As an unknown party, how do you go about selling your anti-graffiti foil to the public transport sector, which works exclusively with paint? This was the question faced by Fleetshield owner/director Jeroen van Son in 2001. He gave up his job as an international marketeer of industrial tape in order to become an entrepreneur in protective foil for trains and trams. “I literally started with an empty cupboard, an empty laptop and a completely new product.” One thing he knew from experience was never to sell the actual products but rather the added value they can offer. “I had to demonstrate the benefits of our product for the customer: smarter-looking coachwork and protection against graffiti. The latter costs public transport vast amounts of money.” But that wasn’t all that Van Son was selling. “Perhaps of even greater importance to customers is the time and costs they can save on cleaning and maintenance.”
It was pure pioneering for Van Son. While he was very familiar with the product category, the world of public transport was uncharted territory for him. He started googling to find the right contacts, which was how he found a train enthusiast who was able to explain how things work in public transport. But it turned out that Van Son was going to need more than a good sales pitch and the right contacts, with the decision-makers at public transport companies initially putting up a lot of resistance. “The foil meant that they wouldn’t have to paint the trains any more. While that was what put the shine on their job.” Despite this Van Son eventually managed to persuade public transport operators such as the municipal transport companies GVB and HTM (of Amsterdam and The Hague, respectively) and even Dutch Railways. He did so by using showcases. “Customers have to see with their own eyes how our product works. And so we had carriages wrapped in foil that they were then allowed to mess up and spray graffiti all over. That’s how they found out that the foil makes it easier to clean the rolling stock and that it stays looking good for longer afterwards. In addition they realised that our foil also provides protection against dirt from overhead power lines and dead insects. Enough arguments to persuade them to do business with us.”
An order from Dutch Railways proved to be the ultimate showcase for Fleetshield. “They asked if our foil could be printed in orange and with great photos of athletes. Dutch Railways were sponsors of the Dutch Olympic team at the time and wanted a special themed train. Of course the answer was yes! The request came in at the start of my holiday and so it turned into a working holiday.” The work more than paid off. “That Olympic train became our calling card: pictures of it brought more people on board than a thousand words ever could.” This contract really got the ball rolling in the Netherlands, with the wrapping of rolling stock slowly but surely becoming common practice for public transport companies.
Flush with this success but aware that public transport in the Netherlands is a relatively limited market, Fleetshield started to look further afield. The first country it set its sights on was Poland. This first attempt proved unsuccessful, partly because the tendering procedures make it a difficult market to access. Van Son: “Then a colleague suggested we try the Czech Republic and so we decided to prepare a business case accordingly. Precisely at that time we were able to participate in the Oranje Handelsmissie Fonds (Orange Trade Mission Fund), an initiative of ING and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Netherlands Enterprise Agency – RvO), amongst others. And we were one of the winning companies. ING and the RvO then advised us on our plans for the Czech Republic. ING allowed us to help decorate their new office in Prague. In addition they made contacts with Czechs.” According to Van Son the real breakthrough came when Fleetshield was invited to organise a seminar in Prague as winner of the Orange Trade Mission Fund. “This was a high-profile event at the embassy, with prominent speakers and a brief product demo. The combined effect of the award, the seminar and the showcases of specially decorated trains is what sets us apart from the vast range of providers in Eastern Europe. Thanks to the internet people who don’t know us are quickly able to get an impression of what we’re all about. YouTube shows who we are, often using footage that has been captured by other people.”
Van Son believes that Fleetshield is close to a breakthrough in Eastern Europe. “Opportunities are starting to open up there for innovation in old markets.” What does he mean by this? “Now that public transport companies are slowly but surely acquiring new rolling stock, there is a growing need to revamp the old rolling stock too. That’s where we come in.” However, patience remains of the essence, he said. “In each new geographical area you have to start from scratch again. It is quite a task to get to know the market and the customs and to find the right partners. Sometimes you get this last bit wrong, as initially happened to us in the Czech Republic. And the same applies to customers in every new country: seeing is believing.” Van Son is hopeful that a showcase for a Slovakian customer will also start the ball rolling in this region.
It would be wrong to suppose that this will be the end of Fleetshield’s pioneering days, with the public transport markets in Turkey and Scotland offering plenty more opportunities. Furthermore, the company also brings innovative products to the market under the Beautifoil, such as antibacterial foils for operating theatres and odour-absorbing foils for toilet blocks. Again featuring eye-catching prints. Van Son: “So once again you have the combination of protection and appearance. Although perhaps here we could also say: smelling is believing.”