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Van der Valk Systemen: a happy marriage between greenhouse construction and solar panels

In the ‘Family-run businesses in solar energy’ series, Solar Magazine visited Hans van der Valk. His company, Van der Valk Systemen, grew to be a major player in greenhouse construction, and now also has an established reputation in solar energy.

Van der Valk Solar Systems was founded in 2009. Since then, the company has grown into the market leader in the Netherlands for mounting systems for PV systems. This success story is not comparable to that of the many other solar energy companies established when the PV market began and took off with explosive growth. Its foundation lies in the distant past, in an entirely different sector in which Van der Valk gained international fame: greenhouse construction.

Acceleration

In the Netherlands the first greenhouses were built around 1850. The constructions were simple; open glass canopies that were placed against the wall. At the turn of that century, the first closed, heated greenhouses were developed. It took another 40 years before they were built side by side. This steady development of the sector started accelerating in the 1960s, when upscaling and short growth cycles became the standard.

Wood, steel and glass

‘My father Bernard founded his greenhouse construction company, Kassenbouwbedrijf B.P. van der Valk, in 1960,’ reminisced Hans van der Valk. ‘He worked from a small greenhouse measuring 18 m2 and was part of a chain of a large number of specialists: construction companies laid the foundations, painters painted, electrotechnical companies installed the ventilation system. We supplied wood, steel and glass and built the greenhouses. I joined the company in 1963 at the age of 15, with my brand-new carpentry diploma from the Technical School. Together with my 3 brothers I worked in construction for years. But carrying out that work was not what I felt passionate about. I wanted to innovate.’

Fortune

Hans’ talent for innovation and entrepreneurship first manifested when he developed a split pin to replace the nuts and bolts used to hold the greenhouse construction together. That led to considerable time savings in the heavy work and thus expense. There was clearly a market for them, and money to be made. ‘A nut and bolt cost 12 guilder-cents in those days. I bought aluminium rivets for 3 guilder-cents and milled them myself in the evenings. The product soon drew the attention of other greenhouse builders. I sold the first 1,000 for 12 guilder-cents each. Suddenly, at 17 years old, I had 120 guilders in my pocket. That was a fortune for someone who did not receive any salary until he was 21. And if I sold 5,000 or 10,000…?’

Passion and returns

While Hans’ brothers continued to concentrate on building greenhouses, he turned into a technological innovator who kept on producing inventions that facilitated cost reductions and higher crop yields for the sector. That was what he was passionate about and, apparently, it had the highest returns. Ultimately, this resulted in the official founding of Van der Valk Systems in 1992. Hans bought out his brothers and ran the company further on his own, becoming both the producer and supplier of components and systems. The company now has 108 employees, supplies assembly work for another 200 people in social workplaces and is considered a top brand in the worldwide horticultural sector. In the past decade it has also established a reputation in the solar energy sector.

Huge

Hans explained, ‘It all started in 2007 with the development of a new screen system to go on greenhouses. The retracting mechanism had to be protected against the elements. If we used solar panels for that purpose, you could kill two birds with one stone – since the sector is becoming increasingly energy-intensive and wants to be more sustainable. Given that idea, we developed a solar panel measuring 20 by 160 cm together with Scheuten Solar. We supplied it as an option with our screen systems. During the development process, we became aware of how huge the solar energy market could become and, even more important, that we had a lot to offer that sector. That led in 2009 to the start of Van der Valk Solar Systems.’

Passion and commitment

It is easy to imagine a bridge between greenhouses and PV systems. Both constructions are exposed to the weather and wind. They must remain in one piece, while being lightweight. There were also major advantages to be gained in ease of installation, in terms of speed, quality and safety. ‘We were not impressed by the mounting systems that were available at the time,’ said Hans. ‘We could make enormous improvements based on our knowledge and experience. In addition, the components could be manufactured with our existing and self-developed machinery. We entered the market with lots of passion and commitment as a R&D company. As a result, Van der Valk Solar Systems developed into the Mercedes of the mounting systems for PV systems. But that is just one side of the story that brought us success in my opinion.’

Smile on their faces

‘If it feels like work, then it is not good. If you’re doing it for the money, then you’ll never finish it. Knowledge must be able to flow freely. I want to see a smile every day on the faces of everyone working here.’ These are just a few of the many one-liners with which Hans describes the character of his family-run concern. This is what gives it such strength in his opinion. ‘We do this because we enjoy it, not just for the satisfaction of the directors and managers, but for the satisfaction of everyone. We develop innovative solutions and produce them on a large scale; in this way we create our own market and earn money. But we know for whom we are doing it: the installers who work with our systems. We serve them, not the other way around. That is the starting point of our product development, service, delivery method, design tool… It is also expressed in other activities like a programme of knowledge sessions addressing a range of themes such as safety, insurability, technology and methodology.’

Family

In 2021 Van der Valk Solar Systems has a 30% market share in the Netherlands of roof-related projects. It is also expanding fast in various European countries like Spain, Sweden and the UK, and in neighbouring Belgium and Germany. The future seems geared towards international expansion. The site in Monster in the Westland region covers 3.5 hectares, with 20,000 m2 of buildings. On an adjoining plot, construction will start soon on an additional production location of another 6,000 m2.

There are still more plans to construct a logistics hall covering 20,000 m2. This will support further growth until 2040. By then, someone else will be managing the company, although the word pension does not appear in the vocabulary of the now 72-year-old Hans. The family will ensure that the company keeps going. The shares are in the family’s hands. His 2 daughters each have their own company in another sector. One of the sons-in-law is closely involved in all activities as supervisory director and strategic advisor. And the oldest of the 6 grandchildren are already regularly involved in the production.

 

Source: Solar Magazine

‘The Van der Valk DNA is rooted in this company. We have an excellent management. This will ensure the continuity of the company. In addition, the people working here feel like family. That reassures me so I can come here every day full of energy and do what I do best.’