x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Business as usual for Belgian fruit company grappling wih Brexit

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Each year, millions of Conference pears find their way into the fruit baskets of British tables from a long-established producer located between Brussels and the Dutch town of Maastricht, respectively the administrative heart and actual birthplace of the European Union.

Executives of Bel’Export, having expected in common with most most observers that UK voters would opt to stay in the EU, awoke on June 24, 2016 to the alarming news that Brexit had prevailed.

As the value of the pound sterling nosedived, the company lost €40,000 (Dh168,501) almost immediately. The early signs were ominous.

Britain is Bel‘Export’s chief export market, accounting for 20 per cent of sales and 15 million kilograms of pears each year.

Yet the most dramatic word Maarten Lauwens, the chief financial officer, can muster when asked to describe the unexpected Leave vote is “surprise”. Bel’Export, employing about 100 people at Borgloon, east of Brussels,  simply got on with the job of selling fruit to the British.

And it may be that the company’s resilience offers an example to businesses on both sides of the English Channel as they try to grapple with the reality of life after the EU.

“I am by nature an optimist,” says Mr Lauwens while waiting to board a flight to the United Kingdom on yet another business trip. "My instinct is always to go forward, not to be stagnant, to solve problems rather than be defeated."

Bel’Export, which belongs to the British Chamber of Commerce in Brussels, must be doing something right. Last November, five months after the referendum, the company won the Golden Bridge trade and export award presented by the chamber annually to “the most successful Belgian, Luxembourg and UK companies exporting to or trading in both markets, in either the service or manufacturing sector”.

Mr Lauwens feels the company may need to increase its trade with other countries, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Finland and beyond but also explore new territories including the Middle East. Bel’Export, he says, is “examining” the prospects of deals with Arabian Gulf countries.

All the same, he is confident the UK market will not go away. Conference pears have been popular in Britain since being developed there in the late 19th century and named after a national pear conference where it took first prize in 1885, and Belgium has grown into one of Europe’s biggest producers.

Still, “it is very difficult”, Mr Lauwens concedes. “Nobody knows quite what the implications will be for companies like ours. What will be the customs regulations, will our deliveries be held up for two hours at ports?

“But no one is too worried about the future.  I am pretty sure we can still sell the same volume of pears to the UK. The UK will still need to import fruit from Europe.”

What he hopes, and believes, will save businesses like Bel’Export is the common sense negotiators on both sides will have to show.

Asked what message he had to offer Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, he addresses his response to Brussels as well as London: “I think it will be a very soft Brexit. So, while I say to the British government: ‘Don’t play it too hard’, I say the same to the EU because, at the end of the day, we need each other.”