Thor Park has attracted a lot of media attention in recent months. Investments to expand the campus, the appointment of a CEO, the arrival of the Smart Manufacturing Campus,… Major milestones that accelerate the developments on site. High time to stop and get to know the face behind Thor Park.
Let’s introduce you to Joris Merckx. 56 years old, born and raised in Leuven, biomedical engineer by training, travelled the world for his career in international business, now lands (again) in Genk and sets foot in the business, science and technology site Thor Park as CEO.
What is the ambition of the CEO, the face of Thor Park?
Merckx: *Laughs* ‘Yes, that’s what they say. A CEO is the face of… I see myself as the single and central point of contact. Thor Park has a long history as former mining site. Over the years, under the impulse of various stakeholders such as LRM, the city of Genk and KU Leuven, Thor Park has been transformed into a magnificent site with strong players like EnergyVille, IncubaThor, T2-campus and Thor Central. Thor Park is also a public attraction for nature and hiking enthusiasts. It’s a constant balancing act for me to coordinate these facilities. I want to develop a well-defined strategy, formulate a clear vision and set up a long-term planning with concrete action points for Thor Park. It’s also my ambition to put Thor Park on the map in my international network, because companies that may not seem to fit here at first glance, are showing an interest in Thor Park.’
“We are doing something very unique at Thor Park, which generates interest in my international network.”
You mention an international network. How did you end up in Genk?
Merckx : ‘I can already look back on a long career… Let’s rewind to the very beginning. I started as a technical and commercial sales representative at Henkel’s metal chemistry department. At that time, I worked three days a week at the Ford plant in Genk. I quickly built an international career in the industry and held various management positions. I moved to France and later to Germany where I became CEO of Chemetall GmbH from 2007 to 2017, a company active in 51 countries. After that I worked as an independent consultant for several private equity firms as well as some German and American chemical companies. I travelled around the world for my career, always on the move. In March 2020, COVID-19 literally made me stop and the opportunity at Thor Park crossed my path. So here I am, back in Genk, where my professional career once started… Thor Park is quite a unique site. There’s no other place like this in Belgium nor – I would venture to say – in Europe. This new environment has an entirely different ecosystem with other dynamics. That makes it a challenge. And I like that!’
A lot of travelling and a lot of management baggage. What else do you have in your suitcase that needs to be unpacked?
Merckx: ‘The Japanese management philosophy Lean Manufacturing includes the principles of 5S. I was known for my own interpretation of that concept*laughs*. (1) Speed is the first S. I like things to be done quickly and correctly. Create a flow in the operations, which brings me seamlessly to (2) (keep it) short & simple. I come from a German business culture with a lot of hierarchy and processes. I always try to simplify. The third S stands for (3) self-confidence. I believe that you need to be aware of your own competences and qualities, but also of your lesser points. It’s pure class if you can deal with that consistently. Next comes (4) seriousness. Not so much about yourself, but about the business you’re in. Putting things into perspective is also essential. There will always be something bigger, more powerful, more beautiful, wider, deeper,… And finally, there’s (5) (team) spirit. Optimal team dynamics is extremely important to me. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has thrown a spanner in the works. Thor Central has such great lunch restaurants. My two colleagues and I used to go there for a chat over a glass of beer.’
Team spirit… Obviously, you don’t do this all on your own. What are you and team Thor planning for Thor Park?
Merckx: ‘Besides the overall development of the site, we want to take Thor Park to the next level with the inauguration of the Smart Manufacturing Campus. With this brand new campus, we want to bring the manufacturing industry back to our country. And by we I mean my colleagues Erwin Junius and Gabriële Buglione. Erwin works as a Project Manager Industry 4.0. and specialises in the factory of the future, which is a tremendous added value in the development and construction of the Smart Manufacturing Campus. This unique project attracts interesting companies. Erwin uses his expertise to examine the technical feasibility of the company concerned. Just think of the installations and equipment that must be made available to those companies. As Business Development Manager, Gabriële takes care of all marketing and sales activities, PR and rebranding. He also actively prospects the manufacturing and energy companies, from start-ups to mature companies and everything in between. He strives for a close community between the various islands of research, education and entrepreneurship. He analyses the needs, desires and demands of the different players to get the ball rolling.’
“As team Thor, Erwin, Gabriële and myself put our weight behind this socially relevant project to transform Thor Park into a magnet for innovative companies.”
You talk about ‘attracting start-ups’. What would you like to say to them? Why is Thor Park the place to be?
Merckx: ‘There’s so much I want to say to them… *laughs* To keep it short, I will focus on three main arguments. First of all, what immediately leaps to the eye when driving into Thor Park is a particularly attractive and green work environment. Less apparent, but no less prominent, are the stakeholders behind the park, namely LRM, KU Leuven and the city of Genk. A second asset is the great entrepreneurial community at IncubaThor. The resident companies each have their own competences in domains that can be very useful for the activities of the companies on the Smart Manufacturing Campus, from developing an idea to making a product ready for production. And last but not least, starting in the manufacturing industry becomes a real possibility at Thor Park. It’s quite expensive to invest in machines, tools, equipment,… This often constitutes a barrier to smart manufacturing start-ups, so we lower the threshold for them. Thor Park is also the first regulatory sandbox for energy in Flanders. The campus acts as a living lab where companies can test their technologies in real-life conditions.’
“By the end of 2022, the announced smart manufacturing building will be ready. Start-ups and mature companies can indulge to their heart’s content in labs where processes for digitisation and robotisation can be developed and tested. Starters no longer have to wait, for the entrepreneurial community thrives at IncubaThor.”