What does it mean to make it in the north? This is part of a series of portraits of local people, organisations, and companies working to further internationalise Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe. This time we spoke to Dick Bosker, director at Machinefabriek Bosker.
By Erin Goedhart-Stallings
In the east of Groningen along the Wadden Sea lies the tiny, picturesque village of Termunterzijl. That is the home of Machinefabriek Bosker, a machine factory that sells trash rake cleaners and other equipment all over the world. I’m welcomed into the office by Dick Bosker, third generation co-owner of this family business.
‘My granddad started the company in 1932 as a blacksmith’, Dick explains.’ At that time, Termunterzijl’s main industry was shrimp fishery, and he produced a lot of machinery. But the business began to evolve as my grandfather started to make his first trash rake cleaner.’
‘There was a pumping station in the village with a weed screen that kept getting blocked by all sorts of rubbish in the water. A workman had to stay there all night with a rake, removing the hay bales and trash that got caught in the screen so the water could continue flowing. It was a messy, unpleasant job. An engineer at the pumping station asked us if we could fabricate a sort of giant rake to remove the rubbish automatically.’
‘Shortly after that – in 1960 – both my grandfather’s sons joined the company. When we started producing trash rake machines in the 1960s, it was only one or two a year. However, it grew to become the main part of our business. In the mid-1980s, two Dutch entrepreneurs approached the company about selling our machines in England, and our first export market was born. We didn’t expect much at first, but it was quickly successful.’
‘A few years later, my uncle and father decided to retire and sold the company to me and my colleague Rob Haak. A larger British company approached us about selling our rakes in the United States, and now we have sales agents in the USA, England, and Singapore. We sell most of our products overseas: perhaps a few to Norway this month, then one to Indonesia the next. But every rake is built right here in Termunterzijl!’
‘We’ve produced about 1300 machines in total, and only two or three were identical. All the machines are tailor-made: a little wider or deeper, suited for hydro stations, nuclear power stations, or anywhere else that has water pumps and needs to keep them clean. One of our more innovative designs is a mechanical rake machine that works with cables rather than hydraulics. That removes the risk of hydraulic oil getting into the water and helps to protect the environment. We have a patent on that technology.’
About 30 people now work in the office and factory in Termunterzijl. ‘Sometimes it’s quite hard to find the skilled workers we need here’, Dick says. That’s why they have developed partnerships with local schools. ‘We have quite a few apprentices in our company now because we believe that it’s important to always have some young blood here. You have to put in a bit of work to teach them the job, but it generally works out quite well.’
It certainly did for two brothers who are now co-workers. ‘The older brother was working for us already and the younger one did some work here over the holidays. I liked him, so I asked, “How much longer do you have in school?” He said six months, so I told him, “Once you have your certification, come back and work here”. He was the only student to have a job before he even finished his training!’
Retaining staff in a small village is also a challenge. ‘Sometimes it seems easier to get people into the company than to keep them. There are few young people here, and many of them leave the area. It’s a constant discussion about how to make work more enjoyable. One way we combat boredom is by job rotating: a welder welds, but he also can do some assembling and machining. It’s more interesting for the worker and better for our business to have that flexibility.’
As he grew up around the family business, Dick watched it evolve. ‘There are so many more rules now! Certificates for workers, for health and safety, for ISO. The older generation didn’t have to do that, but we have to. We’re designing a machine for a nuclear power station in England and we haven’t yet produced any steel, but we have produced kilograms of paper! Regulations have changed the business substantially.’
With success have come some unexpected challenges. ‘We had to register our name, Bosker, as a trademark because it was becoming a generic name for a type of equipment. We only realised that when we got a call from an angry customer with a broken machine we hadn’t sold them. We visited and saw that the rake had been produced by an Italian manufacturer that called it a ‘Bosker’ type machine! So now the name is trademarked.’
As Bosker grows internationally, its headquarters remain solidly Dutch. ‘Not only do we speak Dutch here, but most of our employees speak the local dialect, Gronings. Many of them could get by in English, though. I would have no problem hiring someone who wasn’t Dutch if they had the skills we needed.’
That could happen as the company moves into new markets. ‘We sell to the German and Scandinavian markets from here, and we may eventually hire people who are specialised in marketing to those countries. Last year, we started a project with students from Hanze University of Applied Sciences. It’s called the Export Carousel, and they wrote a great report how we could approach the German market. But there’s no hurry; I like that we’re still a relatively small family company.’
Companies across the Northern Netherlands are discovering the benefits of new export markets, and the skills and experiences that International people can bring. To find out more about making your company international, visit www.makeitinthenorth.nl and unlock the potential of your business!