A conversation with... Geert Lucas

On the way to a ‘smart factory’

Geert Lucas, former plant manager at the recently shuttered Philips Lighting factory in Emmen, the Netherlands, is standing in a building that resembles others belonging to the Dutch lighting giant. Look closer though and you see it’s not quite the copy-paste duplicate it first appears. Industria, the lighting company that built the factory and which was later taken over by Philips remains in the building’s DNA. The prominent blue and white Philips house style is no match.

Two weeks later, 1 January, 2017, and the Philips signage has gone. They’ve been replaced by signs for Chezz Partners – a high-tech group of SME companies specialising in industrial components, sensor technologies and wireless products. Chezz Partners plans to house two companies in the factory – Sustainder and Technologies Added – in the process taking the first steps towards creating the factory of the future. “We aim to be a Smart Factory, unique. The goal is to employ 50 people by the end of 2017,” says Geert Lucas, a hopeful smile crossing his face.

Sustainder Geert Lucas Emmen 20

Standing here now, in an empty production hall, it’s hard to imagine how it used to be. How many people once worked here?

“At the peak, about 240 people, working in shifts. In the glory years, we produced around 370,000 luminaires a year, which is a lot!”

When was the factory built?

“It was opened by a company called Industria Technische Verlichting [Industria Technical Lighting] in 1961. Industria was a Rotterdam company that set up in Emmen because of the cheap building ground, available subsidies and an attractive local labour market. Over the years, the company expanded its product portfolio and the factory produced public, tunnel, maritime and industrial lighting, among other advanced lighting solutions. We were a flexible organisation that was especially strong in project work and custom solutions. We [Lucas worked at Industria before Philips took it over, and him with it] combined hand-crafted with high-volume machine production.”

Sustainder Geert Lucas Emmen 4

And when Philips took the plant over, what happened then?

“Philips bought what was the then the best performing factory from the former owner (a company called Indal, which had previously taken over the plant). The takeover was supposed to provide a new lease of life, but shortly after, our R&D department was transferred to Philips Lighting’s central research department. Two years later Philips said it was shutting the plant and transferring production to lower-cost countries. It was a smack in the face that I had to deliver personally to the people here. I’d stood here in the good times; I had to be here in the bad times, too.”

That must have been an emotional moment?

“Certainly. It hits whole families. But there was no bitterness, just positive energy. We were a family and we were determined to find the best solution for everyone. We sought local and national support, but attempts to find a buyer failed. Then Chezz Partners came along, wanting to make a new start, housing two companies in the factory, Sustainder and Technologies Added.”

Sustainder Geert Lucas Emmen 23

Are Sustainder and Technologies Added a good fit for the skills here?

“Certainly. Sustainder develops and sells intelligent, energy-saving street lighting that can form the basis for advanced, smart city solutions for the control and management of public spaces. For Technologies Added, the factory will be converted into a high-tech, sustainable and environmentally friendly production facility that manufactures for a variety of technology companies.”

Sustainder Geert Lucas Emmen 14

Can some of the people who used to work here return?

So far, 18 former Philips workers are to return with either Sustainder or Technologies Added. We know that a number of others have found other work. Ultimately, the number of jobs here will depend on the success of the companies. Both companies will give priority to former employees when recruiting new staff, which I really welcome. I’ve always been impressed by the work ethos, the talent and the love of technology and products of the people who worked here.”

So the future’s looking bright?

“It’s certainly looking brighter than it was a year ago! We have an opportunity to create a new generation of advanced lighting products and map out a path to the smart factory of the future. That’s exciting, and we’re going to go for it!”