It is still a difficult time for Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, the three countries that make up the Benelux region of Europe.
In Belgium bankruptcies rose: The number of companies that failed in the last half of 2012 was 11.1% higher than in the same period in 2011. In the Netherlands, the government reported an economic downturn of 0.9% for 2012 with a 5.2% drop in capital investment.
However, the outlook is not all bad. The European Commission’s Eurostat agency predicts that GDP in the Benelux countries will improve modestly in 2013 and continue to grow in 2014.
"The economic situation in Belgium has had a major effect on industry and factories either reduced the workforce or shut down completely," says Philip Streitz of Kannegiesser.
He says that three car manufacturing plants have shut down in recent years. "Given that such factories had workforces of over 3,000 people, that means a serious drop in turnover for laundries handling workwear."
In addition, he says, factories in other industries are moving to "cheaper" countries leading to more loss of work for laundries.
In the healthcare and hotel sectors businesses are starting to form groups to reduce costs, which has resulted in a drop in the price laundries can get for their service.
Streitz believes that laundries can be profitable if they are willing, or able, to get the right prices for their services, as well as taking a close look at their transport and energy costs.
Across all three Benelux countries, there is an increasing move towards specialisation among laundries, which are tending to focus on a particular sector such as healthcare, the hotel and restaurant market or workwear.
Reindert Baars from Christeyns says that internationalisation is growing, with several international companies gaining a foothold in Benelux and local companies looking outside the region for new business.
As outsourcing within the various sectors of the industry has grown, so laundries have developed initiatives that add value to what they offer, including the provision of logistics and whole service management solutions.
"The laundry itself has almost become a sideshow to the services offered," says Peter Wennekes from CINET, the European textile care association. "The craftsmen of the old days are practically extinct and the major part of the market consists of large textile service companies that offer customers a complete solution."
In the Netherlands, the Dutch textile industry association (FTN) is working with CINET and the Dutch government to reduce energy consumption in the industry by 2030, with a programme called Routekaart Textielservice 2030. "This is a step-by-step guide for textile companies to ensure sustainability, the best and most innovative quality and, last but not least, the highest profit margins," Wennekes explains.
Several projects have already been set up for Routekaart and Wennekes is optimistic that it will lead to significant reductions. He says research indicates that 80% energy savings are possible.
Wim Demeyer from Lapauw says the focus on reducing energy costs has sustained interest in gas-heated equipment. This includes ironers such as the Lapauw TurboFAN, which he says reduced consumption by 10 – 15% compared with standard traditional gas-heated ironers while its high output figures also help to increase productivity. He adds that interest has also grown in Lapauw’s 4000XXL ironers and Hot Stream finishers as laundries also strive to maintain a high finishing quality.
Reducing costs is key in a constrained market but persuading business owners to invest in more efficient equipment can be a challenge, says John Balman from Alliance International. "They are anxious about current economic conditions and want to hold onto residual income rather than invest in new equipment." He adds that when Alliance proves that it can help businesses to control costs and show the overall benefit they realise that this is an opportunity. "
He explains that many laundry managers are now looking not just for a distributor to supply equipment but for a laundry partner. He says that Alliance distributors are true laundry experts – "because laundry is all we do."
Alliance’s main sellers in the Benelux region are its washer-extractors with advanced controls that help to increase efficiency and its tumble dryers with advanced controls and over-dry prevention technology.
Baars says Christeyns is also supporting laundries by offering them integrated solutions that help them to reduce their costs and make the most efficient use of the detergents and other chemicals that they purchase.
This not only helps them to lower their carbon footprint but also helps them to identify laundry services that can add value.
In addition, the company is working with universities in Belgium and the Netherlands to further develop expertise in the industry.
The University of Twente, for example, has a specific programme on textile care.
Christeyns is working with researchers there to exchange information and work on developments in laundry and textile care. It provides training for laundry staff through the Christeyns Academy.
Miele says that training can be key, especially when economic constraints mean that wages are frozen, which is what is happening in Belgium.
The company supplies equipment mainly to OPLs, a sector where finding skilled staff is a big challenge.
To improve the service it provides to its customers in Belgium, Miele is participating in the Care4Safe initiative from FBT, the Belgian textile industry association. It is running a study in which it will test the impact of industrial washing on the quality of reflective strips on workwear compared with that of OPL processing.
The study will examine how many times such garments can be washed and how best to treat them to maintain their reflective ability for longer periods.
Another programme that is expected to help improve service in the laundry industry is a Netherlands-based
e-learning project called E-Finish. Part of the Leonardo da Vinci Programme for Transfer of Innovation, the project is aimed at improving "the employability" of the workers in the European textile care industry by training them in modern finishing processes to improve their knowledge and skills.
The E-Dryclean online learning programme, initiated by CINET, is also supported by the Leonardo da Vinci programme.
Andrea Rosi from Electrolux says: "E-Finish is an initiative that will affect laundries in the region. It is designed to help suppliers and laundries move toward modern, sustainable solutions."
Electrolux Professional works in Belgium with partner Mench Industries to meet the needs of hospitality and commercial laundry B2C business. For example it helps the drycleaning laundry market with wetcleaning solutions such as its Lagoon system. –
In the Netherlands, Rosi says that Electrolux maintains a strong position in the commercial laundry B2B (which also includes public institutions such as prisons) and hospitality sectors.
"We do not expect remarkable growth in the public sector but we do expect more positive movement in the private sector," she says.
The FBT has also developed a number of initiatives to support members. These include Medatex, a project that looks at reusables in the healthcare industry, and Care4Safe which focusses on the maintenance of workwear and personal protective equipment.
FBT’s Maarten Van Severen says that delayed payments and reduced turnover are posing problems for laundries. Among the bigger laundries in Belgium, there have been some mergers.
In February, for example, CleanLeaseFortex and Initial said they had reached an agreement, whereby CleanLeaseFortex will take over Initial’s Belgian healthcare linen business on 15 March.
On the same day Initial will take over the workwear client portfolio of Blanca Linen Services in Oedelem.
Move away from perc
Drycleaners in the Benelux region face several challenges including environmental requirements, problems of finding a successor when a business owner retires and fewer customers., says Van Severen at FBT. There is a definite move away from perc and towards alternative solvents.
According to Marco Niccolini, Renzacci’s sales in the Benelux are now around 80% hydrocarbon and K4 machines and only 20% perc, with the Nebula remaining its most popular machine.
However, banks are still reluctant to lend money to businesses that cannot guarantee a quick return on their investment, something that most small drycleaners are not in a position to give. In addition, both interest rates and the cost of leasing have gone up, putting more pressure on the industry.
Niccolini says drycleaners in the Benelux countries have responded by reconfiguring how they carry out their businesses. Those with more than one shop have amalgamated drycleaning operations into one central point and replaced their former shops with "cold points" where customers drop off and pick up their drycleaning and washing.
Others drycleaning businesses are closing. Van Severen says that in Belgium, where 95% of drycleaners are independent, the number of businesses falls by 4 – 5% every year.
Franchises remain rare in the region, except for a few companies such as Switzerland-based 5àsec, which has shops in Luxembourg and Belgium.
To save money, drycleaning shops are looking to increase automation, says Frank Ziermann, managing director at Böwe Textile Cleaning. "Assembly and bagging is a way to save on the labour costs and this is becoming more and more of an issue in the sector," he says.
Environmental regulations are fairly stringent in the Benelux region. To help businesses in Belgium meet environmental requirements, the Flanders government set up the VLABOTEX fund in 2007. This provides a 50% subsidy to help drycleaners clean up ground contamination.
However, Electrolux’s Rosi believes that environmental regulations in the region may soon be tightened even further.
In May last year, Belgian Socialist senator Philippe Mahoux drafted a resolution for the Belgian senate proposing a banon the use of perc. He is urging the Belgian government to follow the example of France where use of the solvent will be progressively phased out between 2014 and 2020.
"We believe that these sorts of environmentally conscious measures might be introduced into the Benelux region," says Rosi. Electrolux has a range of strong sustainable solutions so tighter regulation will be to its advantage.
Niccolini is also optimistic about the opportunities that will develop as the economic situation recovers, once the banks begin to open up and support businesses such as drycleaners, enabling them to convert to the newer, more efficient machines. He believes the latest alternative solvent machines offer real opportunities, not only for efficiency but also for customer service and marketing. "People need this service," he says.