be sure to support Le Botaniste and all our Belgian entrepreneurs who are getting back on their feet after lockdown.


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