Report on European Linen for TextilWirtschaft home 01/16 / Photo: Jonathan Levy
(extract) We arrive at the little town of Meulebeke near Gent. It is home to Libeco, a living tribute and testimony to the tradition and quality of European linens. Founded almost 160 years ago, the company shares its history with many old-established textiles firms that started out as merchants and, following the onset of industrialization, invested in more modern forms of production. While, however, the majority of them sought to return to trading once confronted by the pressures of cheaper competition from the Far East back in the 1970s, Libeco resolved to scale the hurdles of progress and to stick to its core business – linen weaving.
The looms in Meulebeke have, in fact, never produced anything else. The heavy machines stand side by side in a huge hall, weaving firmer linen on the left and fine linen on the right, with a total annual output of 5 million square metres. Every item produced is subsequently checked and, where necessary, mended by hand, a process that would appear to take almost as long as the weaving itself. Tweezers and a needle are used to either draw out protruding yarn slubs or to reinsert them into the fabric. Finishing is done by a partner company in the region, after which – following a final quality inspection by Libeco – it is dispatched to customers or placed in the stockroom as NOS merchandise waiting to be shipped to its chosen destination.
With many an elegant turn of phrase, Raymond Libeert (photo) talks us through the history of the brand, which is at the same time that of his family. It is a rollercoaster ride, in the course of which one never, however, stops believing it will end safely. He speaks of the revolution brought about by the first mechanical looms and of the difficult times after the second world war. He praises the courage displayed by his father when, during the worst-ever slump in sales, which occurred in the 1960s, he summoned up all of his financial reserves to modernize the plant, with the help of which Libeco was able to launch a new generation of products that gave it a foothold in the USA. He stresses how hard it was to stick to linen when, in the 1970s, this material was unable to keep up with synthetic fabrics while, at the same time, the opening of eastern Europe, was flooding markets with cheaper products. Back then, Libeco responded by extending its product portfolio. In response to what was the most recent crisis, the company in 1997 merged with weaving mill Lagae, based in the same town, which specialized in fine linen, thus catering to the needs of a new segment. This further diversification, yet also the cost savings on the production side, such as that deriving from shared warehousing, consolidated the business.
The story of Libeco is an illustrated textbook history of the best examples of anticyclical business policy, according to which one saves when times are good in order to invest during more sluggish periods. A method that makes perfect sense – a cyclist starts pedalling again once the bike loses momentum – and yet is employed far too rarely. This might well be because it takes courage to consider one’s own path to be the right one, when confirmation from outside fails to materialize in the first instance. Today, Libeco has annual sales of €40m – sufficient confirmation, one might surmise. Raymond Libeert, for his part, displays a healthy indifference vis-à-vis market movements. “It is said that seven years of plenty are generally followed by seven lean years. That’s just the way of the world, and our job is to find the best possible means of dealing with this pattern of the way things tend to go.” (...)