It seemed like a good abbreviation for the restarted Rademakers Gieterij: 2RG. That 2 represents the second life that Erik Jennes and Werner Velthuis, the new owners, want to give to the foundry. “But now everyone calls us two weird fools because of the abbreviation,” Velthuis jokes.
Well, he understands that. At first sight it is also crazy to buy a bankrupt, outdated iron foundry in Klazienaveen that has not made a profit for years. Even though it makes a product that the Netherlands apparently cannot do without: Rademakers is the country’s largest manufacturer of manhole covers – for sewerage company TBS, with the well-known triangle.
Jennes (46) and Velthuis (51) believe that there is a future for the factory in Drenthe. In doing so, they go against the spirit of the times: iron foundries are rapidly collapsing in recent years. These are often companies with a centuries-long local history, which are often major employers in shrinking regions. The industry appears to be heading for a speedy end in the Netherlands.
What’s going on with this industry? And if things are so difficult, why are Jennes and Velthuis so eager to get started?
Visiting an iron foundry feels most like a walk on a volcano. Luminous, liquid iron flows from all kinds of nooks and crannies in the dark industrial hall. Workers poke in jars with the orange stuff sloshing in. Sparks are flying, warning signs indicate that in some places there may be an increased amount of carbon monoxide in the air.
Erik Jennes, who has been working as a production manager in iron foundries for years, proudly takes pictures of ‘his’ company with his mobile phone. Rademakers (sixty employees, turnover about 15 million euros) will be running this afternoon for the first time in months. Recently, he has worked “a hundred hours a week” to get the restart done. When it got late, the Apeldoorner stayed with his business partner Velthuis in Emmen. The result: now the iron rolls back into the molds, after which it solidifies into parts for trucks (DAF, Mercedes) or tractors (Claas).
So he can really enjoy that. “In the iron foundry, it is art to do everything at the right time. Once the iron has solidified, the trained eye can see: Was it good soup or not?”
In June, after 111 years, things went wrong at ‘De Rademakers’, as the factory is popularly called. Or, well, actually things had gone wrong for years, says Werner Velthuis in the factory office. When he worked at Rademakers between 2000 and 2015 – then still part of Ballast Nedam – making a profit was already rare. He returned there in 2020, after having worked as an independent consultant for five years.
Rademakers was now in the hands of the Baarn investment company Triacta. They too did not get the foundry profitable. Three months ago, Triacta decided that it no longer wanted to invest in the foundry, after which bankruptcy followed.
Foundries are a special branch of Dutch industry. They are balancing on the edge of what can still be done cost-effectively in Western Europe: the product is relatively low-quality, competition with countries such as Turkey and China is fierce.
The result is “a purchasing game”, says Velthuis. “Customers say: yes, but you are too expensive! If you don’t lower your prices, I’m leaving.” Years ago, he once experienced a large customer saying: you have to produce a quarter cheaper. Well, they lost them.
There’s something else going on. The demand for cast iron has in any case decreased in recent decades. Castings are relatively inexpensive, but heavy. So you only use them in products where the weight of a part hardly matters (trucks) or when something has to be heavy (manhole covers, forklift trucks). But very often things just have to be lighter. Cast iron has been replaced in many places by aluminum (cars) or steel (lampposts).
And then you easily get into trouble. Not only Rademakers: in recent years many foundries have disappeared, or almost disappeared. This is most obvious in the Achterhoek. An extensive cast iron industry arose there because of the ferrous soil, with big names such as the ATAG stove factory. In 2018, Gieterij Neede (then 21 employees) disappeared here, in 2020 after more than a century of foundry Lovink in Terborg (165 jobs). Vulcanus in Langerak, near Doetinchem, made a new start in 2019 after bankruptcy and now has 75 employees.
The trend is also visible outside the Achterhoek. Industrial group VDL announced last year that it was closing the foundry in Weert, which was acquired in 2017, and that it would relocate the hundred employees as much as possible. At the end of 2020, it was also a hit in Zeeland: the Zeeuws-Vlaamse Gieterij in Sas van Gent (35 jobs away) closed there.
The bankruptcies can usually count on little attention or fuss. Often it seems that most people have already given up the foundries a bit, despite their location in shrinking regions where jobs are rarely available for the taking.
Erik Jennes and Werner Velthuis do not understand that at all. Why? Look, then you will see why they are such a good duo, says Velthuis. Jennes is the man with a passion for the profession, who grew up next to the roaring iron foundry in Hoensbroek and as a child wondered what was happening inside. A man of the factory floor, always with black nails, who knows practically everything about molds and casting techniques. Who became production manager in Klazienaveen after the bankruptcy of Lovink last year, even though it is twice as far to drive. He believes that this industry should not be lost in the Netherlands – because it would be an eternal sin.
But of course it has to fit financially. And that’s where Velthuis comes into play. He is the somewhat atypical business consultant – worn-out sneakers, cigarette in his pocket, roaring laughter – who likes the challenge of digging through the books and looking: can this work? What has to happen? And if I tinker with this? And about that?
When Rademakers went bankrupt, he started calculating with Jennes and concluded: I think it is possible, profitable iron casting in the Netherlands.
How? Well, simple. After the bankruptcy of Rademakers, the customers were suddenly “in a wild panic”, says Velthuis. “They don’t have stock, they got a delivery every week.”
That fierce purchasing game works, he says – until it stops working. Suddenly the major truck manufacturers saw their production in jeopardy. Finding another foundry was not as easy as it seemed: the economy is booming today, the remaining capacity is well occupied, and before a new foundry has made the right molds, you are some time ahead. Container prices for transport from Asia are through the roof.
In other words: Velthuis and Jennes now suddenly saw the macroeconomic factors turn out to be favorable for Dutch casting. The shocked customers also realized that they might have to be a little more careful with Rademakers. The duo sat down with forty of them. Whether they wanted to prepay their orders to finance a “seven numbers” relaunch. Yes, they did. Will the prices go up a bit, said Jennes and Velthuis. Okay, the customers suddenly thought it was fine too.
“We spoke clear language,” says Velthuis. “Of course it sometimes fell raw on their roof, but they also get it.”
Rademakers itself has also intervened. The cafeteria is closed. And 40 jobs had to be cut anyway. Anyway, it is fair to say that some of those employees barely showed up, says Velthuis. In the end, sixty jobs could remain.
You can’t find that much, but you shouldn’t underestimate its significance in a region like Southeast Drenthe, says Velthuis. Here every job is one. That was already the case when Rademakers moved from Rotterdam to Klazienaveen after the war with Marshall aid money – peat extraction was ending and new activity was needed – and that is still the case today. The number of social assistance benefits in the municipality of Emmen is relatively high, at around 4,000.
Also read: Is there still room for industry in the city of Amsterdam?
One hundred extra people is not nothing. Because these employees, often a bit older, don’t just find other work, Velthuis thinks.
Then it is half past two and the morning shift, which started at seven o’clock, is ready. Velthuis smokes a cigarette at the gate and speaks to a cycling employee Marvin – late twenties, tattoos on his arms. How much has been produced? A thousand pieces? That’s not bad for a first day. But the most important thing is that we’re running again, right?
Yes, says Marvin. “You feel the peace with the people.”