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Looking at 120 years, there is, of course, no one available to recount everything from the beginning. But there is someone who has a lot to share about the past 50 years, Lex van Hessen. Under his leadership, Van Hessen experienced a turbulent growth from a small family company to an international player that became a part of the Saria Group in 2017. Lex van Hessen is a very passionate entrepreneur who today exhibits the same enthusiasm for natural casings with which he joined the company. “I still remember that I had a summer job in Sommelsdijk (Van Hessen’s selection facility in The Netherlands at that time). When the vacation was over, I secretly continued to work and hid myself whenever my father used to show up. I was supposed to study at the university, you see.” When Lex officially started to work in his father’s business in the 60s, the company was relatively small. “We had facilities in Rotterdam, Sommelsdijk, and Antwerp with a revenue of a few million guilders (the Dutch currency at the time). But thanks to my father, Paul van Hessen, the company had built up an excellent reputation. His integrity was the foundation for the growth that was to come, because wherever he went, people would open their doors for him.”
Lex became the director of Van Hessen at the beginning of the 80s. “I actually did not aspire to that role. I wanted to clean and select casings. That was my passion. As a result, I have spent most of my time in slaughterhouses and selection plants, and less so with customers. Sweet talk doesn’t sell casings. It’s all about the expertise, reliability, and quality of the product.” In 1994, the company took a major step. Van Hessen appointed its first international sales representative, and the company grew. “In the second half of the 90s, we doubled our revenue and from then on we continued to grow at the same pace. Our industry had not changed in hundreds of years, but Van Hessen adapted almost all processes and specifications to our modern time. We made the products that customers actually needed: longer casings that were selected better. As a result, even in New Zealand, decade-old customs were thoroughly revised.”
Besides the expansion of the 90s, Van Hessen mentions a few other milestones that were crucial to the successful growth of the company. Moving the selection of casings to China has been of decisive importance to the future of Van Hessen. “We put everything on the line for this and it turned out to be the right strategy for that moment. It was part of our resolution, as one of the first in our industry, to be solely focused on the end-user.” Our traineeship for new employees who need to know the ins and outs of our business was also a golden idea. Lex can tell endless stories of the trips he made with his trainees abroad. Remarkably, he learned the most from the questions the trainees asked. Another milestone is Van Hessen’s decision to do independent scientific research as an industry into the safety of natural casings for human and animal health. Van Hessen also maintained close contact with veterinary authorities around the world. “I spent at least 20% of my time to defend the interests of the casings industry.” This is still very important today. Van Hessen was also ahead of its time with an advanced track & trace system in which hard data was available about the origin, process, and location of each meter of casing. With this, Van Hessen anticipated its next chapter: the acquisition by Saria.
Lex’s passion and love for this industry inspired his employees to always give everything for the sake of the company. “Our results were always the consequence of this passion,” says Lex. Next to the expansion of the company, this also resulted in close cooperation and longstanding relationships with customers and partners.
Shanghai Star, China
One of these partnerships has been with Shanghai Star, the company that has been central to Van Hessen’s decision to go to China for the selection of casings. “Van Hessen is a global company with a history of 120 years,” says Mrs. Weng, General Manager of Shanghai Star. “Because it is also a leader in the global casings industry, we are proud to work together.” The Shanghai-based company is Van Hessen’s principal partner for the selec- tion of sheep and hog casings and their collaboration is remarkable. Shanghai Star began in 1964 as a state- owned processing facility for Chinese hog and sheep casings. After selecting a small amount of casings for Van Hessen in 1992, the two companies began a joint venture in 1993. A few years later, the company was privatized. Mrs. Weng, who was brought into the company by Lex van Hessen because as an English teacher her English was very good, became one of the main shareholders. Shanghai Star now exclusively selects casings for Van Hessen from all over the world. “The commitment is mutual as Van Hessen’s China office has moved into our building,” explains Mrs. Weng. “We often operate as if we are one company.” Paul van Lankveld, Managing Director of Van Hessen China, nods in agreement: “We cannot do what Shanghai Star does and Shanghai Star cannot do what Van Hessen does. We need to be committed to each other if we want to be successful.” In this business, to be successful means to continue to add more value than the competition. To achieve that, the two companies have learned to communicate even—or especially—when the going gets tough. Says Mrs. Weng: “Business discussions can be difficult sometimes, but mutual trust helps us to always meet somewhere in the middle. We are business partners and close friends.”
For our next interview we travel to Southern Europe where a Dutch-Italian friendship brought together global leadership and local expertise to create an enduring and successful venture.
Industria Siciliana Budella, Italy
Sicily-based Industria Siciliana Budella (ISB) is one of the largest buyers of sheep shorts. ISB’s relation with Van Hessen is a good example of a strong relationship that works mutually to benefit both partners. The collaboration goes back 50 years when Lex van Hessen was good friends with the father of Nino Riccobono, the current owner. Peter Arentsen became the Account Manager for ISB about 30 years ago. Nino invited Peter and his family to his beach house and a friendship was born. When you buy sausages in Sicily, the butcher will make them for you while you wait. From this complex market that caters directly to the consumer market, ISB professionalized and modernize itself into a company that serves all of Italy. Under the management of Nino and with the help of Van Hessen, ISB became a market leader with the highest possible accreditations. “It started with us doing some spot buying with just two calibers,” says Nino, “but soon we bought the entire product range from Van Hessen. This exclusive arrangement helps us to be the market leader.” For Van Hessen, it meant entry into a market that is not easily accessible. During the interview, Nino introduces Vito, his son-in-law, who will take over the business at some point. Peter smiles and says: “Once I step down, we have the next generation at Van Hessen ready to ensure the friendship continues.”
From Sicily, we join Italians on their emigration journey to Brazil. Early in the 20th century, two Italian families laid the foundation for what later would become Brazilian food company, BRF.
Over the past 85 years of its existence, BRF has grown into one of the largest food companies in the world. BRF began in the 1930s as a joint venture of two Italian immigrant families in Brazil. Perdigão, as it was then called, merged with Sadia in 2009 to form one of the largest agricultural-industrial conglomerates in the world. With over 90,000 employees working in 117 countries, the company emphasizes sustainability along its entire supply chain, taking into account the development of people, the environment, as well as animal welfare. Says Ederson Dancoski, Executive Procurement Manager at BRF, “We believe that a better future will demand quality food. Our supply chain is long and complex, which requires sustainable management.” For Ederson, BRF is only successful when it is “able to take responsibility for (its own) results and offer quality food.” For the past 10 years, Van Hessen has been the partner of choice for BRF, partly to reach these goals. “Van Hessen has been supplying us with a significant share of our need for porcine casings and has also helped us with collecting mucosa and re-salting casings.” Big players need big partners and so “because Van Hessen is a reliable global partner in the natural casings sector, it is competent and has the qualified people to assist BRF in each specific demand,” says Ederson. “Van Hessen Brazil employees who work for BRF know our plants and equipment very well and provide expert advice to our employees on better handling the casings. I think especially of Oscar Soster. But also the very proactive customer service of people like Van Hessen’s Carolina Esteves ensures that supply issues are identified and solved as quickly as possible.”
Van Linschoten, Rotterdam
Where big players rely on global strength, smaller ones expect and need loyalty in the relation. For the last partner in this article, we return to the same city where Van Hessen began, Rotterdam. From a global partner, we shift to a local one. The partnership with traditional butchery Van Linschoten started a very long time ago and still thrives today. David van Linschoten is the fourth generation in family-owned butchery Keurslager Van Linschoten founded in 1908. David’s father can’t really remember when the partnership with Van Hessen began. “But it’s simply always been Van Hessen,” says David. David proudly talks about his company that still does the entire meat production in-house: “We are a true traditional Dutch butchery with a wide range of products. Besides beef, pork, and chicken, we also sell veal and lamb. Of course, we make products for which we need casings. We produce at least eight kinds of fresh sausage. We buy the sheep and hog casings from Van Hessen but also fat ends for our Berliner.” David characterizes the relationship with Van Hessen with line metaphors: “It’s always been a straight line and the lines are always short. The quality is consistent and Account Manager Ed Jansen is always available.” He deeply appreciates this because he realizes that Van Hessen has grown into a global player, compared to which Van Linschoten is a relatively small partner. “True,” adds Ed, “with some of our customers we have had a good relationship for years and we can’t break off the relationship just because we now operate on a larger scale. We are proud of our partnership with Van Linschoten.” “Well, I feel proud too,” says David. “When I drive down the highway and pass by your building, I think by myself: pretty cool we get to work with such a big company.”
To look back and reminisce about all that has been can easily produce feelings of nostalgia. That is beautiful, of course. But it is also a way of understanding how we got here. In this industry, in which Van Hessen plays a leading role, not everything came about without a hitch. Looking back is needed for being able to look ahead. A vision for the future needs focus gained from the experience and wisdom of many years. Harald van Boxtel now leads the company. Grateful for Van Hessen’s rich tradition, he looks ahead with us to what is coming. He combines realism with trust in the company’s strength and vigor.
“That Van Hessen is 120 years old means the company has maintained continuity in difficult times and managed to adapt to changed circumstances,” says Harald. “This is a characteristic that we are going to need in the years to come.” He casts a pensive look out of the window as if attempting to grasp the future in one glance. “There is a lot going to come to Van Hessen. Essentially, the supply chain is going to become more complex. This reality forces itself upon us in a myriad of ways. First, studies “That Van Hessen is 120 years old means the company has maintained continuity in difficult times and managed to adapt to changed circumstances,” says Harald. “This is a characteristic that we are going to need in the years to come.” He casts a pensive look out of the window as if attempting to grasp the future in one glance. “There is a lot going to come to Van Hessen. Essentially, the supply chain is going to become more complex. This reality forces itself upon us in a myriad of ways. First, studies predict that in the future, less raw material will become available in Europe. This means that Van Hessen will have to source its raw materials further from home. This is not necessarily a problem because Van Hessen wants to grow. Our strategy follows the trend. Besides, we want to produce closer to our customers. Yet, in this transition to an increasing internationalization, we have to make more efforts behind the scenes in an increasingly complex situation to deliver the same quality. Initially, this will lead to a higher cost price, but this is necessary to survive in the long run.” The increasing complexity is also caused by other things. Van Boxtel mentions geopolitical changes, veterinary issues, sustainability, and animal welfare.
“Lobby groups, politicians, and customers will emphasize these last three more vocally. This means that we have to adapt and follow the changes. However, you cannot make this work if you are merely going to be reactive. An intrinsic motivation has to inspire us to become a leader in these changes. We are working hard on this. In order to respond to these changes, gutrooms, selection plants, and distribution processes need to improve and become more efficient. We do this by innovating through our Competence Centers. Knowledge, effectiveness, and innovation together lead to valorization. Valorization only works, however, when it remains the central focus across the entire supply chain and in all divisions of the company. In the future, we cannot afford to lose potential yield. This is our must-win battle. The bottom-line is that we want to guarantee our quality products, whether it is natural casings, mucosa, or meat products. We ensure our product arrives at our customer’s doorstep at the right time and in the right quantity. Yes, we want to grow, but that is not our only goal,” van Boxtel says with conviction. “In the end, we want to be the reliable partner who creates value for customers and suppliers. We not only want this. We can do it!”
Even though the times have changed and the industry is facing significant challenges, the common thread of reliability continues to lead us into the future. It is precisely in uncertain times that companies want to work with partners who, besides bringing knowledge and experience to the table, can be fully trusted.