A year after the floods that hit Belgium, the Galler chocolate factory is resuming production in its workshops in Vaux-sous-Chèvremont. To recover, it was necessary to transform this crisis into an opportunity, explains Salvatore Iannello, the CEO.
It is July 13, 2021, the rain is falling. A little, a lot, a lot. On that day, Belgium was about to experience the deadliest natural disaster in its history. The precipitation intensified during the day, causing streams to overflow and requiring numerous interventions by the police. During the night, the situation worsens and the province of Liège is particularly affected. The Vesdre, the Ourthe and the Meuse come out of their beds and flood a good part of the municipalities they cross. Water sweeps away everything in its path. Homes are destroyed, businesses too. “At first, no one took the measure of what was happening, says today Salvatore Iannello, head of the Galler chocolate factory. The sandbags were stacked to prevent water from passing .” But the situation quickly spirals out of control. “The wheels of the cars were already half under water, the employees had to evacuate without delay.”
It is July 13, 2021, the rain is falling. A little, a lot, a lot. On that day, Belgium was about to experience the deadliest natural disaster in its history. The precipitation intensified during the day, causing streams to overflow and requiring numerous interventions by the police. During the night, the situation worsens and the province of Liège is particularly affected. The Vesdre, the Ourthe and the Meuse come out of their beds and flood a good part of the municipalities they cross. Water sweeps away everything in its path. Homes are destroyed, businesses too. “At first, no one took the measure of what was happening, says today Salvatore Iannello, head of the Galler chocolate factory. The sandbags were stacked to prevent water from passing .” But the situation quickly spirals out of control. “The wheels of the cars were already half under water, the employees had to evacuate without delay.” In Vaux-sous-Chèvremont (in the town of Chaudfontaine), on the banks of the Vesdre, the workshops of the Galler chocolate factory are operational again, one year after the disaster. A “small” miracle for the company. The water rose up to 1.80 m high. One meter eighty: yes, it is necessary to repeat it to realize what it represents, or at least try to imagine it. “Absolutely everything was destroyed, we no longer even had a spatula to make our pastries,” says Salvatore Iannello. The factory, installed on the premises since 1976, had never experienced flooding. No more electricity, no more machines, production lines were destroyed, containers washed away, delivery trucks too. Only the smell of chocolate remains… The damage is estimated at 13.5 million euros. “And it could have been a lot more,” adds the CEO. There was a month and a half of stock left. Two solutions are then offered to the teams of the chocolate factory: to collapse and close the doors of a renowned company or to roll up their sleeves and start all over again. “The teams were great, really”, insists Salvatore Iannello. Some were personally affected, they were destitute and had nothing, no business and no home. “The resilience and courage that everyone has shown has been admirable.” Every day, weekends included, the employees empty the workshop and clean it. Begins a real time trial. You have to communicate internally and externally, contact the insurance companies, set up a new business plan and find new means of production. “I was not afraid, explains the CEO. I was sad, yes, and it was sometimes complicated. But I had the intimate conviction that we could transform this threat into an opportunity. I don’t want to shock anyone by saying that.” Looking assured and full of optimism, Salvatore Iannello ensures that the company has broken the causal link between its past and its future. “Today we are facing a new future,” he proclaims. New product thanks to a market analysis, new packaging, new objectives: everything has been questioned in order to improve the company. Marketing (or rather “marketing”), engineers, office workers… the entire chocolate factory has been called upon to rethink and rebuild “their home”. A few examples? The tools of the cold tunnels, which allow the chocolate to be cooled, “a very important element for the quality of the product”, have been improved. They are surgically precise. The organization and the planning process were reviewed, and a new production machine was purchased “second hand”. This is the machine of the Ghent chocolate maker Cavalier who helped Galler to produce the time to find his workshops. “Today, we have more efficient tools that open up growth opportunities for us that we would not have had and, in addition, allow us to improve the quality of the products.” To allow this takeover, the chocolate factory obtained the support of the banks to the tune of 4 million euros. The shareholders, for their part, injected 5 million into the capital of the company. This financial operation increases the weight of Belgian shareholders by 40%, which is made up of Noshaq, Invest for Jobs, Walloon entrepreneurs and the management of the chocolate factory. The foreign investor (Qatari) is still the majority for the moment. “They injected money when the company needed it, otherwise there would have been no chocolate factory, recalls Salvatore Iannello. But it’s true that I would dream of the company being 100% Belgian .” The CEO of Galler, who is called “the co-pilot”, has reinvented his organization. “It’s about redistributing power within the company and emphasizing everyone’s sense of responsibility,” says Salvatore Iannello. Based on holacracy (the circle of power), the company has for some years been a collaborative structure where the decision-making process is carried out through circles whose members are autonomous. The “co-pilot” is convinced that this way of proceeding has given employees the strength to overcome these events. Every two months, the teams meet to take stock of the progress made or the obstacles that still need to be faced. “Transparency was and is the key to this resilience,” says the boss. This business paradigm based on a model that refuses the balance of power and relies on the convergence of interests and alignment with the planet, Salvatore Iannello was inspired by a four-year trip on his sailboat. A trip that nourished reflections, thought and questioning of our way of life. “I came back with an idea that was potentiated by the collective intelligence of the company”, he specifies, anxious to always put forward the people with whom he collaborates. “Resources are not inexhaustible,” he warns. To the importance of people and the collective, the Galler company adds an environmental dimension. The chocolates are produced with Fairtrade certified cocoa, a label that guarantees compliance with the principles of fair trade and in particular the living and working conditions of local producers. “A moral obligation, specifies the CEO. We should not even have to specify ‘fair trade’, all trade should in essence be.” The company works with an association in Côte d’Ivoire to develop cash and food nurseries. A kind of permaculture to reduce the environmental footprint of the company upstream, during cocoa production. Twenty billion trees have already been planted. Goal: 50 billion. “Climate change is already here, it is hitting everywhere in the world and has already affected Belgium, explains Salvatore Iannello. But I am convinced that if the bad weather last summer were to happen again, we would not experience them in the same way. way.”