Fifty-three years ago Willem den Ouden, was full of drive and determination and reckoned he could do things better – so he set out to prove it and created VETUS
The fascinating story of the Dutch entrepreneur who brought Vetus into being
Sometimes you can be pleasantly surprised when something unexpected turns up as you talk to people. Take a visit to VETUS, for example. Sitting down with the engaging Marc Folmer in the company’s offices in Schiedam, Holland, the question crops up of how much a ‘family’ company it is given that it’s now owned by a large multi-national, has offices all around the world and sells tens of thousands of products both to the inland waterways and offshore.
“Ah,” says Marc, VETUS’s Sales Manager Branch Offices E.M.E.A, “there’s a good bond here, a good atmosphere, and the company and the people make you want to stay; some people have been here for 40 years. And, of course, both Willem’s son-in-law and grandson work here.” Really? “Yes, really,” he says with a smile as he points out through the (open) office door.
So something of a surprise, then, to discover family members still work in the company almost 20 years after founder Willem den Ouden sold much of his holding in 1999, some 35 years after he started it.
Willem, who had been a pioneer in the installation of bus windows in boats and then a salesman for a marine and watersports company, started what we now know as VETUS in a very traditional way when the entrepreneurial spirit took hold and he decided he could do things better than the companies he worked for.
After negotiating the importation and sales rights for a number of marine products in the Netherlands and other countries, the firm of W.H. den Ouden opened for business in 1964 in a bedroom in his Rotterdam home; just six months later his belief in his skills was fully justified because that bedroom was no longer big enough for the fledgling firm and he had to set up a proper office and warehouse nearby.
With his drive and determination, knack for hiring good staff and a merger with another nearby company, it didn’t take long for those small beginnings to lead on to bigger things. Among many adroit moves, for example, he started the annual VETUS catalogue in 1965 which, with its innovative cover and designs, soon became, and still is, an anticipated and intrinsic part of the marine scene. But soon selling other people’s goods wasn’t enough, Willem and a co-Director Cees Paul felt that to really move forward they needed to develop their own products. The pair were creative and often brain-stormed ideas until late in the night as piles of scrap paper built up around them.
Their first self-developed product, a seawater strainer called the Type 325 that had a transparent cover so owners could check for dirt accumulation without having to dismantle it, was a defining moment for the company because it was branded ‘VETUS’.
The name was derived from Willem’s surname of Ouden, the Dutch for ‘old’, and ‘vetus’ is its Latin translation. While the company initially maintained its W.H. den Ouden name, the new brand eventually became so strong the company became known as Vetus den Ouden. (It became just VETUS in 2004 a few years after Willem sold the majority of his shares to an investment house).
Just a couple of years later with the warehouses again at bursting point it was obvious that a purpose-built office/ warehouse/sales showroom was needed, so the company moved to Willem’s home town of Schiedam, some six kilometres
west of Rotterdam, where it is today. Of course that’s a very brief, potted history of how the company reached its current position and there were many more innovative ventures and marketing ideas along the way, from sending packs of playing cards displaying their new wares to every Dutch shipyard in 1972, to elaborate ‘VETUS cruises’ in the late Seventies for hundreds of valued customers as the company expanded its reach worldwide.
But what was really setting VETUS apart was the art of innovation, a trend born out of that first idea for the cooling water strainer with its transparent cover.
Another defining moment came in the late Seventies when the company produced its revolutionary lightweight ‘waterlock’ exhaust system. Rather than using metal it was made from plastic so it was much more corrosion resistant, and it had two internal chambers rather than the traditional one, making it quieter – some 30 years on, it’s still an important product line for the company.
Today, as you look around the Schiedam premises you find that quest for innovation still runs strongly. The R& D part of any firm is the place you really want to visit because it’s where the interesting stuff is going on. Of course trying to get in there is something of a tricky topic because few companies want to allow outsiders into their research areas, especially nosy journalists who are likely to want to tell everyone what they’ve just seen.
VETUS, though, is understandably proud of its tradition for innovation and when we visited it was happy, with one or two exceptions, to show products and ideas under development.
To some, R&D can conjure up images of men tucked away in a basement wearing bottle glasses with pencils poking out of the pockets of their white coats, but at VETUS it’s upstairs and run by an engaging character named Arthur who wears jeans and a shirt rather than a white coat and who is delighted to explain the ins and outs of developing new products.
While there are, as you’d expect, plenty of computers simmering with design software, the real heart of R&D in many ways is now 3D printing; simply export the competed designs from the software package to the 3D printer and, before long, there’s a new fully formed widget or, in this case, engine part.
So before going to the costly expense of sending a mould to an outside foundry or supplier for the part to be made only to find it’s not quite right, you can ‘print it’ out and see whether the design works or whether it needs further development.
“It can all be done so quickly,” explains Arthur. “If, say, a boat-builder didn’t like a fuel filter bracket we could design a modified one, print it out, take it to them and say ‘how’s this?’.” With the technology and speed available, you can see why he smiles when talking about the design and development process nowadays.
While VETUS does manufacture a few items in-house after development, such as the rather large Maxwell anchor we saw being welded together, most of the 6,000 different products stored in the 8,000m2 Schiedam warehouse are produced by external suppliers once they have been validated by 3D printing.
Another of VETUS’s more recent developments has been the ‘complete boat system’ (supplying all the parts rather than concentrating on individual items), an idea that attracted much interest, not least of which was from the Japanese boating and engineering giant Yanmar, so much so in fact that it acquired VETUS in 2013, just before the company’s 50th anniversary.
At the time some people feared it might be swallowed up by the Osaka-based corporation, but Yanmar was smarter than that and had for a number of years been observing (and admiring) VETUS’s way of operating – entrepreneurship, speed, in-house development and outsourcing of manufacturing – and from the outset said it wanted to continue to operate as two separate brands, allowing VETUS to carry on along its already successful path.
Indeed some of the Dutch company’s ideas and ways of doing things are now finding their way into the parent company.
It was an announcement that probably came as something of a relief to those at VETUS, and it was perhaps one that would have been approved of by Willem who might never have imagined that the small company he started in 1964 would have developed so far yet still retaining some of its family roots 53 years on.
The man behind it all
Shows have always been important
Innovations in black
Recently released history
Welding rather than 3D printing
A strainer from one 3D printer
As if by magic, an engine part