There’s a Dutch saying that posits the theory swimming against the tide creates bigger champions, as Emile Stuy tells HELEN COMPSON.
It’s a rough translation and doesn’t rhyme in English the way it does in Dutch, he says with a smile, but you get his drift.
In deciding to set up its first UK base ahead of Brexit, high-end Dutch paint company Anker Stuy is indeed flying in the face of corporate opinion.
“People have asked me ‘are you sure you want to do this?’, but it’s not like the world is going to stop spinning,” he said.
“We notice our customers are still very busy and they still require what we make.
“There are 60m British people and they still want to move house and buy new furniture – we knew it was time to have our own presence in the UK.”
So it was that in January last year, with the Brexit clock well and truly ticking, Emile visited Peterborough in search of warehouse and office space.
He also began head-hunting a high-calibre manager with all the knowledge and experience needed to service the medium and large-scale joinery companies that are the company’s bread and butter.
At that point, it had been exporting to the UK for four or five years, but had relied soley on an import company to distribute their wares.
Today, Anker Stuy Coatings Ltd has four members of staff holding the fort at its new base on Alpha Park, conveniently located within the Bretton Industrial Area a stone’s throw from the city centre and the Soke Parkway with its ready access to the A1.
The company’s headquarters is in Terwispel, in the far north of the Netherlands. Emile is the third generation of his family to run the company taken over by his grandfather Adriaan in 1952. However, the roots of what was originally the Anker paint and printers’ ink factory stretch as far back as 1898.
Emile said: “When we first began exporting to the UK, Cameron was still Prime Minister and there was talk of referenda, but not about Brexit yet.
“We began because the importer wanted to do business with us and, of course, the UK market is of interest to us.
“The importer set about supplying our products to small joinery companies, but we were aiming at the bigger companies and for that we needed boots on the ground, to make sure we could provide the service they demanded.”
With the majority of questions about Brexit unanswered, Anker Stuy yet decided to step into the breach. They felt the perceived risks were worth taking. “From our point of view, we were entering the UK when both Sterling and confidence in the UK market were low, so the only way to go was up!
“We also decided to go forward with the plan because otherwise our brand and identity in the UK would struggle.”
The company’s base products continue to be manufactured in the Netherlands, where its state-of-the art laboratory provides quality assurance. The East Anglia staff then mix pigment into the staples of white or translucent on demand.
“We’re already looking at expanding our Peterborough operation,” he said. “We have new customers on board and people who like our products.
“I believe this year it will be all about growth.”
While he had found the inward investment advice provided by Opportunity Peterborough and the Netherlands British Chamber of Commerce very helpful, help had not been forthcoming from the British banks.
Because Emile is neither resident in the UK nor the holder of a UK passport, most had declined the company an account. “A lot of banks probably want to do business with us,” he said, “but despite our 80 year banking history in the Netherlands, they just said ‘you yourself are not in the UK’.
“In the end, a Dutch bank which is also established in London, ABN Amro, managed to get us up and running.
“I was surprised by the attitude of banks such as HSBC and Barclays, because they were just rude – not helpful at all!”
There could be more pitfalls to come, he conceded. Who knew what was around the corner? He understood the business people who were wary about planting even just one foot in Britain at this pivotal time in economic history.
He said: “People are afraid – ‘what will it mean for me?’ I know an exporter of fresh flowers, Dutch tulips, etc, and with this product, it is key to get a consignment to market within two days.
“But if there are Customs delays and the flowers stand for a week in a trailer, he loses his stock.”
Anker Stuy was lucky in that its time line wasn’t as critical as that, but in common with all import/export companies, they were keeping a sharp eye on the tariffs issue.
“Is the UK going to put tariffs on paint? I don’t believe so, because there wouldn’t be any advantage in doing so,” he said.
“I think they will probably do it on food, where they want to protect local markets, but paint … I can’t see any benefit of that.”
All things considered, far from being cowed by Brexit, Emile feels positively optimistic about the opportunities that lie ahead.
He laughed when he said Continental views on Brexit were polarised. “There is a big difference between people who are pro-Europe and those who are saying ‘look at the British, look what they did, we should too … “
Dutch news coverage was certainly fuelling fears about the Brit-breakaway though and potential investors were struggling to make the decision about whether to set up in the UK.
He, on the other hand, had no doubts. “Each week I’m in the UK and in factories meeting customers and, yes, they are a bit concerned about things in the short-term, but we are all realistic – there are more than 60m people here and life goes on.
“England is an important trading partner and Brexit is here, so let’s get on with it. We share borders on the North Sea and our two countries have many objectives in common, so what sort of agreement can we have? I hope our Prime Ministers will push this forward, and quickly.”
And as for Anker Stuy itself, well, the vision there is clear. “We have the ambition to become the biggest paint supplier to the joinery industry in Britain – I want them to recognise our brand within the next couple of years.”