Coöperatie Hoogstraten's new director, Hans Vanderhallen, was faced with a huge challenge. After only three months on the job, the corona crisis hit. How is this cooperative dealing with the measures imposed on Belgian companies? And has the crisis affected greenhouse vegetable and strawberry sales?
"On Friday, 13 March, the Belgian government imposed the first regulations. A week later, we were in a 'light' lockdown. Now, 75% of our employees, who are not involved in logistics, are working from home. We never thought we would be able to get back to standard, but we have," says Hans.
"A few coworkers and I are some of the only ones who are at the office all day - the rest work from home. The packers, order pickers, sorters, and forklift operators work on-site. They, of course, heed the rules."
"For strawberries, people know where to find us"
Coöperatie Hoogstraten never had a large buying public for its daily sales. Much is bought from home and at other auctions. Yet, the clients keep coming. "They know where to find us for strawberries. Strawberries remain a product people like to see before they buy it."
"That is why we cannot say we are now getting more people on the auction floor than before. If people abide by the rules, there are no problems. But, to be honest, that is not always easy. Fortunately, we manage to separate the buyers as much as possible," says Hans.
Working from home
"The switch to working from home was very drastic. Everyone had to get used to it. That has now happened. I am delighted with how our staff has picked up on everything. The advantage of working from home is that things are not forgotten as easily. A disadvantage is that it is not always possible to communicate quickly. You also miss contact with colleagues."
"Luckily, there are enough video conference systems that allow communication. I think there are five or six on my computer. When we get the go-ahead from the government, we will slowly decrease this working from home. I am, however, convinced it will not be phased out completely. A certain form of this will remain," Hans explains.
"Our products must leave the country"
When the director considers the producers, he sees many have the situation under control. The labor issues, however, remain. "These are a problem at the commercial level too. We are missing clients due to the hospitality industry's closure. On the other hand, we benefited from the retail boom. So far, the local market has absorbed our volumes well. But, our products are reaching their peak regarding volumes now. These include strawberries, tomatoes, and bell peppers. Things will, therefore, become more difficult."
"We are an export country, so we must cross the border. The corona crisis is, however, disrupting other European countries too. We are selling to all the traditional local channels. But, abroad, we supply a relatively large amount to the hospitality industry. Now, most of these businesses have fallen away. It is, therefore, all hands on deck for our people to open up other sales channels. We must do that together with our clients and exporters," says Vanderhallen.
"Once the corona crisis is over, things will never be the same as before. This situation proves how important it is for an organization to know about clients and sales markets. If you do not have this knowledge, you cannot react. We now realize all too well what this know-how means for the trade. Our strategy for the next few years is to focus on building the correct knowledge and expertise," concludes Hans.
For more information:
Kluis Z.1 - 1050, 59 Loenhoutseweg
2320, Hoogstraten, Belgium
Tel: +32 (0) 33 40 02 11