Belgian firms often associate the French market with bureaucratic obstacles and difficult industrial relations. ‘But that picture is out of date’, says Gert Van Craenenbroeck, General Manager of KBC France. ‘Things are changing fast.’
Since the election of President Macron, a fresh wind is blowing through France. The Réforme du Code du Travail, for instance, has amended rigid redundancy rules, making it easier to take staff on and let them go. At the same time, attractive subsidy programmes are creating a favourable investment climate. New businesses in certain sectors and regions can even be entirely exempt from tax during the first few years.
‘But there’s more to it than Macron’s reforms alone’, Van Craenenbroeck continues. France has a large supply of industrial sites, often for a fraction of the price we’re used to in Belgium. The infrastructure is of a high quality and there are plenty of well-educated workers.
All these benefits are persuading more and more Belgian firms to look across the border. ‘Lots of businesses in West Flanders already employ French frontier workers. And regions like Dunkirk and Lille are strikingly popular among Belgian companies and investors.
The old cliché that French firms are a bit less efficient than their Belgian counterparts isn’t entirely false, but that’s actually to our advantage’, Van Craenenbroeck stresses. ‘Because of their tighter cost structure, Belgian businesses often achieve higher profit margins in the French market than their local competitors do.’
KBC: your local bank, anywhere in the world
KBC’s international operations focus on the export markets where Belgian companies already have a strong presence: neighbouring countries Germany, France, the Netherlands and the UK, but also New York in the US and Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore in Asia. A local branch was recently opened in Milan too. Jan Van Hove: ‘We have noticed that Italy is an important destination. One explanation is the large Italian community in Belgium and another reason is that many companies also regard Italy as an effective gateway to North Africa and the Middle East. That is why we have strengthened our approach with a new branch in Milan.’