Van Hool

Filip Van Hool, CEO of Van Hool, speaks at the 2018 groundbreaking.

The machinations of an intricate recruitment effort to bring a $50 million-plus manufacturing investment to Morristown included several impromptu interactions, one of which help seal the deal.

The location of Belgium bus manufacturer Van Hool to the East Tennessee Progress Center, an industrial park adjacent to Interstate 81, is an example of teamwork between local and state interests in economic development.

Benedicte Gruwez, Van Hool project lead, and her husband, Filip Van Hool, company CEO, met with ECD stakeholders from across the state who attended a Governor’s Conference in Nashville. They were accompanied by Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development staffers, with whom they began a working relationship in 2015.

Gruwez made the first contact with a top level state staffer.

“I remember our first conversation, it was about 6 a.m.; I was downstairs in my house, because of the time difference thing; we work all kinds of crazy hours, right,” Victoria Hirschberg, TNECD director of business development, said, looking out over a number of counterparts in the room, getting nods in return.

“‘We’re a great automotive state,’ I said to Benedicte, who tried to encourage me — ‘Well, it’s a little bit different than automotive,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ve never been to a bus factory,’’ Hirschberg said.

The phone conversation was soon followed by more interactions and within months, Hirschberg flew to Belgium.

“I was blown away, not only by how much the process is different, but just by the factory itself and the craftsmanship and the skills that were found in that facility outside of Brussels,” Hirschberg said.

Defining and expediting the skillsets required for Van Hool were tasked to Ann Thompson, TNECD director of workforce development.

“It’s an opportunity where ECD got outside of our lane a little bit; we changed our strategy,” Thompson said. “We set aside funds that would provide support for these efforts and created the position of project manager/special liaison. I’m very grateful for Team Morristown and for Chris Edmonds and Dr. Jerry Young with Tennessee College of Applied Technology and for all they did to support us on the higher education side. We were no longer just focused on making the deal and getting the company in and then rolling out and letting the pieces fall. We had to consider: ‘How can we work in a coordinated fashion to ensure this company is able to attain their workforce?’”

Planning the coordinated work effort required visual aids and hands-on activities for Team Morristown, as determined by TNECD. Van Hool encompasses two manufacturing campuses, one in Koningshooikt, Belgium (est. 1947) and a second facility in Skopje, Macedonia (est. 2012).

“So within that, too, there were monies set aside for us to take a trip — and I think it’s important to touch on that, when we think about the businesses to Tennessee; if we really want to understand a business, if we really want to get to know a business, we go and visit. We don’t think anything about jumping in the car and driving to Memphis. Skopje is a little harder to get to, but it’s not impossible,” Thompson said.

The field trip involved an 18-hour flight, then a drive from the airport straight to the Macedonia plant, where the Tennessee group was told they would be spending the next seven hours, followed by dinner.

“We said, “This is great!’” Thompson said. “Getting back to that feeling, and having the opportunity to be in Skopje and to see the way that facility is structured. It’s very streamlined; there are four lines, it’s very effective and efficient.

“To understand the Brussels factory was much like Hogwarts — everything just expanded as they grew. You can sense the feeling of the company and how they take care of their people. Landing in Morristown creates an amazing opportunity to blend both of those facilities together to continue the Van Hool story.”

Key stakeholders from Van Hool also visited Morristown and specifically, the TCAT campus.

“It was great. I remember the first visit; I recognized right away they were the type of company that would fit it with our community extremely well,” TCAT Director Jerry Young said. “They value the worker, it’s a family type relationship, they take care of their workers. They fit what I would say East Tennessee is all about: the dedication of the people, the hard-working people and that TCAT could provide the training that would drive their company forward. And we were very happy to be just be a part of that. This is one big family, and I felt that way from the first day we met them.”

Filip Van Hool remembers that first visit as well.

“I liked very much the TCAT in Morristown, first of all the program, but also the people behind the program and who are managing the technical school, because they realize what it means to train people and also the cooperation between the schools and the companies. They want to adapt the programs to the professions we need. In the meantime, the school has been in Macedonia and Belgium to learn about the skills we need. In Belgium, we have 130 different skills, so it’s very important that we fine tune these skills. But I also find there are many skilled workers in Morristown.”

The conversations during the TCAT visit were essential to the decision-making process for the Van Hool stakeholders, along with the community’s bent toward continuing education that results in a combination of young and older trade students.

“Specifically, in Tennessee and Morristown, the re-appreciation, I would call it, of skilled workers, of blue-collar workers. I see the schools are pretty full of students, so there is a lot of interest,” Van Hool said. “I spoke to a student who was in the building program, 20-21 years old, and next to him was an older student who was 66 years old. So it is possible, the flexibility of workers who want to change, to adapt themselves to new circumstances. And Morristown realized what it means; industry is very welcome in this town in Tennessee.”

The final choice of where the first Van Hool facility in the U.S. was to be located was left to Filip. Morristown was ranked in the Top 3 out of 24 possible locations across the country.

“Filip made the decision, but we all feel comfortable. I think since we made the decision and we all started to work together, I think it just confirms the feeling that everybody has, the whole company, the whole group,” Gruwez said.

“One other thing that happened when we visited the schools was that we had our own ‘missionary,’ someone who works for us that is an American. We went to visit and were following Mr. Young from step to step. He went the other way and started talking to teachers and to pupils. He told us, ‘This is perfect. They want to come to Belgium; they want to come to Macedonia. They want to work for us.’ That’s another person who has his own ideas but it just confirms that we can work with you all together,” Gruwez said.

“I would add that anyone here who is new to the recruiting business – there were eight people there that day and everybody scattered in the TCAT Morristown,” Hirschberg said. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to get everyone back! I don’t know what they’re going to hear.’ There are so many things we can control during the process, but I can’t control what someone at TCAT Morristown says. And so, credit to TCAT Morristown to having your students and everyone prepared for industry. That was really reflective, because it wasn’t the case everywhere,” she said.

Hirschberg gestured toward members of Team Morristown attending the presentation that included Morristown Mayor Gary Chesney, Hamblen County Mayor Bill Brittain, Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Marshall Ramsey and from TCAT: Young, LEAP Grant Coordinator Chris Edmonds and Assistant Director Susie Cox.

“Ask these guys over here what they do right,” she said.