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Interview with Bart Van Malderen, CEO

March 14, '24

In just eleven years, Bart Van Malderen has built a profitable diaper company with a turnover exceeding 1 billion euros. ‘I took risks and invested millions. Now we’re at cruising speed.’

‘Actually, yes.’ That’s what Bart Van Malderen says when asked if he envisioned a turnover of more than 1 billion euros when he introduced his diaper company Drylock to the world in 2012.

‘I did expect it, but we might have achieved it two or three years earlier than planned. People might say, ‘Well, it’s easy because you already knew the diaper business from your time at Ontex.’ But you don’t reach such a turnover just like that. There were setbacks too. And it’s hard work, you know. We’ve taken that 1.2 billion from other players, because the market isn’t really growing.’

Van Malderen has had a long career in the diaper industry. By the age of thirty, he was already at the helm of Ontex, which was then still a family business founded by his father in 1979. Under his leadership, Ontex made 26 acquisitions and grew into a global player. It went public, came under the control of private equity players, and returned to Euronext Brussels in 2014. But that was without Van Malderen: he stepped down in 2007.

A few years later, he reappeared in the industry with Drylock, establishing its first factory in the Czech Republic, bordering Poland and Germany. Van Malderen introduced ultra-thin diapers with special absorbent polymers and minimal fluff, the traditional diaper material. The German supermarket chain Lidl became the first customer, selling the diapers under its own retail brand. Drylock has since become virtually indispensable as a producer for supermarket chains, manufacturing baby and incontinence diapers, as well as panty liners and sanitary napkins.


Drylock Profile

● Produces baby diapers, feminine hygiene products, and incontinence diapers.

● Turnover (2023): 1.2 billion euros.

● Number of factories: 9.

● Number of employees: 3,750.

● Headquarters: Zele (60 employees).

● Shareholders: Bart Van Malderen (75%), Sofina (25%).


‘I’ve really stuck my neck out and taken risks,’ says Van Malderen. Since its inception in 2012, he has pumped millions into Drylock. Mainly financed by selling Ontex and shares of VGP, the real estate developer co-owned by the Van Malderen and Van Geet families.

Last year, turnover increased by almost 20 percent to 1.2 billion euros. ‘And we’re highly profitable,’ says Van Malderen. The profit margin (EBITDA) is certainly more than 10 percent, but he doesn’t provide more details. The company produces 1 billion diapers per month, across nine factories.


A new factory is underway in the state of North Carolina, representing an investment of 30 million euros. Is the US the promised land for diaper companies?

‘In Wisconsin, we’ve been making incontinence diapers for nursing homes and hospitals for seven years, and increasingly for supermarkets too. We also sell baby diapers and diaper pants in the US, but we import them from Europe. We’ve signed contracts with really big players there. Hence the new factory, to produce locally. Eventually, 300 people will work there.’

The market in the US is growing rapidly. In Japan and Europe, supermarket brands are much more common, and in Germany, they already represent half of the market. The US is lagging behind, but the shift is happening there too. The major brands are losing ground to cheaper supermarket brands, and high inflation has accelerated this shift. We’re capitalizing on that. There’s no reason to pay more for a brand. It took a while, but our quality is just as good, if not better.’


‘We launched the world’s first compostable diaper just two months ago.’ – Bart Van Malderen, CEO


Van Malderen doesn’t say this without reason. He talks about the innovative ‘channel technology’ that Drylock developed and incorporated into its diapers a few years ago, in consultation with Procter & Gamble, the owner of Pampers. The giant was already thinking in the same direction, as evidenced by the simultaneous registration of patents.

‘We talked and agreed to share each other’s technology,’ says Van Malderen, enthusiastically describing how his diapers work. ‘Channels in the diaper materials ensure optimal fluid distribution. In our diapers, these channels are under tension, causing the diaper to adhere tightly to the body. The result: fewer leaks. Even in the most challenging situations.’


Are there any other investment plans?

‘Every year we invest 7 to 8 percent of our turnover. This year, that amounts to 90 million euros. We’re adding extra machines everywhere. And next year, we’re building a new factory in Brazil. We’ve also discussed acquiring Ontex’s Brazilian division, but it takes two to tango. So we’ll go our own way there.’


What’s the next goal?

‘A turnover of 1.5 billion euros, I guess? We’re laying the groundwork for that now. This year already? I can’t say. Over the past five years, we’ve grown by an average of 20 percent per year, but trees don’t grow in the sky. We have to be realistic. Volumes will certainly continue to rise, but we’ve lowered our selling prices again. When raw material prices drop, our prices drop too, and vice versa. We have no choice. In our business, it’s a daily struggle to survive and ensure we’re not kicked out of supermarkets. But we’re top in our business: since our inception, we’ve never lost a single customer. We’re hitting our stride now.’


Only now?

‘The first few years weren’t easy. We worked on diapers without fluff, but we went back on that because it was harder than we thought. I took some risks back then, but now I’m starting to sleep better. Things are going well, we’re investing, we’re growing, and it’s tremendously enjoyable. We’ve gained market share, and earned it, and we have to continue. That can only be done through innovation. We have the best diaper technology and the fastest machines, but it’s a never-ending story.’


‘Baby diapers used to weigh 70 grams; now we’re at 25 grams, and a diaper is only 3 millimeters thick. Diapers absorb more, are cheaper, and thinner.’ – Bart Van Malderen, CEO


What do you mean by that?

‘We’re in a patent business. We register hundreds of patents every year. That’s the only way we can make a difference. For example, baby diapers used to weigh 70 grams; now we’re at 25 grams, and a diaper is only 3 millimeters thick. Diapers are getting better, absorb more, are cheaper, and thinner. Year after year. It’s a completely different world now. It means that as an adult, you can also wear them under jeans without it being noticeable. There have always been misconceptions about incontinence. It’s not just something for 80 or 90-year-olds in a hospital bed. Light incontinence issues often start after women have given birth. Men in their forties and fifties also experience it. There are now products tailored for that.’


In 2019, the Belgian holding company Sofina acquired a quarter of Drylock. Why that deal?

‘Sofina had been seeking closer ties for a few years. I had always held back, but the timing was right then. We had just made that technological breakthrough. I saw opportunities to make a quantum leap in the short term with significant investments, but I didn’t want to take on more risk for myself and my family. My heart is with Drylock, but I also try to diversify in other businesses.’

Van Malderen still owns 75 percent of Drylock. Even though acquisition proposals come up sometimes, he doesn’t entertain them. ‘I don’t think about that. I’ve seen it all: the stock market and private equity. But I love that I can set my own agenda.’

His main job now, he says, is to watch over the company’s DNA. A lofty term, he admits. ‘It means no games. Dare to shout at each other and at me. Quick decisions. I can’t stress that enough. When you start with just a few people, that’s obvious. Now our team globally manages 3,750 people and it’s still equally important. In the past, with private equity, I always had to go to London for quarterly results presentations. You spend so much time on that… Or I had to justify the purchase of a new machine seven times. Now I just say: alright, go ahead and buy that machine.’


‘Selling? I don’t think about that. I’ve seen it all: the stock market and private equity. I love that I can set my own agenda.’ – Bart Van Malderen, CEO


His son Jules (30) comes in briefly to say hello. He initially worked for the real estate company VGP in the Czech Republic and later for Drylock in Russia and the US. ‘For a few years now, we’ve been working more and more together,’ says Van Malderen. ‘Jules handles relationships with major clients in the US, talks to suppliers and machine builders, and tours the factories with me.’

Is Jules his successor? ‘Yes. But I don’t know when he’ll take over. I’m still young (57 years old). There’s no rush, no deadline. Jules is more patient than I was at his age. But you have to start preparing in time. My father died young, at 63, and that also plays a role in my mind,’ says Van Malderen. He has another son, 14, and a daughter, 29, who decided to work in the events industry after her studies.


Your father, the founder of Ontex, entered politics back then. Do you have ambitions in that direction?

‘I’m from Buggenhout. There are about a hundred organizations active there. Brass band, basketball, card club. Every weekend, we had the obligatory charity steak dinner. We hardly ever went on vacation. My father enjoyed that. He had a political bug, but I can’t do that.’


You are, however, one of the financiers behind Doorbraak, a Flemish-minded news website.

‘I supported that, yes. Is that wrong? I think their articles are good. That perspective on the world deserves attention too. Just outside here, I have a Flemish Lion flag, and that’s the case at all my factories. Is that wrong? I’m not against Belgium, but I am a conscious Fleming. I see parties wanting to participate federally without a Flemish majority. I have questions about that. I read in the press that the Flemish are mainly concerned about migration. No kidding. And I see a lot of inefficiency, which you can’t afford in a company. I’m not saying what should happen; I’m just observing. But despite everything, we can still be proud of Belgium and Flanders as important export regions.’


Bart Van Malderen profile

● 57 years old, married, three children.

● Worked for 30 years at Ontex, 20 of which as CEO. He took the family business public, after which it was acquired by private equity players.

● Founded Drylock in 2012, again in the diaper industry.

● Has a 19 percent stake in the listed real estate player VGP, co-owned by the Van Geet family. Those shares are worth more than half a billion euros.


With Drylock, you have no factories in Belgium. Is this a deliberate choice?

‘That’s the advantage of starting from a greenfield. At the time, I simply took out the map of Europe and looked. The Czech Republic and Spain were good starting points. In the Czech Republic, we’re on the border with Germany and Poland, in the middle of Europe. With Spain, we covered logistics for Southern Europe. And labor costs are, of course, lower there. Our headquarters are in Belgium, with 60 people now.’


Babies create an enormous waste mountain through their diapers. Where does the industry stand in terms of recycling?

‘We launched the world’s first compostable diaper just two months ago. We have a pilot project in France to process these diapers on an industrial scale into a product that can fertilize trees. That took years of research into the use of organic materials, because just because it’s sustainable, doesn’t mean the diaper can leak. The challenge in scaling this is logistics, diaper collection.’

‘We also launched ecological paper packaging. That sounds simple, but the diapers are compressed very hard, putting a lot of pressure on the packaging. We’re the only ones who can do that. We value sustainability very highly. All our factories are already CO₂ neutral.’

This translation is based on an article published in De Tijd on 1 March 2024, written by Jan De Schamphelaere and Michael Sphiha.

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