Zimmer Staal was set up on 1 April 1999 by Luc Cools, with just one half-time female employee. Now, Zimmer Staal has a turnover of 80 million euros, with Cools stocking 50,000 tonnes of steel in his own warehouse at the Euroports terminal operator.
Zimmer Staal founder and CEO Luc Cools inaugurated the new warehouse at quay 12-14 in Port of Antwerp on 4 December 2019. In addition to storage space this gave the company its own production unit for the first time. The company obtained two new machines: a shot blasting machine (which can also paint) and a burntable. "The customers' requirements are becoming so detailed and exuberant that we had to raise the level of service," explains Cools. "If a hard steel sheet is too big or too heavy, now we can simply cut it down the middle. In the shipbuilding industry we are regularly asked to deliver sheets with primer already applied, as this makes them easier to paint. We blast off the rust, spray on the primer and so deliver a ready-to-use sheet."
To maintain the quality of the sheets and to improve the performance, Cools saw the necessity of having a covered workspace. "Due to the weather conditions in Belgium I needed to be able to keep the sheets indoors. Before we had a warehouse at Euroports the sheets lay stacked up outside on the quay, on the other side of the dock from Katoen Natie. We had canopy storage with space for 5,000 tonnes or so, but as the company expanded we came to an average stock of 40,000 tonnes. We negotiated for some time with Katoen Natie for a hangar, but in the end it wasn't interesting enough for them."
After eight years of collaboration Cools came to an agreement with Euroports for a period of at least 15 years. "This was the next logical step," he says. "To begin with we had to work out a practical flow in the warehouse by trial and error, but this is only to be expected. The first time you go to a supermarket, for instance, you have to discover where the bakery products are and where to find the washing powder; to begin with you're always slightly lost."
Zimmer Staal has a throughput of up to 12,000 tonnes per month on the terminal. "We get around 20 fully-laden trucks coming into the terminal every day. That soon mounts up," he says. Zimmer Staal exports directly throughout Europe, with the main markets being the Benelux, Germany and France. The imports come mainly from South Korea, Russia and India where the largest steel plants are located. The company buys as much as it sells, varying between 8,000 and 12,000 tonnes per month depending on the market prices. "The steel market is very volatile. I never know a week in advance what the price is going to be, but we still have to keep buying; our customers need steel. That's the big difference between us and a trader, who only buys if there is a profit to be made."
"We are a solid company with a loyal customer base, because we ourselves are a very reliable partner," Cools continues. "Even if we don't earn enough ourselves, we continue to buy in stock and deliver it to the customer. It takes a lot of nerve to keep the rotation under control, otherwise you can't survive in this business."
The warehouse offers 18,000 m² of space with a stock capacity of 50,000 tonnes which is constantly being replaced. The thick sheets are used for everything made of steel: "We supply ship, machine and bridge builders, as well as construction and cutting companies. We feel the competition in particular in the Netherlands and Germany, but there is no other Belgian company that does what we do in Belgium," says Cools. "We are the only ones to stock and process hard steel sheets. So as a company we have to react immediately. We take quick decisions and deliver within 48 hours."
In its own niche Zimmer Staal has developed into one of the biggest players in Europe. Cools landed in the steel industry by chance. "In my student days I played for Putte FC in Mechelen. The chairman of the football club was Jan Boonstra. He was also the head of the sales agency for the steel manufacturer Fabrique de Fer in Charleroi. I was studying transport & forwarding, and so I asked him about an internship. Jan's holding company also included a firm that stored and sold second-choice steel. After three months of internship Jan told me 'Luc, with your gift of the gab I'm going to put you in sales, because we don't yet have a representative in Belgium.' For two years I drove all round the country selling steel. I was very conscientious, leaving for work every day at 7 a.m. and getting back at 7 p.m."
After ten years in the steel sector Cools decided to go into business for himself. "I had a small office on Zimmer Square in the historic centre of Lier, diagonally opposite the Zimmer Tower. I worked there for a whole month without having a name for the company. But I couldn't carry on as a 'street trader,' I needed to have a company that could be taken seriously. The location gave me the idea for the name Zimmer Staal, with the Zimmer Tower as the logo." For the first 10 years he did everything himself: "Purchasing, selling, trading, invoicing, I handled it all. There's nothing I don't know about the business."
In 2001 Cools sold Zimmer Staal to the American company Stemcor, the world's largest independent steel trader. "It was a question of choosing between standing still or growing. To grow, I had to sell." Zimmer Staal became the group's European hub in Port of Antwerp. But three years later against all expectations Stemcor went bankrupt. "The banks organised a bankruptcy sale, and naturally enough they came to me. So I bought back my shares, and two years later I sold them again to the Austrian company Pisec. They are now the 90% owner, but I still decide everything."
Nowadays Zimmer Steel has an office on the Grote Markt square in Lier where it employs a team of eight people. Another five work at the Euroports warehouse where they operate the two machines.
100.000 tonnes of steel
The steel that Cools orders from Europe arrives on the site by truck or train. From outside Europe the steel sheets come in bulk by sea transport. "A ship with 4,000 to 15,000 tonnes on board comes to unload at our quay every six weeks. Per year we bring some 100,000 tonnes of steel to Port of Antwerp."
For the moment there is no question of opening a second warehouse at Euroports. "If in five years from now our warehouse is too small, then we will have to build another, but that's not for tomorrow. So for the timebeing it's irrelevant."
Cool's success and motivation are rooted in his life history. "When I had been working as salesman in the steel industry for just a week my father had a fatal accident. At the age of 45 he drove into a tree. Our family was suddenly left without any income. As a 44-year-old widow my mother was unable to receive a pension due to a quirk of the Belgian legislation. After being a housewife for ten years she had to go out cleaning. I felt it so badly that I set myself a goal: not actually to become rich, but to ensure that my own children would never have to suffer in this way."
In the video 'Creating added value' you can hear what the advantages of Port of Antwerp are for Zimmer.
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