“Food is fashion,” says Michel Thys, head of the R&D Department at Spadel. Continuous innovation, in both taste and packaging. This is the key to the strategy of the Belgian icon Spadel, the water producer of Spa and Bru, among others. The group steadily continues to build on the growth of its strong water brands.
In the last five years, the exchange-listed company Spadel has gone through a noticeable revitalization. Turnover rose from EUR 198 million in 2012 to EUR 242 million in 2015, while net profits in the same period more than doubled from EUR 8.9 million to EUR 21 million. The success of the Benelux market leader has attracted public notice: Trends/Tendances magazine celebrated CEO Marc du Bois as Manager of the Year in February 2014. Two months later he was made a baron by King Philippe of Belgium.
Much of this has to do with the strategic plan that the family company drew up in 2012. Since then, the water company has invested more in strong regional brands. These are thought to compete better with the multinationals. Innovation was a logical way forward, explains Michel Thys. He has been running the R&D Department at Spadel for the last two years. Thys' team consists of ten employees, out of a total of 733 for the group as a whole.
"Food is fashion", he sums up on a Friday afternoon in Spadel's head office in the Brussels suburb of Woluwe-Saint-Lambert. "You drink different things based on the tastes of your parents and grandparents. So, in the food sector you have to keep on innovating. We listen closely to our customers through extensive market research. But we always respond with responsible drinks. That means natural mineral water and healthy variations on this."
How can a water producer innovate? Water is just water, isn't it? Michel Thys smiles. "My daughters asked me the very same question when I started working here. Of course, we are not going to start meddling with our natural mineral water Spa Reine, or our sparkling waters, Spa Intense or Spa Finesse. We are not allowed to do so by law, and in any case we don't want to do it. We control our water very strictly, up to a thousand times more strictly than the legal standards. We have released 400,000 bees around our spring source in Spa. They are the gatekeepers of the environment and an excellent indicator of the unique biodiversity in the water catchment areas. The bees are, if you like, our canaries in the coal mine."
Natural fruit drinks.
No innovation with the waters, but definitely with the fruit drinks, it appears. Spadel invested EUR 17 million last year in an aseptic production line in Spa Monopole, the bottling plant next to the Spa source. The line fits in well with the move towards natural fruit drinks, a strong trend in the US.
The natural, low-calorie fruit drinks are a healthy alternative to the classic cold beverages: they contain only water, natural fruit, stevia sweetener and natural flavors. "We do not add any artificial sweeteners, colorings or preservatives. This is made possible because the aseptic line is fully protected and hermetically sealed from the rest of the factory. The fruit cannot develop any micro-organisms that would spoil the quality of the product," says Michel Thys. In 2013, Spadel launched the 'Touch of' sparkling mineral water with a hint of flavor. These flavored waters are also 100% natural, and have no sugar and hence zero calories. Finally, Spadel also simplified its product range. With the rebranding campaign 'Spa, for life!', the consumer can now see the trees for the forest again.
Spadel is also innovating with its packaging. New bottle formats and packs are regularly launched. This is not just the case for its Benelux brands of Spa and Bru, but also for its other waters: Carola (France), Wattwiller (France) and Brecon Carreg (Wales). "The packaging remains an ecological challenge," admits Michel Thys. "The whole industry is looking for the holy grail, for a packaging that is robust enough to preserve 100% of the flavor, but that does not harm the environment."
Over the last few years, Spadel has already made some serious efforts. The plastic PET bottle for Spa Reine became 44% lighter and is made 50% from recycled PET, which gives it a unique ecological profile in Europe. In addition, Spadel prints all its labels in vegetable ink or on recycled or FSC-certified paper. All these efforts are certified by independent bureaus. "The whole company is permeated by ecological awareness. It is also an important reason why our waters are essentially regional brands with a limited transportation radius. Think global, drink local”, says Michel Thys with a wink.
Spadel obviously has no issues with innovation, even if our history goes back to 1583. "Spadel is a family business. Marc du Bois' grandfather bought the first shares in 1925. Gradually, the family took an increasing stake in the business, which limits the pressure from external shareholders. This means that we operate on a long horizon. Our roadmap through to 2020 has already been defined, and we will be following it closely," concludes Michel Thys.