Katoen Natie: ‘Sustainability is a matter of common sense’

Katoen Natie is an example of a Flemish company that has gone on to become a global player. This logistical service provider is active in 150 locations across 40 countries worldwide, operating in ports, logistical areas and the business premises of its customers. This expansion came as a natural evolution over the last 25 years. ‘More and more customers wanted to do business with us abroad,’ says Fernand Huts.

Fernand Huts once made headlines as part of a dispute concerning port labour. ‘Everyone now knows that we pack bras at our warehouses,’ he laughs. ‘But we do much more than that. For instance, we’re still active as a stevedore in the port and we have highly automated warehouses for e-commerce. We’re also specialists in applied engineering: thanks to our technology and innovations, we’re able to ensure that goods like plastic retain their value even if contamination occurs en route. We do filter those goods out, of course.’

As an entrepreneur, Fernand Huts has spent years developing his logistical concepts and still strives to perfect them. ‘We work out a tailored solution for each customer and that ensures they’re happy with the results. It’s also proven to be a great strategy for us internationally, as an increasing number of satisfied customers then want to work with us at their foreign establishments. That’s how we got started in countries such as France, Germany, the UK, Thailand, and the US.’

Persevering and embracing diversity

Katoen Natie's robust growth at home and abroad meant the company had to recruit at lightning speed. ‘Growth in our sector requires a lot of skilled and unskilled labour. That’s why we decided very early on to work with migrant labour and we now have more than 130 different nationalities working for us. That means our company is an incredibly diverse place to work, and we all know that a job is the most important thing to get ahead in life,’ Huts states proudly.
Even so, the group has faced its share of struggles along the way. ‘Integrating people comes with a learning curve and lots of trial and error,’ describes Huts. ‘That didn't stop us though. People you want to employ frequently don’t know any Dutch and often don’t even speak English. They’re also unfamiliar with our administrative processes and you need to sort out a lot of paperwork before they can start, so we adapted our structure to make it work. We do whatever it takes to support these people and help them integrate into our company and society. It’s simply become part of our company culture.’

We simply followed our customers abroad

Fernand Huts, CEO and Chairman of Katoen Natie

Western Europe's most sustainable company

Katoen Natie also leads the way when it comes to more sustainable business practices in other areas. The CEO commissioned a screening exercise to assess the group’s progress towards achieving environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. ‘We used the United Nations definitions and looked at all our activities relating to the environment, people, heritage and so on. We were surprised to discover that we were just about the most sustainable company in Western Europe. We now have proof of that, and we keep trying to improve even further.’
‘I see sustainability as a matter of common sense. If it comes naturally to you, then it happens automatically. In the same way that you sort your rubbish properly at home and turn off the lights when you go out, you do the same thing at work. If you have that attitude, it automatically leads to sustainability,’ states Huts. ‘The only thing giving us a headache now is all the sustainability reports we have to do. It’s a sign of what I call the bureaucratisation of society. We do prepare those reports, but what's the point of them? I’d rather put my time into making further improvements.’

Wim Eraly, Senior General Manager at KBC Commercial Banking, sees Katoen Natie as an inspiring role model: ‘This is an example of a Flemish company that has relied upon a down-to-earth mentality and common sense to establish a strong market position before building upon that to achieve huge international expansion. Fernand Huts points to two key factors for success: innovation and sustainability. We believe in the same principles at KBC, which is why we pursue long-term policies with a strong focus on improving sustainability and innovation. We’ve also proudly partnered with Katoen Natie for many years in its international success.’

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