Van Bavel Enjoy Giving! looks back on a long, pioneering history in the Belgian industry. The promotional products agency elevates giving into an art with custom-made products and keeps close ties to China through its independent sister company, The China Office.
“We may not be the biggest company in Belgium,” grinned Michel Van Bavel, CEO of Van Bavel Enjoy Giving!, “but I bet there is no bigger showroom anywhere else in the country. We actually call it something else. We refer to it as our Inspiration Store.” Indeed the entire headquarters in Mortsel – close to Antwerp, which is logistically speaking an ideal location – that spans 2,000 m² is virtually just one big showroom, the workplaces and office and meeting rooms that are divided into departments as well as the warehouse seem to be embedded into the presentation of products, programmes and collections for the company’s customers. “We don’t just exhibit the line-ups of our suppliers – of course you can also find some of their products here – however our aim is to inspire our customers and demonstrate everything one can do with cleverly implemented haptic advertising,” confirmed Van Bavel. “Our existing and potential customers regularly visit us two to three times a week in order to gain inspiration. And for us ourselves and our employees it is extremely important to be constantly surrounded by products and items – incidentally many of which are own and custom-made designs. Because that is what we do: Make items that communicate, make brands experienceable, strengthen images and last, but not least make friends.” The corporate “noble purpose” is flaunted in big letters on the balustrade of the generously- sized company building: “We elevate giving to an art in order to increase joy, happiness and belonging.“
And here the company looks back on a long (family) tradition: Van Bavel Business Gifts wasn’t founded until February 15, 2003, but the history of the company actually began much earlier. Michel Van Bavel: “In the year 2003, exactly 50 years after my grandfather, Louis Van Bavel, the pioneer founded the first ever Belgian trading agency in 1953 – Les Etablissements Van Bavel & Co, later Bavelco – my brother Jacques and I launched our company ‘Van Bavel Business Gifts BVBA’.” The company was located in an art nouveau house called “Lente” – i.e. spring – in Antwerp for decades.
The optimistic mood associated with this season also reflected the character of the company. In the 1990s the family business that was run by Michel Van Bavel’s uncle Johan and his father Jacques Van Bavel became the market leader in Belgium shortly after being founded. At the end of 1997, Bavelco that earned an annual turnover of around 250 mil. Belgian Francs (over 6 mil. Euros) at the time was taken over by the American giant HALO. Then, in 2003, Van Bavel Business Gifts, was refounded, the strong growth made it necessary to move to the new company premises in Mortsel in 2006. A further company was founded in 2011, The China Office (TCO). The firm that is based in Ningbo, China, is autonomous and a WOFE (Wholly Owned Foreign Enterprise). Paul Keser has been on board since 2013 as COO and a co-shareholder. He originally comes from the IT sector and has put this experience to good use in developing an innovative sourcing system that is exclusively implemented by Van Bavel and which depicts all of the individual steps of the production process. Paul Keser: “Our system Source IT, that was exclusively developed and programmed by and for us, contains more than 3,000 Chinese factories with their respective certifications and audit certificates. The entire procedure, each individual point in the workflow is depicted and documented in the system. In terms of quality control and CSR this gives us totally new possibilities of observing standards.“
TCO was originally founded to monitor Van Bavel’s buying activities in China and guarantee on-site quality controls. Incidentally, the brothers Michel and Jacques have family ties to China – both of their Chinese wives work for TCO and Van Bavel. Michel Van Bavel: “By and by fellow distributors asked us if it were possible for TCO to control and monitor their orders as well. Of course, we were glad to oblige, today TCO takes care of the entire procurement process for our European customers, who are all distributors in promotional products. TCO’s services include development and design, production, quality control and dispatch per air and sea. This includes one’s own creative design proposals, custom- made designs, etc. Our system grants our customers the total overview of all details of the production process. And they can receive samples after each individual production phase.“
Jacques Van Bavel left the company at the beginning of 2016, he has turned his hobby, dealing with old-timers, into his profession. Michel Van Bavel: “I worked together with Jacques for 24 years, it certainly takes some getting used to.“
Creative source of ideas
The business has changed over the course of time too: “We have to act more and more like an advertising agency,” explained Michel Van Bavel. “We can’t play the role of a mere buyer in today’s Google and Alibaba era, we have to be a creative source of ideas. Our customers expect inspiring concepts, well thought-out web shops, full service, fulfilment and programmes, the products of which can be ordered from us and we dispatch them directly from our warehouse here.“ For example, in Belgium Van Bavel exclusively supplies “Orangina Schweppes” with haptic advertising concepts, the merchandising programme for the city of Antwerp and the collection for renowned tobacco manufacturers is also exclusively developed by Van Bavel. “It is of eminent importance to achieve a good balance between professionalism in the workflows and the production – i.e. a standard, transparent procedure – and on the other hand to give a free hand to the creativity, which is of course anything but standard,” confirmed Michel Van Bavel. “This balance has to be found again and again.“ So, the agency – incidentally Van Bavel is a member of the oldest international distributor network WAGE (World Advertising Gift Exchange) – offers something special to existing and potential customers, so-called “Product Media Books”. “Once we have studied the CI of the company, their corporate colours, style guide, corporate philosophy, etc. in detail, we compile creative, inspirational input. We put together and illustrate theme worlds underlining which company- specific promotional products would be particularly suitable. These inspiration books are individual, very complex, require a clever concept and are really cost-intensive. But they go down well with our customers, are held in high esteem and last but not least underline our competence of elevating giving into an art.“
// Michael Scherer
photos: Till Barth, Michael Scherer, © WA Media (2), Van Bavel Enjoy Giving! (1)
A detailed report about the Belgian promotional products market can be found here: Part 1.