The art of finding solutions

Detect a company’s potential, then develop it fully, despite an often highly-complex initial situation: this has been Argos Wityu’s bread and butter, in a wide variety of sectors, for more than 30 years. To succeed, Argos Wityu has brought to bear its strong culture and determination, its high level of technical expertise and its people skills. In this edition, Argos Wityu revisits six situations – privatisation, MBI, new business model, spin-off, atypical shareholder structure, each of which had something out of the ordinary – and the solutions it devised to solve them.

01

Privatisation: Lineas

In 2015, Argos Wityu closed a deal that had been in the works for a long time, taking a majority stake in Lineas (“B-Logistics” at the time), the legacy freight subsidiary of the Belgian national railway (SNCB). “Privatisation always aims at releasing energy,” says Richard Reis, Argos Wityu Partner in Benelux. “Our goal was to make Lineas a dynamic, independent, private company, and the leader in the modal shift underway in continental Europe.” But before the deal could be closed, several significant challenges needed to be addressed, related in particular to the public nature of its shareholder, the Belgian government. Fourteen months of due diligence were needed to determine exactly who owned what and the many stakeholders with whom Argos needed to collaborate. The human dimension, a decisive factor in the success of any privatisation, was another significant challenge. In addition to changing the status of the company’s 2,000 employees, we had to get employees to buy in to the project, and more importantly, to believe in it.

Six years later, Lineas has successfully transformed itself into a purely private operator. “Our ability to build a high performance team right from the outset, our pan-European scope and the fact that we were not afraid to make massive investments were decisive factors,” says Gilles Mougenot, an Argos Wityu managing partner in Benelux. Lineas’s management team took full advantage of the expertise Argos Wityu has acquired through its many investments, an expertise that has been judiciously nurtured by Argos Wityu’s complimentary cultures and skills. In this case, the legal experience of Gilles Mougenot and Richard Reis were key in determining the right legal and financial strategy for the project and its follow-up.

Today, with rail freight emerging as a way to drive down carbon emissions, investing in the modal shift is clearly a win-win strategy. Lineas’s advantageous positioning in the port of Antwerp, Europe’s second-largest freight logistics port, enabled the company to limit its decline in revenue to 7% in 2020, while certain competitors lost more than 20%. And Lineas has another advantage over its rivals: the flexibility of its private ownership model.

Lineas

Our goal was to make Lineas a dynamic, independent, private company, and the leader in the modal shift underway in continental Europe.” Richard Reis, Partner Benelux Argos Wityu

02

MBI: Cohedron

“Management Buy In” or MBI is a term that covers the takeover of a company by one or more buyers who were previously strangers to the acquired company.

Private equity companies are well versed in the management buy-in (MBI), wherein outside managers take control of a company. This often comes with its own set of challenges. It was in this context that Argos Wityu acquired Cohedron. The founder of this Dutch adviser to organisations and municipalities wanted to use the deal as an opportunity to step back from the company. For Argos Wityu, the priority was clear: find a new CEO from outside the company. “By definition, an MBI takes longer than an MBO,” says Maarten Meijssen, an Argos Wityu partner in Benelux. “To find the right person at the right time, you must inevitably combine a multitude of parameters. We had to find a professional who knew the market and was able to respond to Cohedron’s internal needs as well as to the strategic developments we had in mind.” We ultimately chose Jeroen Ekkel, who has since demonstrated his ability to motivate employees and create a culture of innovation. Together with his team and support from Argos Wityu, Jeroen achieved the initial objective: consolidate Cohedron’s highly-fragmented market. “Apart from making the right choice, to be successful, an investor must know how to be patient,” says Maarten. “Integrating a new CEO into a company always takes time and requires appropriate support.” Cohedron, which was divested in June 2021, now has the keys to continue its successful expansion.

finding the solutions

“To find the right person at the right time, you must inevitably combine a multitude of parameters.” Maarten Meijssen, Partner Benelux Argos Wityu

03

Transforming the business model: Gantrex and LoQu

One of the greatest challenges a management team faces is transforming the business model of a company. This is the challenge the Argos Wityu team took on in acquiring Gantrex in 2015. The objective was to transform a company specialised in the sale of rail equipment for high-capacity cranes into a fully-fledged provider of products and services, capable of installing and maintaining its equipment. “We very quickly realised that Gantrex had the intrinsic qualities necessary – and in particular the technical expertise – to become a valued partner to its clients,” says Maarten Meijssen. “And the company serves a market where the quality of the installation is an essential characteristic, because when containers are offloaded, each additional hour on the ship costs tens of thousands of dollars.”

Internally, deploying the new strategy required a sea-change in the corporate culture. Looking beyond the technological dimension, the challenge was first and foremost a human challenge. Argos had to deploy a team to manage projects over the long term and another to install the equipment. Here again, the key was finding the right executive for the situation, and we ultimately chose someone already in the company, Maarten Impens, then 33 years old. Employees, meanwhile, had to be supported so that they could find their niche in the new business model. Lastly, reporting had to be improved so that management could have all of the information it needed to ensure the performance of the organisation at all levels.

After six intense years, “we can now say that the business model 2.0 has been achieved. Gantrex is now a comprehensive service provider. Its clients can be sure they will have a dedicated infrastructure from order to execution.” The company is now focusing on the next step: Gantrex 4.0, digitalizing customer service offerings and interactions, eg by using data to offer predictive maintenance solutions.

Gantrex et LoQu
When containers are offloaded, each additional hour on the ship costs tens of thousands of dollars.” Maarten Meijssen, Partner Benelux Argos Wityu

LoQu is another example of how Argos Wityu managed a significant change in a business model. LoQu is one of Germany’s largest opticians network, with 80 stores. Until recently, the company had two formats: aktivoptik, located next to supermarkets and targeting the general public, and Optikhaus, offering premium brands in city-centre boutiques. Argos Wityu’s acquisition of the company in 2018 infused new ambitions into the group.

It was in this context that smykker, a modern, omnichannel concept, was developed. “We are creating the future of eyewear retailing by developing a new format that intelligently combines physical and digital sales, so as to make buying new glasses as simple as buying new jeans,” says Frank Hermann, an Argos Wityu managing partner for the DACH region. Specifically, customers go to a sleek, modern smykker boutique where a newly-developed device evaluates their vision with precision in under five minutes. LoQu can then offer customers, on line, lenses adapted to their vision. The store promises to make up new glasses quickly, at a fixed price regardless of the customer’s prescription. Owing to the concept’s simplicity and the significant savings offered on additional pairs of glasses, customers can purchase several pairs with different frames and/or colours, which they can wear in different settings.

It took a year and a half to bring the plan to fruition. “There were numerous challenges, including transitioning from a family ownership structure to a shareholder structure. In addition, numerous barriers to changing the business model had to be broken down,” Frank explains. Many changes were needed internally to clear the way for such a service, in terms of technology, sourcing or logistics. Obviously, the transformation required a profound change at the company’s core. The entire senior management – from the CEO to the purchasing managers, from marketing to IT – had to be changed to achieve the goals that were set. Tammo Bruns, CEO of LoQu, says, “Argos Wityu had the confidence in us to open the first smykker store in March 2020, in the middle of the pandemic.” It was LoQu’s conviction that the small number of customers would make it possible to test the format and improve it. The next step is developing the concept. In addition to the 2 existing smykker stores, 4 will be opened in the next few weeks, with the aim to have about 10 smykker stores by year end.

Smykker

@Smykker – February 2021

04

Spin-off: Sage

The April 2013 acquisition of four Sage group entities (Akanea, Aytos, I’Car Systems and Salvia Développement) is another illustration of Argos Wityu’s ability to manage particularly complex situations. The UK provider wanted to refocus on its core business, non-vertical ERP software, and Argos Wityu was the only firm able to make a single offer for the four companies. Argos thus carried out four simultaneous spin-offs on different markets. Then, in partnership with the management team and after the sale of one entity, Argos Wityu launched the development of the three remaining companies, meeting a myriad of challenges: employee, brand, strategy, marketing and HR, IT and more.

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05

A wide-range of solutions for Harlé Bickford

A search for solutions was central to the work of Argos Wityu in accompanying Harlé Bickford.When Argos first invested in the company in 2007, Harlé Bickford was a family-owned conglomerate, the result of a 150-year existence. Made up of 50 or so companies, it was an interwoven patchwork of activities, including real estate, farming, house rentals, forests, automotive subcontracting, defence, etc. One of the thorniest problems to be resolved during acquisition was that the company had 225 shareholders, none of whom held more than 2% of the company. And as there was no holding company, there was a lack of specific information. In addition, there were major environmental problems. “We learnt after the fact that seven other funds had refused the deal,” says Louis Godron, an Argos Wityu managing partner in France. “All the complexities, taken together, discouraged everyone!” It took 11 months to respond to the various challenges and finalise the deal. “The only way to address this type of challenge is to create a climate of confidence. The relationship between buyers and companies is often perceived as brutal, but when the situation is complex, buyers and sellers strive to find solutions, despite divergent interests.”

Once Argos Wityu invested, the task was still enormous. “During due diligence, it became clear that the group was collapsing under its own weight,” Louis says. For Argos Wityu, the top priority was to simplify the group by divesting non-strategic activities and resolving the toughest problems, starting with the deep soil pollution caused by the industrial site. It was decided to sell the radio-communications division, amid the emergence of powerful Chinese companies, such as Huawei. The group’s activity is now focused around electronic detonators, and this activity has benefited from significant investment to develop its R&D and production capacity.

“There are two phases to managing complexity,” Louis points out. “During the prospective phase, you have to be able to see into the future, to go past the first impression, to give a chance to situations that are so complex they scare others away. Then comes the solutions phase, which requires, apart from a high capacity for work, a fruitful collaboration with the company’s senior management. This is a determining factor.”

The intense effort Harlé Bickford required was not in vain. After exiting from the Argos Wityu sphere in 2015, the company pursued its favourable trajectory. It is now one of France’s best-performing, mid-sized industrial companies, with annual growth of nearly 30%. “We are very proud to see the result of our work, to have enabled a small French company to develop a leading technology.”

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