Most know us well as an established workwear clothing company. Some might even know us as the family organisation from Belgium. But only a few really know the origins of our company, and the true story of how and why it grew into the world player in the workwear manufacturing industry it is today. It’s time to tell the story of the Alsico family.
Leopold Aelvoet: The man who started it all
From modest but passionate beginnings, the conception of Alsico started here, with a man named Leopold, for no other reason than, ‘it was something he really wanted to do’. With a textiles background under his belt and an abundance of spirit and dedication, Leopald started a small workshop that made household aprons and miners outfits. It was 1934, and workwear was a smart business venture. Simple to create, and never ceasing in demand, workwear was a sure footed business avenue for the aspiring entrepreneur.
Despite the shadow cast on society by the great depression, in these interwar years the industry was doing well and the demand for functional and safe workwear clothes was rising. Where demand is running fast, opportunity for growth comes eagerly chasing after. So, once the homeworking seamstresses employed by Leopold reached their capacity, he purchased a local workshop that could house around 40 seamstresses in Zenobe Grammestraat in his local town, Ronse. Leopold's god son, Bernard, speaks fondly of memories in Ronse, recalling playing in the new workshop. Bernard said they often used to play there on weekends where there was ‘plenty of room to run around… And fabric trolleys to race on!’
The next generation
The seamstresses on the hill pedalled on lucratively with Leopold's direction until his daughter, Lucie, married a gentleman named Gaston Siau in 1947. The couple took the reins from then on, the new engine that drove Alsico to new heights. In 1960, the couple moved the business to an old textiles factory in Zonnestraat where they were able to take the production line to a new scale and level of efficiency.
Following the sad passing of his father-in-law in the mid 60’s, Gaston took over the business permanently, the first limited company being established in 1964. It wasn’t until 1969 that Gaston decided to re-name the company, and the brand name ‘Alsico’ was coined. If you’re wondering where the name comes from, Gaston decided to blend his name with that of his business predecessor and father-in law’s family name ‘Aevoet’, and the Flemish word for garment, which is ‘confectie.’
Gaston: A visionary
Gaston was described by family as a ‘very dignified man, always wearing a tie and holding a cigar in his hand’ and as a very sweet man who was well read and great at telling stories. It was clear from his work ethic and dynamic disposition that Gaston Siau was ambitious to push the boundaries of Alsico. His travels and experience with American competitors exposed him to revolutionary fabrics that could transform his products and advance them into new products that could cater for even more industries. Polyester cotton was the fabric that revolutionised the workwear industry in the late 60’s and Gaston was quick off the mark to recognise that this was the key to accelerate the business. Fernand Maes, an Alsico Employee who would later become an integral part of the business, said that Gaston took ‘a massive leap in the dark’ when he decided to order thousands of metres of a new material he wasn’t yet familiar with. But Gaston’s move was educated and paired with a gut entrepreneurial instinct. And it paid off.
A change in pace, a change of place
In 1970 a law was introduced that saw a shift in terms of Alsico’s pool of customers. Until then, Alsico was selling only to end users and small retailers. This new law that emerged stated that businesses were required to not only provide, but maintain work uniforms for their employees. Alsico’s main turnover soon began to reflect this, as they were approached by large Laundries and manufacturers as their main customers.
This new regulation saw an unexpected and rapid growth, which was unfortunately soon sabotaged by the oil crisis in 1973. This saw a lot of workers made redundant and many businesses went into inflation. So, Gaston was faced with some difficult business decisions over the next few years amongst a turbulent economy to make sure that Alsico continued on its successful trajectory. After a study trip to North Africa, Gaston saw there was a light at the end of the tunnel after all.. in the shape of Tunisia. It was time to de-localise the business in order to escape huge increases in wage costs and continue to make his business prosperous. Erik Magnus, expert in the sector, emphasises ‘Alsico’s pioneering role in the delocalisation wave in our country.’ It really was strength to strength from here.
Another generation, and more borders crossed
It was inevitable, according to Bernard Saui, the eldest of Gaston's sons, that he and his brother would join the business. Gaston and Lucie had 4 children in total. Christine, Bernard, Evelyne and Philippe. Bernard and Philippe were six years apart, but were both brought up with the business in their sights. When Bernard was still in college, Gaston suffered a heart attack, and Bernard was catapulted into the driver's seat of Aslcio. At this point the business has grown to about 150 employees.
In 1979, the business made its way to Paris and then 5 years later, they took on the Netherlands. This momentum took hold and over the following 30 years Alsico set up factories across Europe, America and Asia. The Alsico group is now active in over 20 countries which would make them multinational, but Bernard Siau prefers to use the word ‘faminational’. He says ‘That is a significant nuance because with Alsico we want to convey certain family values. Respect, trust, and social mindedness and actions, those are the three values we lean on.’
The fibres of family and the fourth generation
It was workwear then, and it’s workwear now. Spanning over 85 years, Alsico has never strayed from its roots or lost sight of why it started in the first place. The sentiments of family values still remain. The family fibres that run strength and passion through the very heart of Alsico as an entity is what makes Alsico more than just a workwear service. It makes it a story to be told, re-told and continued through the generations to come.
The Siau Family
Today, the business is run by Gautier Siau, son of Bernard Siau and wife Marie Anne De Veyt. As CEO of Alsico Group since 2011 Gautier has been a hard driver of the future vision for Alsico, especially in terms of the fabric technology. Vincent Siau, Gautiers older brother, stepped into the company in 2014 as Managing Director of Alsico NV. Gautier and Vincent are just 2 out of 3 children/potential successors. Sister Caroline decided to take her own path, and resolutely chose a career in medicine. She says, ‘We have all inherited the same spirit and values, being respectful and empathetic, for example. But when I see my brothers working in the company, I notice how different they are. Gauthier is very realistic and down to earth; Vincent is more the idea person or the philosopher. They complement each other well and can each do their own thing in the company.’
‘Only one per cent of Belgian companies is a fourth generation family business.’
As a result of strong family relationships over the years, the company has expanded beyond anyone's expectations. Entrepreneur Herman Van de Velde notes that Alsico’s ‘unmistakable strength is the emotional connection with the business,’ and says that family run businesses are ‘exceptional in terms of growth, ambition and vision.’ It’s fair to say Alsico as an example reflects his sentiment accurately. Today, Alsico runs companies in multiple countries with 22 factories in 11 countries and continues to accelerate from success to success. Family, never ceasing to be at the heart of it all, generation to generation, the very fibres that keep the fabric of the company impenetrable.
Alsico Family Tree
NOTE: All facts, quotations and images have been borrowed from “Alsico sews its own seam - How a small workshop became a world player.” - Eline Maeyens