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

Canal Boat - - This Month -

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.

Shows have al­ways been im­por­tant

In­no­va­tions in black

Re­cently re­leased his­tory

The man be­hind it all

Weld­ing rather than 3D print­ing

A strainer from one 3D printer

As if by magic, an en­gine part

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