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Building Bridges with Benelux

June 26, 2019

Business Recruiter shares insights into trip to Belgium and the Netherlands

The atlas, the compact cassette, and still life painting. File those under “things you didn’t know were Dutch.”

There’s more where those came from, including Upstate South Carolina employers.

The region has welcomed three Dutch companies in recent years: VDL Steelweld, a production systems and automation company in Duncan; AWL Automation, an automotive robotics company also in Duncan; and EAS Change Systems, which supports injection molding processes from its facility at South Carolina Technology and Aviation Center (SC-TAC) in Greenville.

With these companies, the number of Netherlands-based businesses within the Upstate comes to 20. And we’re working to grow that presence.

In May, the Upstate SC Alliance spearheaded a business trip to Belgium and the Netherlands (members of the Benelux Region) geared toward building international connections. Greenwood Partnership Alliance CEO Heather Simmons Jones and Alliance Pickens Executive Director Ray Farley joined Upstate SC Alliance Senior Business Recruitment Officer Marc Metcalf in representing the region.

Netherlands Automotive Campus

In this Q&A, Marc shares more about the experience:

Q: Tell us about your trip to Belgium and the Netherlands.

A: This year marks our third year working with Belgium, and we’ve grown our interest to include neighboring countries of the Netherlands and Luxembourg (the Benelux Region). The trip began with a return visit with our friends in the Flanders region of northern Belgium, including meetings with 10 companies that may be looking to expand to the United States, and the opportunity to present the Upstate to the area’s Voka (chamber of commerce) and economic developers.

After that, we made our inaugural business visit to the Netherlands. There, we visited the “Brainport Region,” which includes the Southeastern cities of Helmond and Eindhoven.

Because it was our first visit, the focus was really on learning and building relationships. We met with Automotive NL, which you might compare to the SC Automotive Council, and we toured the Automotive Campus in Helmond, which is an academic research facility similar to Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR). At the Automotive Campus, we had an impactful networking opportunity where we presented to an audience of about 35 automotive industry people at monthly “business club” event.

We also visited the High Tech Campus Eindhoven. It’s an impressive facility originally founded by Philips, and it’s grown to be a collaborative research and incubator environment with more than 1875 companies and institutes, 12,000 researchers, developers and entrepreneurs working on product and technology development. Businesses involved include NXP, Shimano, Signify, IBM and Intel – and they shared that companies at the campus are responsible for nearly 40% of all Dutch patent applications.

Q: Whoa. All of that sounds interesting – but did you really say “Brainport Region?”

A: That’s right. They position themselves as the ultimate gateway for Europe, especially in the automotive industry. They sell their automotive, technology and mobility expertise. And they’ve placed a lot of importance on making sense of the regional business environment and associated strengths, from sustainability to tech to how they integrate with the automotive environment.

That was interesting for us, because we sell the Upstate as a gateway for foreign companies to enter the United States market – especially to tie in with the Southeast automotive environment. Many of the people we met with were familiar with the idea of American vehicle makers and Detroit’s automotive history. But they didn’t realize the level of automotive activity that occurs within the Southeast, and in South Carolina in particular, with BMW, Volvo, Mercedes Vans, and our state’s network of suppliers.

Brainport Region Map

Q: Hmm. We thought everyone knew about the Southeast and the Upstate?

A: You’d be surprised. Many people we meet overseas don’t realize that South Carolina and North Carolina are entirely different states. That’s where our role comes in: we meet with them, learn about their environment and company, and then share points of similarity.

And, one element to the Netherlands business landscape is that they do not have any domestic original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for automotive. That’s a challenge that has spurred reinvention among their mobility sector, while also broadening their business horizon. I think that’s part of the reason these Dutch companies excel at products and solutions that can improve the process of production – like what AWL Automation and VDL Steelweld provide.

That’s also a driver in the type of leads we’ve seen from this relationship: many companies we’re meeting are small and hypertechnical in nature. That helps bring a diverse mix to the economy.

Upstate SC Alliance Senior Business Recruiter Marc Metcalf, left, and Greenwood Partnership Alliance's Heather Simmons Jones, and Alliance Pickens' Ray Farley visit the Automotive Campus in Helmond, the Netherlands.

Upstate SC Alliance Senior Business Recruiter Marc Metcalf, left, and Greenwood Partnership Alliance’s Heather Simmons Jones, and Alliance Pickens’ Ray Farley visit the Automotive Campus in Helmond, the Netherlands.

Q: What are the points of similarity you found between the Brainport Region and the Upstate?

A: There’s an interesting element to the history of Eindhoven that really sticks out to me. The electronics manufacturer Phillips was rooted in Eindhoven, and the town and business originally grew together.

You’d sit in a business building and look on the horizon, and they’d point out multiple former Phillips facilities.

Its first lightbulb facility was founded in 1891. Over time, the company grew to as many as 400,000 workers, of which 90,000 were in the Netherlands. Though, as lower cost markets and competition from foreign-owned competitors grew in the 1970s, the Philips production presence was really scaled back.

That story sounds very parallel to the textile industry within the Upstate. You had a major industry that was the center of communities that went away quickly. They’ve been creative in reinventing their economy in a diverse way, and it’s also inspired creativity in the quality of life offerings there.

Some of the restaurants we visited were in former industrial spaces and reminded me of many of the revitalized mill communities we have in the Upstate – both of our regions have been affected, and rebounded, from a shift in business environment.

Another area of commonality that stands out is the collaborative environment, where industry works alongside researchers and academic teams to solve problems or create solutions. They showcased it through the High Tech Campus Eindhoven and the Automotive Campus, and our Dutch friends would find a very similar atmosphere if they were to visit CU-ICAR.

Q: What are the next steps to building a relationship?

A: Trips like these are door openers for us. That means the goal is to begin a relationship that can grow over time. As we get to know our Dutch friends, the idea is that we both can connect companies within our regions to opportunities that can help them grow. We hope to return their hospitality by welcoming them to visit the Upstate, and we’re exploring options to align it with an event such as the SC Automotive Summit to maximize the impact of their visit.

As they said in Casablanca: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Upstate SC Alliance Senior Business Recruiter Marc Metcalf, left, and Greenwood Partnership Alliance’s Heather Simmons Jones, and Alliance Pickens’ Ray Farley visit the Automotive Campus in Helmond, the Netherlands.


TOPICS: #TeamUpstate, Global Competitiveness, International, Business Recruitment, Automotive