Van Hool’s take-over by VDL: only 250 Belgian jobs remain (update)

After news broke on Tuesday that the take-over of Belgian bus maker Van Hool in Koningshooikt (Lier) by its Dutch competitor VDL Group was finalized on Friday last week, VDL now specified its plans. That means only retaining spare part manufacturing, aftersales, intake, development, and finances, providing jobs for 250 people in Belgium. Before, 300 to 600 saved jobs were projected.

Meanwhile, of the 2,403 people who used to work at bus manufacturer Van Hool in Koningshooikt, 1,018 have already found a new job, according to the Flemish Employment Agency VDAB. In Northern Macedonia, the Van Hool factory will continue to produce buses with 1,350 people.

Fulfilling US commitment

With American ABC Bus Companies, a long-term partner selling Van Hool coaches in the US, VDL is said to have made agreements for further delivery of these Belgian buses without proposing its own products for the time being.

The Dutch have not disclosed how much they are paying for Van Hool. The take-over includes all the Belgian bus builder’s machinery and intellectual property but not the factory and other real estate in Koningshooikt, Van Hool’s headquarters. According to the curator, finalizing the bankruptcy and selling these assets to compensate the creditors could take another seven years.

Risk of restart delayed

Two days after the Court in Mechelen declared Van Hool bankrupt in April, the curators chose the initial bids of VDL  for the bus section and GRW – Schmitz Cargobull for the trailer section. “There was a great risk that if a restart were delayed too long, the potential of good employees and the still-running activities and orders at Van Hool would be completely lost,” curator Jeroen Pinoy said then.

“A further postponement of deliveries would also have financial implications and have dried the distribution channels. This is the best solution for employment and a durable restart,” Pinoy concluded. However, it took several weeks to get the green light from several competition authorities in European countries to put the take-over by VDL on the rails.

Waiting for spare parts

Since April, the bus division at Van Hool in Koningshooikt has come to a complete stop. That has been a real problem for the Flemish public bus company De Lijn, which has more than thirty buses idle because the needed spare parts or software updates are unavailable.

De Lijn has about 850 Van Hool buses in its fleet of about 2,250 buses, of which 300 at subcontractors. The public transport company has agreements with Van Hool for engineering, expertise, and software support, while the Lier-based company also supplies parts. On the one hand, these are engineered parts that it produces itself, and on the other, purchased parts for which Van Hool acted as a reseller.

A fleet of 1,044 buses and coaches

But not only De Lijn is waiting for a solution now the takeover is finalized. The Federation of Belgian Bus and Coach Operators (FBAA), representing 300 bus and coach operators, warns they want clarity about spare parts for their fleet of 1,044 Van Hool buses and coaches and what will happen with already ordered but not yet built or delivered buses. Will they still be built, or will they at best get the money back they paid in advance?

Van Hool was also called upon for maintenance and repairing more severe damage. But the bus builder’s bankruptcy halted all those processes. The trustees wanted a short-term restart with VDL, but that process has not yet been completed.

All eyes are now on VDL in Eindhoven, which also owns another former Belgian coach builder, Jonckheere, in Roeselare. Just days after Van Hool’s bankruptcy, VDL opened its new bus assembly facility in Roeselare (West Flanders). The Dutch holding already announced in 2018 that the old premises were outdated and that a new factory working along with new production methods was necessary.

Judgment in GRW takeover imminent

Meanwhile, there was also another plot twist in the saga surrounding bus builder Van Hool’s bankruptcy that might jeopardize Australian GRW’s final take-over of the trailer division. CIM Capital, a Belgian investment company specializing in the takeover of ailing firms and one of the bidders, entered an official protest against the curators’ decision, which it calls ‘unfair.’ The trial was initiated yesterday, and a judge will decide by July 1st.


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