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with our CEO

Integrating, collaborating, innovating and growing at the same time.

CEO Pieter Loose does not have much time to look back. Still, he incorporates the lessons from the past into his vision of the future: don’t be slowed down but try to go even faster. Also: do not be scared off but dare to take even the biggest steps. Relying confidently on the results achieved in 2023, this sets the tone for 2024.

In our conversation last year, you mentioned that the company needed to grow even faster and become significantly larger to make the Ekopak dream come true, so that society could continue to have sufficient drinking water. With today’s knowledge, those were prophetic words….

Indeed. I assume that you refer to the integration of GWE into our group. But, please allow me first to remind you of the overall strategy of Ekopak. We are a responsible & sustainable supplier of mission-critical industrial process water, and our main goal is to ensure 100% water circularity in the industry, contributing significantly to the continuous availability of drinking water for society. To achieve this, we have crafted a strategy focused on providing mobile, decentralised production units and wastewater ­treatment plants. Part of this strategy is our commitment to the innovation of our installations. By focusing on ­innovation, we aim to stay at the forefront of ­technological ­advancements. Ekopak increasingly focuses on digital water management, with state-of-the-art monitoring ­systems, operational cloud based software for ­operating the installations, and with in-house data analytics (including AI). We also have deepened our professional relationship with universities, and we have focused on how we could benefit as a group from the technologic know-how of H2O Production, the French company that was acquired in 2022. Both examples illustrate how ­innovation can be spurred through ­collaboration. Both examples illustrate how innovation can be spurred through collaboration. Innovation and ­collaboration are two of the three main pillars of our strategy, while the third pillar is awareness. Informed by feedback from the stress tests, further elaborated in this report, we are constantly alert to identify opportunities where all strategic pillars converge. Several opportunities emerged in 2023, of which the integration of GWE indeed had the biggest impact.

From that strategic perspective the acquisition of GWE seems an obvious decision. But did you expect to make such a bold move in early 2023?

Honestly, at the beginning of 2023, I had no idea that we would integrate Global Water & Energy (GWE) in the group later that year, which pretty much doubled the size of our group overnight. Sometimes things can move fast, and one must dare to recognise unexpected situations as opportunities. That is what I did when the possibility began to emerge that Ekopak and GWE could join forces. I took some time to recover from that surprising insight, but soon I had my team investigate the feasibility of such a big operation. Then I shared my plan with the Board of Directors. Soon the directors realised that this was not a wild dream, but a considered step to accomplish Ekopak’s mission: to switch the industry completely to circular water use, so that there will always be enough drinking water available in the world. Another argument: this operation would also allow us to sensitise a vastly larger group of people around the importance of circular water use. After a thorough examination of the plan, the Board sounded, “We do it. Go ahead! Move fast, now!”

Sometimes things can move fast, and one must dare to recognise unexpected situations as opportunities.

Pieter Loose – CEO

When you talked about “abroad” last year, it was still mainly about France. Today, Ekopak is active in Southeast Asia and North America. Could you have imagined that?

Deep down, I knew we would go international with ­Ekopak, but at that time I didn’t think it would happen so soon. I know better than anyone else the sustained ­efforts it took to grow in our Belgian home market and become the company that We had an impressive 54% organic growth in 2023. I also realise that we cannot achieve the same position on the French ­market overnight, although we continue to make very good progress there. Logically, I also realised that it would take several years for Ekopak to develop Southeast Asia and North America completely on its own. But, thanks to GWE’s well-developed organisation in those markets, that step was much easier for Ekopak to take. After all, our GWE colleagues have already done all the pioneering work!

On a pro forma consolidated annual ­basis, ­Ekopak & GWE will have group sales of EUR 55 – 58 million, while Ekopak’s group sales in 2022 were still EUR 18 million. Can ­Ekopak handle such a large integration?

Most certainly, there is no doubt about that. ­Operationally, GWE is already fully integrated now. That is because GWE already was a fully integrated organisation on its own when it joined Ekopak. That made everything so much easier. It would be much harder to operationally ­integrate a group that is only half the size of GWE when it is made up of loose separate businesses. GWE’s streamlined ­organisation is precisely one of its strengths.

I notice you mention operational integration twice. What other kind of integration is there?

Strategic integration! And that can be viewed in two ways.

First, the fact that Ekopak took such a bold step and that the integration of GWE went smoothly indicates that our core strategy is fully embedded in our organisation and is deeply rooted in the minds of all our employees.

Second, the arrival of GWE provides an ­exceptional ­complementarity. GWE is largely active outside ­Europe, while Ekopak has mainly put itself on the map in ­Western Europe. In terms of expertise, GWE is strong in the field of wastewater treatment, while Ekopak is hugely skilled in the field of circular water use. In simple words, ­Ekopak and GWE do not have exactly the same activities, but they complement each other in a perfect way. Our ­vision is not just to utilise the strengths of both in ­parallel, but to ­integrate them – by way of innovation – into new, ­all-encompassing business models. The best of both worlds. This is where the power of continuous innovation lies at Ekopak. 

Can you explain that strategic integration a ­little more concretely?

Ekopak focuses on water treatment to enable circular water use. GWE is traditionally strong in water purification, so that water can and may be discharged after use in accordance with the strictest standards. But is there any reason why a company that now has a water treatment plant should not be able to reuse some of that water in its production process instead of discharging it? In the whole world, there are not many companies that can offer such a combination. Today, Ekopak can. For many – if not all – of our customers, the availability of industrial process water is critical in fulfilling their mission. With our enhanced capabilities, we present ourselves to our customers as the best-in-class provider of mission-critical process water.

Yet another question: is there any reason why the Water-as-a-Service business model could not be extended to water treatment?

And the answer to that question is…?

The answer is that there is no reason at all – we can make both ideas come true. It fits perfectly with one of our strategic pillars: innovation. And we are not wasting our time. Three months after integrating GWE into the group, we thought the time was right to extend the WaaS model to Asia as well through the creation of WaaS Asia, a new joint venture.

A joint venture… why not build your own ­organisation?

Our mission implies that we are open to ­collaboration; ­another strategic pillar of Ekopak. If we want the ­industry to fully switch to circular water use, we have to realise that we cannot do it alone. The need for ­cooperation is even greater because of the speed of global ­warming. ­Collaboration allows us to take on bigger projects, ­together we can deliver them faster and therefore also better accomplish our mission. By the way, this is not our first joint venture. Circeaulair is another joint ­venture, focusing on our home market, in which the treated ­wastewater (effluent) coming from Aquafin’s wastewater treatment plant (WWTP), is converted by Ekopak into process water for industrial purposes. WaaS Asia is a joint venture with a different geographical scope. However, there is a common theme: Stakeholder Engagement. We want to be in dialogue with all stakeholders on a regular basis. In the annual stress tests, we gather insights from all stakeholders to identify risks and opportunities. ­Sometimes it turns out that collaboration with key stakeholders enables Ekopak to better pursue specific opportunities. This may then result in the creation of a joint venture. 

Collaboration, strategic integration and growth… that’s a lot of things at once, isn’t it?

Indeed, and as mentioned above, we also continue to ­innovate our installations and raise awareness among the industry…

A big task, but Ekopak is perfectly capable of ­doing it. From the very beginning, Ekopak has followed an ­integrated ­vision, which does not only focus on the ­economic-financial aspect, but pays equal attention to sustainability, social aspects, and the way we lead and manage our company. In other words: ESG. This means that we are fully aware of the importance to have all employees and stakeholders on the same page and on board with our strategy. By the way, in 2022 and 2023, we already significantly strengthened our organisation to meet the challenges of the future, and to optimally ­implement our strategy. In terms of mission, vision, values, and ESG, the GWE organisation is also fully united. There is a higher, common goal. In all sections of our group, there is great energy and drive from every employee to contribute to this. The ‘vibe’ is clearly present. Moreover, today we have a much larger group of experienced and motivated employees than, say, a year ago, to implement our strategy. Working together, integrating and growing… a tough job? Perhaps, but I am convinced that together we will manage it. 

You exude that enormous drive… but can ­everyone in the organisation keep up that fast pace?

We realise that we are blessed with our team, and we put the happiness of all our employees first. We want to give our employees plenty of opportunities to develop ­themselves, sometimes surpass themselves, but always pay attention to their mental well-being and a healthy balance between life and work. In the early years of ­Ekopak, this came naturally, but as we grow, we need to build systems and structures to achieve this. Building upon the findings of the 2022 wellbeing survey, we ­started ­drafting policies, guidelines and structures. ­Throughout 2023, we maintained regular, daily communication with our employees to stay attuned to their needs. The ­upcoming 2024 wellbeing survey is intended to provide more detailed insights, facilitating ongoing ­enhancements in this area. To conclude, I would like to explicitly thank all stakeholders, and especially all employees for their commitment and dedication. With them by my side, I face the future with confidence.