Among candidate investors ‘lining up’, Dumarey awaits bankruptcy Van Hool

According to Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon and Minister for Work Jo Brouns, several possible candidates are ‘lining up’ and showing interest in investing in a restart of bus manufacturer Van Hool in Koningshooikt (Lier).

But that doesn’t mean avoiding bankruptcy, as some – like Belgian entrepreneur Guido Dumarey, a specialist in blowing new life into moribund companies – openly propose in De Standaard newspaper. Looking at the man’s achievements, Dumarey might see some interesting synergies with his group, to make a quick restart at Van Hool in Belgium.

Cleaning up first

A bankruptcy would ‘clean up’ Van Hool’s outstanding debts, which grew to €200 million by the end of 2022—according to the latest figures available—with the banks and an additional €34 million with the social security fund. However, some sources quote over €400 million in debt.

In De Standaard, Dumarey says he intends to make a blizzard-fast restart after the bankruptcy would be pronounced – probably at the end of March 2024. He intends to continue production in the Belgian main factory with 1,800 of the currently 2,494 employees.

Current co-CEO of Van Hool, crisis manager Mark Zwaaneveld, has unveiled a plan with 1,116 redundancies and wants to transfer the whole production of city buses and coaches to Northern Macedonia, where labor costs are one-fifth of the costs in Belgium. Only R&D and the still profitable truck trailer division would remain in Koningshooikt.

Keeping production in Belgium

Guido Dumarey wants to keep production in Belgium. Still, he sees a need to drastically streamline bus production to reduce production costs by using readily available components rather than continuing on the path of bespoke manufacturing, a specialty of Van Hool today. Once the bankruptcy is a fact, Dumarey wants to put details of the plan on the table.

The Belgian entrepreneur has quite a track record of bidding on moribund companies, some with great success and some missing out. For example, in 2021, he placed an official bid with his Punch Motive Group to take over Nissan’s three Catalan factories in Spain to build a clone version of the Navara pickup truck with hydrogen propulsion by 2024. He didn’t make it to the shortlist of candidates.

Dumarey group employing 3,000 people

But the list of successes seems to be longer. The Punch Group, recently rebaptized into the Dumarey Group, has operations and subsidiaries in Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, China, and the UK and employs some 3,000 people today.

Among his biggest successes in Belgium is the Sint-Truiden-based transmission specialist Punch Powertrain, which Stellantis has set its sights on acquiring. There, special transmissions are developed, and parts are produced while the general assembly occurs in Metz (Northern France). Dumarey saved the company initially, and in 2016, he sold it for approximately one billion euros to the Chinese group Yinyi.

Buying EU factories from GM

Later, with that money, Dumarey took over General Motors’ gearbox factory in Strasbourg. He also acquired a second company from GM, the propulsion research center in Turin (Italy), specializing in diesel engines, electronic control systems, fuel cells, and artificial intelligence.

The US carmaker was leaving the plant because it had withdrawn mainly from Europe following the restructuring and sale of the Opel brand, now part of Stellantis. GM saw Turin as its trump card for a diesel revival but decided to eliminate the center when diesel rapidly lost popularity in Europe.

Hydrogen propulsion systems

Now, Dumarey Group is developing hydrogen propulsion systems in Turin (Italy), like fuel cells and the H2 burning engine, as an environmentally friendly successor to the diesel engine. For Dumarey, the transition from diesel to electric and hydrogen is an obvious choice.

As Van Hool is a pioneer in coaches and buses on hydrogen, that might be one of the things Dumarey is interested in when he talks about ‘synergies’ to reduce the costs of building buses. Hydrogen perfectly fits Van Hool’s wish to focus on long-distance coaches. These require lower volume and offer a higher profit margin, making them less vulnerable to competition.

Gearboxes for buses and trucks

Guido Dumarey has taken his first step into (mini-)bus manufacturing. At the end of last year, he finished his third takeover of that year, the British Woodall Nicholson group. That group comprises six specialist vehicle brands, from accessible transport and electric buses, over police cars and ambulances to ceremonial limos and hearses. Dumarey will continue the business with 367 employees.

Before that, in October, he bought the ZF transmission plant near Lyon, which produces transmissions for buses, trucks, and industrial vehicles and has a yearly turnover of €110 million. ZF Bouthéon employs more than 300 people and is now called Dumarey Powerglide Bouthéon. It will continue to deliver to ZF until 2027. Transmissions for buses and trucks? Does that ring a bell?




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