How a small Belgian start-up has found a unique niche in the competitive fast food market?
Today it could be argued that Boulevard Anspach in Brussels, historically known as home of the Belgian stock exchange – La Bourse – headquarters, resembles more the country’s fast food headquarters than anything regarding finance.
Nestled between the exquisite Grand Place square which contains architecture from the Baroque, Gothic and Louis XIV eras and the chic Place St Gery where the city’s locals socialise in the various bars and clubs, Boulevard Anspach sticks out like an ugly sister.
The La Bourse building itself, despite being an impressive structure, appears more austere and oppressive than beautiful and inviting; the more cynical among us would no doubt draw comparison between the building’s brutish appearance and the cuckoo’s nest-like nature of capitalism.
And then there’s fast food. Apart from a token Irish pub, the dominant theme of the area is the multitude of fast food outlets. McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Quick (Belgium’s answer to Burger King), as well as a number of traditional Belgian Friteries populate the area. It would not be surprising to hear that the air quality of the area was of a particularly unctuous variety.
Within this fast food cloud, however, is one different fast food outlet. Standing right beside McDonalds, a metaphorical angel on the shoulder when it comes to deciding which fast food chain to enter, is EXKI Natural, Fresh & Ready.
Fast food but healthy; it almost sounds paradoxical. Yet since its opening in 2001, the concept of healthy fast food has been a success, helping the company to expand at an almost exponential rate.
Today there are 63 EXKi outlets in Europe (half of whom are in Belgium; the others being in the Netherlands, France, Luxemburg and Italy), 750 employees and an annual turnover of 65 million euro.
“If you have a dream, there is always a good chance”
Due to EXKi co-founder and current CEO Nicolas Steisel’s family background, it was almost inevitable that he ended up a successful businessman. “Both my grandfathers were business people…one was active in the paper industry and the other was the head of the sugar industry. Industrial people.” he says.
Born in 1964 – the fifth child of seven – and a native of Brussels, Steisel along with his fellow EXKi co-founder Frédéric Rouvez was named “Manager of the Year” in 2009 by business magazine Trends-Tendances.
Yet while his family background and relatively young age might suggest that ascendancy in business came easily to him, EXKi was no overnight success and Steisel certainly has had to earn his stripes.
Upon graduating from the Solvay Business School in 1988, Steisel spent three years working with Arthur Anderson. In its heyday, Arthur Anderson as many will recall, was the world’s largest accountancy firm, in pole position of the so-called “Big Eight” international accountancy firms.
The three years Steisel spent with Arthur Anderson and the subsequent fallout of the company “remains for me something important (because it shows that) nothing is permanent” he says. A company as big and powerful Arthur Anderson, he states, appears like it will be “a never ending story, yet it ended very fast.”
“Be very modest, do your best everyday if you want to be still here in 20 years”
Steisel sensed the arrogance which was inherent in the company and despite pointing out that it was not the main reason for its rapid demise, it did teach him some valuable lessons concerning the correct way to run a business: “Be very modest, do your best everyday if you want to be still here in 20 years” he proclaims.
In 1991, he left Arthur Anderson to join GIB which was at that time, the biggest retailer in Belgium. He describes the two years spent there as “really one of the best experiences of my career.”
In direct contrast to the paper trail and bureaucracy of Arthur Anderson, the Toulouse experience pitted him “back to reality, with real people.”
After holding three different positions with Brico in both France and Belgium, Steisel left the company in 2000. By this stage, however, the EXKi dream had already been in existence for two years.
The idea for EXKi came some time around 1998 and 1999 but the real genesis of the company began years earlier thanks in no small part to a secondary school friendship forged between Steisel, Arnaud de Meeûs and Frédéric Rouvez.
“The three of us met as teenagers at the age of 14 because we were in the same school. We were not in the same class because I was more into the Mathematical side of things, Frédéric was more involved in Greek and Latin and Arnaud concentrated more on Economics” he says.
All three went on to study different subjects at University, much to the relief of Steisel with the aide of hindsight. “Fortunately, we don’t have the same education, we wouldn’t be very efficient” he quips.
Upon completing each of their formal educations, fate conspired for their paths to cross once again in professional life as they all ended up working for GIB in the 1990s. Although he believes that it is “not necessary to be close friends…it is still very important to know the people (you are entering into business with) to avoid surprises.” Their friendship played a key role in EXKi’s success because “we knew the weaknesses and strengths of each other.”
Like all true entrepreneurs, the fire of self determination burned brightly within all of them. “We wanted to set up our own company so that we could have a proper life” evinces Steisel. All they needed was an idea.
“We knew we would do something related to retailing because it was where we had experience” he says. In search of inspiration, they travelled to many big cities in both Europe and the US during 1998 and 1999. Sometime during this time “the idea of healthy fast food emerged” he says. “We had a lot of ideas but this one kept coming back.”
The project, under the name “Green Fields”, began in April 2000. A great deal of time and energy was put into seeking investment and logistics. The help of three different marketing groups was used before they eventually settled on the name EXKi.
“The idea was to reconcile fast food with quality and healthy living, by making it available every day in the big city because that’s where everybody is looking for it.”
“It was a long process. Somebody didn’t just wake up and shout ‘EXKI!’”he chortles. The logo (which incorporates a carrot in place of the letter ‘i’) “came after the idea” he tells. “The idea was to reconcile fast food with quality and healthy living, by making it available every day in the big city because that’s where everybody is looking for it.”
After a nine month gestation, EXKi opened for business in January 2001 and Steisel recalls the days in the lead up to that fateful day as both “full of excitement and full of despair. You go up and down because sometimes you think it’s possible and the next day you think it’s impossible.”
During this time, Steisel and co “went from surprise to surprise”. From setting up the product range, perfecting the recipes, finding a chef, finding adequate premises, negotiating rent without being known, to recruiting people (some of whom erroneously believed the management might be willing to pay them under the counter), problems emerged at almost every turn.
Although many customers – including lots of friends and family – passed through the EXKi doors the day of its opening, he knew that they were on to something special when the same faces minus the friends and family kept returning. The demand for healthy fast food and the powerful niche EXKi has eked out in the market has resulted in them “never (having) a problem with sales”.
It has not, however, been all plain sailing ever since. Despite a highly positive consumer reaction and the opening of more outlets, EXKi “made huge losses in the beginning” says Steisel.
Selling in a market which is “ultra competitive” for a fledgling company is difficult enough. But when your unique selling point is that your product is healthier and more organic than your competitor’s, or in other words, the ingredients you use cost a lot more than that of your competitor’s, it can, to be sure, be difficult to stay above water.
“We have achieved the ratio of three per cent of sales of net profitability which for us is quite good”
During the infancy years, EXKi experienced some teething problems with regard to profit margins. Today, however, “we have achieved the ratio of three per cent of sales of net profitability which for us is quite good” explains Steisel. “That”, he states with a hint of weariness, “was a long path.”
But despite all of the blood, sweat and tears, it is hard not to get the sense that the effort EXKi exerts to provide tasty and healthy fast food at an affordable price is truly worth it.
After all, we live in an era where health fears regarding issues such as factory farming and genetically-modified foods, not to mention the obesity epidemic have led the consumer to be more conscious about food than ever before.
Today it is widely recognised that the safest way to be sure that the food you eat is organic is to buy products that are locally produced. With this in mind, EXKi follows a strict code.
Before expanding to a new city, EXKi has to set up what Steisel describes as a “central logistics platform” whereby “we have to make and deliver everything (from fresh, not even frozen) within 300km”.
While this might inhibit expansion to a degree, it certainly doesn’t do their public relations any harm whatsoever. Indeed, the pursuit of instant financial gain, as Arthur Anderson learned to its detriment, is not always the most prudent course of action in the long run.
Steisel can be very content with the way things have worked out over the last decade or so. From nothing, he has played a leading role in the creation and establishment of a brand that looks set to prosper for years to come.
He is not resting on his laurels, however, because in the near future he hopes to expand EXKi to other European countries such as Germany before attempting to break into America. “New York”, he reckons “has the most potential for the next move”.
Although such a move would undoubtedly cause a lot more headaches, Steisel’s track record has already demonstrated that the smaller problems will not get in the way of the big picture. “You have to have a dream rather than just seeing the problems” he says sagaciously. “If you have a dream, there is always a good chance.”