SNAPSHOT2022 Jan 31, 2022

“Sustainability is at the heart of our business”, says Patrick Vermeulen, Umicore

Aurelie Favresse

In 1806, Napoleon granted a concession to exploit a zinc mine to an inventor in Liege. Two hundred years later, Umicore is one of Gumption group’s most loyal clients. Snapshot caught up with its CIO Patrick Vermeulen.

Does the name Jean-Jacques Daniel Dony ring any bells? Probably not. But we’ll forgive you for that because Dragon’s Den was a long way off from being created when Dony invented a process for the industrial production of pure zinc. Napoleon himself – aka Little Boney to the Brits – granted the Liège citizen a mining concession for the zinc mine of Vieille-Montagne, the earliest incarnation of Umicore. Two hundred years later, Umicore is one of Gumption group’s most loyal clients. Snapshot caught up with its CIO Patrick Vermeulen.

When you want to talk about things that span an era, you need to reach out to someone who has quite a few miles on the clock. Like Patrick Vermeulen. Back in his day, there were no university degrees in IT, so he studied mathematics with a specialisation in statistics and information technology. As a young lad, he started work in the IT team of Metallurgie Hoboken-Overpelt, later known as Union Minière. Shortly after the company became Umicore, he continued his career as Group Controller Recycling. Only to return to his first love in 2012. In 2016, he swapped his Vice-President IT Business Applications business card for that of Senior Vice-President IT.

Circular model
"Umicore has undergone a real metamorphosis since the turn of the century," says Patrick. "Umicore is a pioneer in sustainability. More than that, it has turned this into a competitive advantage. Historic core activities were split off, including copper and zinc. The company shifted its focus to innovative material technology and recycling, and invested heavily in research and development. The result, expansive growth. Today, you can find us on all continents, with 48 production sites and 15 R&D sites – mostly in Europe and Asia. Not many Belgian companies can say this."

"Umicore is organised in business groups and business units around strategic development themes. Think of emission control, the rollout of e-mobility strategies and raw material scarcity. We occupy a unique market position in these areas. For instance, we develop catalysts that reduce NOx emissions of combustion engines. Or materials for the rechargeable battery of your electric car or tablet PC."

"Our circular model is central in our approach. We recover and recycle 20 precious and special metals. To give an example, besides rhodium, a catalyst also contains palladium and/or platinum. At the end of the life cycle, we recover these metals almost entirely: we use them to make new catalysts. More than 60 percent of the input materials come from our recycling business. That percentage rises every year. Materials for a better life, reads our tagline. But feel free to add for a longer life. Sustainability is at the heart of our business."

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Template approach is paying off
Did the IT platforms undergo a similar transformation? "Absolutely. The sharpened focus and expansion forced us to accelerate the standardisation of business applications and infrastructure. Most Umicore sites had been using SAP for sales, operations, and finance for some time. But there was no unified approach until 2012. An assessment highlighted problem areas. Some sites were using old versions that were no longer supported. The approach based on SAP templates gained momentum. That’s when the collaboration with TheValueChain began."

"When choosing a partner, people’s expertise is the deciding factor for me. Back then, TheValueChain already scored high in this area. We knew a couple of people in the team. Others had great credentials too. From the get-go, they worked in tandem with our own SAP people. We have been building knowledge together like this for many years. I appreciate their flexibility, and willingness to travel to the farthest corners of the planet – although, I suspect some of them quite like doing so. Also great: since the pandemic, they have been carrying out the same activities with equal dedication in homeworking mode."

"Today, we are managing SAP centrally. We have 7,000 SAP users worldwide. The process owners, on the IT and process side, are all based in Belgium. It’s unacceptable to us that SAP would lead a separate life ten thousand kilometres away. The template approach is paying off. We are currently also preparing the migration to S/4HANA with TheValueChain."

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Umicore is a pioneer in sustainability.

Account management for internal customers
“Obviously, our IT organisation does a lot more than just SAP. We want to provide as much added value as possible to the business units – that’s a top priority. Our global team consists of 135 employees, of whom 70 work in Hoboken, Belgium. They support a wide range of business applications, including Microsoft Office 365, SuccessFactors for HR, several BI & analytics technologies, an MES and a LIMS system. We also have an infrastructure team dedicated to server infrastructure, security, end user computing & service desk and managed services.”

How does the team respond to the business needs? “Our three Business Application Directors play a key role in this. They are in close contact with the Business Units. I sometimes compare them to account managers. They discuss future plans, points for improvement and challenges with their internal customers. I carry out a similar role for the Supervisory & Management Board. The Business Application Directors run all plans and ideas by each other and the infrastructure teams.”

Digitisation team
“Our IT team doesn’t quite have the expertise in Industry 4.0. Linking machines and devices, reading data, gaining insights into what is happening, optimising processes ... All this is the bread and butter of the engineers on the shop floor and in R&D. They combine their feeling for IT and analytics with specialist job and process knowledge. Through a separate specialist team, they work with new digital technologies. They identify the needs of the business units and create road maps with them. For the implementation, they draw on the competencies of our IT organisation.”

“A CTO manages the digitisation team. He is assisted by a SteerCo, in which the business groups, the CFO and IT are represented. Together with his team, we realised a project in 2020 using Remote Eyes, for instance. Engineers can provide technical support through augmented reality and smart glasses – useful for when you can’t physically work on site. We implemented solutions for quality control with image recognition, robotic automation for administrative processes, Internet of Things for process control etc.”

Expansion forced us to accelerate the standardisation.

Tips from a veteran
“As an IT organisation, it’s important to know your limits. I remember the time when we were rolling out the digital workplace, based on Microsoft Office 365, SharePoint, and Teams, among other things. In an organisation of 11,000 employees, that’s not straightforward. How do you get everyone on board? How do you make optimal use of the technology? Communication is essential. Not exactly IT’s strong point. Luckily, HR and Group Communication have a lot of expertise in training and change processes. With their help, we set up a network of 500 digital heroes. Thanks to them, the platform is being successfully used across all segments of the company.”

All good interviews must come to an end. Time’s up, Patrick indicates. One final tip from a veteran? He is quick to answer. “Technology and innovation are crucial to our growth, just like differentiation. On the suggestion of the communication department, we introduced reverse mentoring. Young people advise our management board. Makes a difference. A must-try!”

And, whatever happened to Dony?
In 1810, Napoleon granted Dony an imperial decree to produce zinc. Grateful, Dony gave him a zinc bust and bathtub. In 1809, he set up a zinc factory in Liège, which makes him the founder of the zinc industry in Belgium. Sadly, it soon became clear that the investment costs had been too high. In 1819, Dony went bankrupt. And yet: we are immensely proud of you, Jean-Jacques Daniel!

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