Flexible material, versatile ideas: B.W.S. international has made a name for itself with foam products “made in Belgium“.
Anyone, who has spent a cold winter day sitting in the stadium, appreciates the advantages of a seat cushion. It is even better if the cushion doubles up as a kneeling mat when working in the garden or carrying out repairs and if it is as light as a feather, sturdy and easy to clean. Not to mention the opportunities it offers promoting companies. The success story of B.W.S. began around 25 years ago with precisely such a cushion – the Comfy Business Seat. “At the start of the 1990s I lived in America for a while,” explained the CEO of B.W.S., Erich Cormann. “Foam seat cushions were omnipresent there, whereas in Europe they were more or less unheard of. That is why I came up with the idea of marketing such cushions back home.”
Cormann was “in the trade”, namely at the time he was working for NMC, one of the largest manufacturers of foam products in Europe. He was able to convince the management about his idea and received support from his colleague Daniel Kühn. So, from then on NMC produced colourful seat cushions, which Cormann and Kühn sold and marketed under the brand name Comfy Business Seat – first of all in the retail sector, primarily in DIY stores. “We soon became known via this sales channel,” recalled Kühn. “That made it easier for us to get a foothold on the promotional products market later on.” Their debut appearance at the PSI Show in 1991 proved a big success – the cushions, a real novelty at the time, met with great interest, the first major orders followed shortly afterwards. Cormann and Kühn began to offer the B2B customers other foam products, expanded the sales channel and finally founded their own company, B.W.S., per management buyout in 1997 – the abbreviation stands for “Best Wide Service”. The Belgian company’s self-description – “The Friendly Foam People” – became much more widely known than the meaning of the acronym. The B.W.S. team that comprises of four members coordinates the business with promotional products distributors all over Europe from the headquarters in the small Walloon town, Charneux. “Our most important markets are the Benelux countries, Germany and France. However we do also export to other European countries – our export share is 97%,” reported Cormann, who himself speaks four languages fluently and in his capacity as Executive Director of the Belgian promotional products association BAPP (Belgian Association of Promotion Products) not only disposes of a wide network of contacts in the Belgian industry, but also throughout Europe. In addition to seat cushions in different shapes and a multitude of colour combinations, today’s line-up also includes versions that also serve as a cup holder as well as further products for the “car and garden” environments, such as a wall cladding that can be attached to garage walls to protect car doors when opened. The product range also comprises of fan items, including waving hands and gloves, jumbo fingers, masks and visor caps. Swimming, leisure time and summer items are a further theme – from swimming noodles, boards and water wings, to water chairs, beach slippers and drink coolers, through to smaller products like puzzles, door stoppers, key pendants or foam moustaches.
Some of the B.W.S. products are made out of EVA foam (ethylene vinyl acetate) – these are purchased from external manufacturers in Europe and Taiwan. However, the majority of the items in the product range are extruded from PE (polyethylene) and PUR (polyurethane) foam still exclusively in the NMC factory in Eynatten in the German-speaking part of Belgium. Spanning 70,000 m², the headquarters of the foam producer are huge – this is predominantly due to the fact that the manufacturing process requires an enormous amount of space: During the extrusion process, the plastic is initially heated and an inert gas is added. The plastic/gas mixture is subsequently pressed through a nozzle under high pressure, the foam expands until it has reached the desired shape and then runs over a conveyor belt and several rollers for dozens of metres. This process is necessary because the lengths of foam have to cool down and the gas has to be emitted before they become stable in shape and can be further processed. All of the rooms have to be kept at a specific temperature constantly so that the gas mixture doesn’t change. The further processing of the lengths of foam – for example welding them into seat cushions is highly-complicated and demands a great deal of specific know-how. The same applies for the customising process per screen print, which also takes place in Eynatten. Last, but not least the storage takes up a lot of room: “We store and transport a large amount of air,” joked Cormann. “People, who occupy themselves with our products, know why they are more expensive than goods from the Far East. But in return, we offer the highest quality, deliver even small order quantities for many models and are very flexible as far as last-minute deliveries and special requests are concerned.”
The sublimation printing process that B.W.S. introduced a few years ago as an attractive customising alternative is a real USP. “We are the only company that can customise foam products using the sublimation printing technique,” explained Kühn. “To achieve this a fine substrate polyester fabric is attached to the product. The method enables a razor-sharp, full-surface print in photo quality.” Creative developments that have brought the small specialist from the Belgian border region a high degree of recognition on the European market. In turn, one will see products from the world of the Foam People here and there in the course of the European Football Championships.
// Till Barth
photos: Till Barth, ©WA Media (3), B.W.S. (1)
A detailed report about the Belgian promotional products market can be found here: Part 1.