Brexit is frustrating the carpet city of Genemuiden in Overijssel. ‘We have gone back twenty years’
Brits and carpet, what is that? Even in the carpet town of Genemuiden, after all these decades, they are still not completely behind. If they know anywhere what a wonderful product it is, then in this town in the north of Overijssel. This is where 60 percent of the Dutch floor covering production takes place, and a large part of the population works in this industry. They love the material, the homeliness that carpet creates in your interior, the warmth it gives to your feet.
But that the British put it in the attic, in the bathroom, even in the toilet, they also find that fascinating in Genemuiden. “They just haven’t eaten it yet,” says Joost de Kaste, who is responsible for sales in the United Kingdom at carpet dealer ITC.
Any sector can count itself lucky with such a market. Unless that market suddenly moves outside the European Union. Then it suddenly becomes quite complicated and frustrating, as ITC has also noticed in recent months. First, the company (eight employees) could simply send one document for one container full of carpet. Now there are sometimes dozens, one for each order. “While: it is a country that lies next to you!”, says ITC director Mark van Koningsveld at the office in Genemuiden. “You just have to do more work to get the same piece of carpet that way.”
Tens of millions of square meters of carpet go out into the world every year from Genemuiden (10,000 inhabitants) over the N759. On a business park on the edge of the Christian town, between the historic center and the meandering Zwarte Water, you will find wholesalers, importers, product presentation workshops and the gigantic manufacturers Betap and Condor (with 1,250 employees). Right in the middle is the distribution center of the family business Verhoek, which is hundreds of meters long: a transport company that specializes in the transport of carpet rolls (450 trucks, 950 employees).
Inside, it’s a jumble of forklifts with four-foot-long jousting-like lances loading rolls of carpet onto trucks. They go all over Europe – but especially to the enthusiasts on the other side of the Channel. About a third of Genemuiden’s production finds its way to the ferry ports or the Channel Tunnel, to end up in British carpet shops, from the independent entrepreneur’s business on the corner in the village to one of the hundreds of Carpet Right branches.
How smoothly it all went – yes, nobody really thought about that in recent decades. Until the British left the European Union and the transition period ended at the end of 2020. Genemuiden was one of the places where this hit hardest.
NRC visited Genemuiden twice in the past month and spoke with seven people from four companies about the consequences of the British departure from the EU. The greatest chaos has now been resolved. But the gigantic bureaucracy is still there. And as an entrepreneur it is difficult to get used to that.
The screw from Taiwan is the problem. In the Decostayle office (sixty employees), Dennis Boes, a sales representative, is bent over a document. It is part of a delivery destined for the British of the product that Decostayle makes: presentations of carpet collections. These are a kind of books, or fans, that contain carpet samples. Customers in the carpet store can thus ‘browse’ through the options. A truck drives to the United Kingdom about twice a week for Decostayle.
The components of the books largely come from the European Union. But some screws come from Asia. The British would like to know exactly how many there are – from a certain amount you still have to pay import duties, because the screws fall outside the trade agreement with the EU.
Decostayle does not reach that screw threshold, but must demonstrate this. “The burden of proof lies with us,” says Boes with a wry smile.
You will find men like Boes all over Genemuiden. At ITC you have Joost de Kaste, at transporter Verhoek it is Ivo van Dijk. At mega manufacturer Betap – “we can upholster the road from Schiphol to Genemuiden there and back every week” – it is Dick Beens. In small offices on the industrial estate – often with an aerial photo of it on the wall – they have been busy organizing paperwork for a few months now. At the larger companies often in a team of a few people, at the smaller ones solo.
If you talk to these men, you will hear how Genemuiden ended up in a new reality. The stressful days surrounding the entry into force of the trade agreement have left the town behind. That was the time between Christmas and New Years when it became clear that the trade agreement would still bring extensive border controls, despite the lack of import duties – a disappointment.
Some companies stopped exporting for a while just to be safe. Producer Betap (140 million euros turnover) decided to continue as much as possible. “The goal was: that customer must have his carpet,” says Dick Beens. “The floor covering will have to be in place before a move starts. Otherwise it throws quite a spanner in the works.”
Betap, which makes carpets from imported or homemade yarns on twenty-eight large machines, soon noticed that trucks got stuck after all. Not because their own export documents were incorrect, but those of other companies whose products happened to be transported in the same trailer. “There are British people who have postponed renovations,” says Gerard Ekhart of Betap.
That is now largely over: the rules have descended, a working method has been found. Some companies, such as Decostayle, have set up a British company to make it easier to export. If you now ask Joost de Kaste of ITC what he has to do for a delivery, the twenty-something quickly comes up with a one-minute summary that is inimitable for the outsider: about export documents, import documents, customs clearances, forwarders, customs agents.
But really get used to it? No, not that. The surprise about the ‘step back’ is too great for that. “Only file tigers like this,” says Betap’s Beens. In a joint video conversation, colleague Ekhart adds with disbelief: “We really have gone back twenty years. The added value is simply negative.”
The point is: if anyone can’t handle that, it’s Genemuidenaren. You will soon notice that the close-knit town is proud of its entrepreneurial culture. To produce efficiently, sell competitively, to collaborate – everyone the reporter speaks to knows practically every other interviewee. And they are proud that they always found new possibilities: from the first rush mats (made from rushes that grew along the Zuiderzee – still on display in the local Tapestry Museum) to the switch in the 1960s to automated ‘tufting’ (a production technique). .
Anyone born here wants to become an entrepreneur, says Ekhart. You can’t help but see jackets from carpet companies from your childhood in the supermarket. They work “24/6” – obviously not on Sundays – and unemployment in the municipality has traditionally been low. It is a mentality that Urkers also understand; when they are not going to work on the fishing fleet, they like to come to the carpet factories.
That a political decision then requires mountains of paperwork for actions that were not a problem for years – that is enormously frustrating. Brexit keeps you from your real work, says Mark van Koningsveld, director of ITC. You want to spend your time on marketing, on acquisition, but you don’t get to it because you spend longer processing orders. “Those are hidden costs.”
In its own words, Betap is just studying new market segments: the upholstery of the trunks of cars, carpet tiles for the office. Easy to lay, not easy to produce. You really want to focus on that.
More expensive carpet
Sometimes Brexit also simply results in direct costs. Two people have been added to Betap, while carpet transporter Verhoek involves a handful of – for the time being temporary – positions. “To link the export documents to the right orders,” says Ivo van Dijk. And then there are also a few people who have been working at Verhoek for some time and who are now purely concerned with Brexit.
In Genemuiden they secretly hope that additional agreements will be made that will make the red tape disappear. If not, the consequences are simple, the entrepreneurs say: prices for the British market will rise. A few percent, but you can’t escape it. An export document costs about 50 to 100 euros. If you add that to every carpet order, it adds up considerably, and you as a company will not fully bear that yourself.
They are not afraid of the fact that the British are going to make more carpet in Genemuiden. Major competitors, such as producer Balta, are mainly located in Belgium, where a carpet industry arose from the flax that grew along the West Flemish river Leie. British companies do make carpet, such as listed Victoria, but not nearly enough to meet national needs. The UK is the second largest importer of tufted carpet in the world, according to trade statistics firm Trademap, importing EUR 770 million in 2019. Two thirds of these came from the Netherlands and Belgium.
“The people who voted for Brexit at the time will pay,” says Klaes-Maarten van der Stege of Decostayle. “The final consumer the man in the street, is the victim.”
They still find it hard to believe in the town that the Brexit vote turned out like this. It had little to do with economic reality. “Populist voices have received the most attention,” says Van der Stege. The whole idea that Britain could support itself is nonsense, says Ekhart. “It’s just been a service economy for a long time.”
Still, looking back, he sees a logic that perhaps they should have recognized in Genemuiden. Perhaps the Brexit vote was an expression of British conservatism from which Genemuiden normally benefits. Brits love their traditions. Elsewhere in Europe, carpet has lost some ground to PVC over the years, but not on the other side of the North Sea. “They have more of a longing for the past there than a wish for the future.”