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UNICA, in search of growth

By 30/04/2020November 29th, 2023News

Trends, avril 2020, GUY VAN DEN NOORTGATE


Founded in 1932, Unica designs and manufactures industrial washer extractors, which it exports worldwide. The Brussels-based company was taken over a year ago by Grégoire De Donnea, with the support of the Profinpar entrepreneurs’ fund, who intends to develop it further.

Contrary to an increasingly widespread idea, industry has not completely deserted our country. A large number of SMEs, many of them family-owned, are still active in a wide range of fields, where they are making a name for themselves on the international stage, displaying a “Made in Belgium” image that is much appreciated beyond our borders. Such is the case with Unica, a company founded in Brussels in 1932, which only left the Sainte-Catherine district where it was based at the dawn of the 2000s. Today, medium- and large-capacity industrial washer extractors are designed, manufactured and assembled in Merchtem in Flemish Brabant. The company employs around twenty people and generates sales of between €4 and €5 million. It exports more than 95% of its production, and is present in over fifty countries. Its main markets are France, the UK and Saudi Arabia.


With the baby-boom generation coming to an end, many family-run SMEs are in need of a new owner. But you still have to find the “right” buyer… And that’s often where the problem lies, more so than the financing. After all, it’s not enough just to provide the funds; you also need to have the shoulders, the skills and the vision to take over a business. And, above all, the desire. A profile that is not so easy to find. With Grégoire De Donnea, it seems that the Profinpar entrepreneurial fund has made the right choice. In February 2019, this management science graduate from UCLouvain became CEO of Unica, in which Xavier Degrave, son of the founder, retains a stake. It’s thanks to Xavier that the company has grown in recent years,” he says. He knows every aspect of the company and its machinery. His experience is invaluable to us in more ways than one.

For his part, Grégoire De Donnea has worked for multinationals such as L’Oréal and Electrolux, where he held a variety of sales and marketing positions. In 2013, he took over responsibility for Europe, the Middle East and Africa for the ‘refrigeration’ category at Electrolux’s Italian R&D and production site. It was a role that gave him a good understanding of how a factory operated, and one that serves him well today. From 2015, he was Managing Director BeLux of the Teka-Kuppersbusch group, before leaving in 2018 in search of a company to take over. That’s when his path crossed, via an e-mail, with that of Profinpar. This fund, which brings together entrepreneurs, invests venture capital in undercapitalised companies, with an approach centred on active partnerships with family SMEs and their shareholders. The aim is to finance development and growth. It’s a strategy that fits in perfectly with that of Grégoire De Donnea, and one that appealed to Xavier Degrave. “It was Profinpar’s industrial approach, reflected in the entrepreneurial added value of its staff, that convinced me to put my trust in them to continue developing our family business,” he says.


We offer a range of 17 machines with capacities ranging from 45 to 300 kg,” explains Grégoire De Donnea. We concentrate mainly on high-capacity machines for industrial laundries, which represent the bulk of our customer base. These machines are also used by institutions such as hospitals, hotels and homes. But they can also be found on cruise ships that can accommodate thousands of passengers. Unica machines are renowned for their robustness, and are particularly well suited to customers who cannot tolerate a breakdown in their production equipment. It is the reliability and longevity of our machines that enable us to make the difference in the market. Another of the company’s immense strengths is “the technicians who make it up,” continues the CEO. They are the ones who assemble the machines, but they are also the ones who install them on the customer’s premises, explain how they work and train them to use them properly. We have the advantage of having multilingual staff, which is an undeniable asset when it comes to exporting.

Since his arrival at the head of Unica, Grégoire De Donnea has sought to modernise the products while retaining their DNA and that of the company. The logo has been given a facelift, a new, more user-friendly website has been launched and the company is communicating more, particularly in the trade press. A production manager also joined the team last June. At the same time, the company is looking at digitalising its machines with solutions linked to the Internet of Things. The idea is to be able, to a certain extent, to provide predictive maintenance for our machines,” explains the CEO. Now, we have to bear in mind that everything the machine doesn’t say is just as important as what it does say. By training our customers ourselves, we can already solve the vast majority of problems over the telephone.


Like most industrial SMEs, all affected to some extent by the Covid-19 crisis, Unica was still idling in mid-April. But its teams were finalising the assembly of several machines. Before the crisis hit, the order book was full. The company has a fairly long sales cycle, so it still has work to do for the time being. But the impact will probably be more marked later in the year. Unica’s visibility in the second half of the year is therefore still rather hazy. Especially as most of its customers have announced that they have postponed their investments indefinitely.

While waiting for its activities to return to normal once the global economy picks up again, Unica has decided to offer its machines and services to the healthcare sector. The company manufactures washer extractors specifically for the medical sector. Unlike conventional machines, they are equipped with two doors: a front loading door for contaminated linen and a rear door for unloading in a decontaminated area. The company intends to offer them for hire to hospitals that need them. “We will take care of transporting, installing and commissioning these machines. They are available immediately”, concludes Grégoire De Donnea.