Kris Gielen (46) has always had entrepreneurial blood running through his veins. “At school I traded various things to earn some extra money,” he says. “Buying and selling, that was my thing. When I was 21, I started my own business at home, in an old horse stable,” he says. “I imported all kinds of luxury items, such as jewelry, watches, perfumes and handbags,” he says. “It may have been reluctant, but my parents supported my starting company. It must be that they were convinced of my qualities to be able to earn a living as a salesman…”
Things went well right away. “And that’s because I have always acted according to strict principles,” he explains. “I have always and everywhere kept my word. I have always made every effort to provide customer service, 24/7. And I have always surrounded myself with professionals who were much better in areas in which I had little experience. With that recipe I managed to gain the customers’ trust, and that was – and still is – the crucial factor for success. It creates a great ‘favor factor’ and that is all you need as a company.”
A delicious starter: langoustine with pumpkin, carrot and Ras El Hanout. Served with the wine: Amplus, Santa Ema, Chile, 100% Chardonnay.
Love & respect
It was when Kris Gielen joined forces with the international jewelry brand Pandora in 2004 that the ball really started rolling. “They were not yet listed on the stock exchange and already had a small market share in Scandinavia and the Netherlands. Someone had tipped me that they would become the world-class brand. I really wanted to represent Pandora in Belgium and took the plunge to make contact. They were charmed, but still somewhat skeptical and wanted to conduct a test to find out what meat they had in store. “If you can create 10 new customers, you can start for us,” was their verdict. I immediately started calling like crazy, and within the hour the 10 customers were a fact. The rest is history.”
Gielen has always focused a lot on marketing. “You have to be able to ‘hype’ a brand to do good business,” he says. “Customers must first get to know you and then you must get them on the ‘road to love and respect’. For example, I distributed jewelry to BVs, which contributed to brand awareness. And I also did a lot of advertising, on billboards, on TV, through press relations,… Yes, that’s how we were really able to launch Pandora. Jewelers all over the country wanted our collections. We have been able to grow to 150 employees, 18 own stores, 12 franchises and approximately 550 points of sale at jewelers. At its peak we had a turnover of 50 million euros. Not bad after all, I think. And that is usually based on gut feeling decisions. No idea was too crazy. The flexibility and creativity of our local entrepreneurship was quite appreciated by the multinational Pandora. “Those lunatics in Belgium are at it again,” they would say. But a little later they implemented our ideas worldwide… (laughs). For example, how we dealt with repairs. We had about 18,600 a year, which was huge. But we managed to transform that negative experience for the customer into something positive. We included a handwritten note upon delivery of the repair, an idea I borrowed from Louis Vuitton. Or we gave the jewel a thorough cleaning so that it was more beautiful after repair than before. So the customer was happy, and Pandora always remained top of mind, and we were able to generate additional sales every time.”
With a nose to the facts
However, the marriage between Pandora and Kris Gielen came to an end. “The parent company had appointed a new CEO, who wanted to move away from the structure with local distributors,” says Kris. “They wanted to eliminate the intermediate level and do the distribution themselves. I received a nice offer to leave my business to Pandora. At that time, I had just turned 40 and had achieved my major dreams and goals. We made a deal, but… there I was. A nice sum in the bank, but still full of entrepreneurial ambition. I immediately started looking for another product in the lifestyle segment, and ended up with Atelier Rebul. It is a company of Turkish origin that has been making high-quality skin care and fragrance products since 1895. They didn’t have a representative in our country at the time, so that seemed like an ideal product range to repeat Pandora’s success story.”
Chef Marc prepared: duck breast with parsnips, boskoop, amaranth and potato nuts. Accompanied by the wine: Roger Perrin, Cuvée Vieilles Vignes, Grenache and Syrah.
You can’t buy success
And so Kris Gielen immediately gave it 200%. “We invested heavily in marketing from day one and chose to open our own stores in triple-A locations. The idea was to immediately grab the competition by the throat and conquer our market share in a short time. But: we had a great lack of knowledge of the market and brand awareness was nowhere to be found. Moreover, then came the corona pandemic… There we were with large, beautiful stores, where no cat came and we had to swallow large losses every day. The result was a disaster: millions in losses and the closure of our shops, beauty salons and spa centers. A good lesson: money alone cannot buy success… Every now and then it is good to be confronted with the facts. When things go well, everyone praises you. Then you feel on top of the world. But if things go completely wrong, you’re a nobody again. You are only as strong as your last feat.”
In the toilet of Slagmolen
But Kris Gielen didn’t think about giving up for a second after the setbacks. “Winners never quit and quitters never win. That is my motto… After the famous blows, we started looking with all our might for alternatives that could work,” he says. “First of all, I started looking for other sales channels. For example, I had many good friends in the catering industry, and was therefore able to place our products in the sanitary facilities of restaurants such as Slagmolen, Boury, De Zwaan, the catering establishments of C.Group (Dimitri Beckers), and so on. Our fragrances bring a new kind of experience there. A high-quality extension of the kitchen, as it were. We were also allowed to set up a rack at retailers, such as Wara and Bloemen Thomas. We also went to beauty and hair salons, and our range was a hit there too. This is how we managed to build a network of 1,200 sales points step by step, and Atelier Rebul was launched. We now sell around 2 million jars per year and are still growing enormously. Last year by 35 percent, this year another 70 percent will be added. So we are clearly on the right track. We want to evolve from a turnover of 7 million in 2023 to 12 next year.”
Like father Like Son
The online presence of Atelier Rebul should not be underestimated in the resurrection. The webshop and digital marketing make a world of difference and that is not least due to Xander Gielen, Kris’ now 21-year-old son. Xander joined the business when he was barely 18 and today forms a complementary duo with his father. “We are really two hands on one belly,” says Xander. “I can learn a lot from Dad and contribute my own expertise. We make business decisions together at Atelier Rebul. We don’t always agree, but we’ve never had words. An ideal combination that works excellently.” Xander is mainly concerned with online marketing in the family business. “I have focused on promotion and sales of Atelier Rebul via social media,” says Xander. “A particularly interesting subject that requires a lot of depth to be successful in it.” The acquired expertise in digital marketing is now even made available to other companies. “We received many questions from fellow entrepreneurs about our high online visibility and sales figures,” says Xander. “We therefore started setting up campaigns for them and applying the tricks to achieve a high conversion rate (percentage of purchasing customers out of the total of website visitors or social media contacts, ed.). We have now bundled this specialization in our own agency, called Nine One One.” And so the entrepreneurship in the Gielen family continues….
More salmon than tiger
The future looks promising for father and son. “After a difficult start, we have found the right cadence,” Kris and Xander say in unison. “Through trial and error we managed to lay the foundation for a new success story. We had to fight for it, but Atelier Rebul is now in the phase of great brand awareness with very loyal fans. The ‘brand awareness’ is extremely high, and that makes us feel positive about the future. There are certainly expansion plans. We want to broaden the range and increase local and even international sales channels. The Turkish producer also sees from the figures how well we are doing, so we gain the confidence to expand our territory. Opportunities that we will certainly seize with both hands. The goal is to become the best known and most loved brand in our sector, not to have the most money in the account. Compared to the animal world, we do not see ourselves as a tiger, but rather as… a salmon. They swim against the current, they lay their eggs and are reborn. That’s more our thing.”
And to finish: pear with chocolate, mocha and hazelnut.
Kris takes particular satisfaction from the fact that he can launch his son into the entrepreneurial world. “Of all the things I have done, I consider that my greatest achievement,” he says. “I am both driver and passenger in his journey to business success. I take him with me, and he accompanies me. In the meantime we’re having a great time. We laugh a lot. There is zero point zero friction between us. A wonderful feeling, which only makes the story of Atelier Rebul even more interesting. I have 100% confidence that Xander can take this company to new heights. And myself? I know exactly what I will be doing for the next 5 years: the step-by-step plan to help Atelier Rebul break through in Europe is very clear to me. Supporting my son in his plans: that’s number two. I dream of a dynasty, where generations of the family business continue to succeed each other. And finally, I want to help many people with my knowledge and experience. I want to be a kind of missionary who can assist other entrepreneurs when they are stuck with something. Helping them over the threshold, motivating them to persevere. This is even possible as a ‘motivational speaker’, with which I can reach a wide audience in one go. Tips that will certainly be discussed: show empathy, give sincere appreciation and avoid criticism. And above all: be ambitious. Aim for the moon, and if you miss it, you’ll still be among the stars…
(Thanks to: Hotel-Restaurant Mardaga in As)