“Every time I visit the university, I return energised and inspired.” This is how Erik Joosten, CEO of Arion, kicks off our conversation. Last year, Arion took part in LimburgMakers, a programme that seeks to bring about a permanent improvement to the competitive capacity of manufacturing in Limburg.
Rarely, Joosten says, has he participated in a programme with so many immediately practicable elements: “The speakers, the workshops, the cross-fertilisation with other participants – it all contributed to the open and interactive character of the programme.”
The LimburgMakers was developed by NV Industriebank LIOF, the Chamber of Commerce and the Province of Limburg. Among its four pillars is an Innovation-Assistance programme keyed to “creating value through new or improved services,” run by the Maastricht University (UM) School of Business and Economics (SBE).
The programme helps product-oriented companies make the transition to expanded services through a two-pronged approach. To begin with, it uses value-based marketing projects in which SBE master’s students design tailored strategic business solutions. The second component is the Bootcamp, comprising five sessions in which participating companies are coached on new knowledge and insights.
Arion, an innovative company, is active on the international market for healthcare aids. “We’re the company behind The Slide Solution, the name of the family of donning aids that we’ve developed which reduce chafing along the leg when a patient puts on compression stockings, and the disposable washcloths and wipes (marketed under the brand name Swash), based on the concept of washing without water.”
With twenty years’ experience, including five with its own production facility, Arion has developed a strong focus on its own products. “We want to make our mark on innovation in healthcare through quality and service. The LimburgMakers programme ties in with this ambition perfectly.”
Joosten says he benefited enormously from both the Bootcamp with various workshops and the student project on value-based marketing. “The whole things works like a benchmark. We are all Limburg entrepreneurs engaged in manufacturing, which means we are all very product-focused. Of course, the customer is always at the back of our minds – after all, it’s thanks to them that we’ve gotten where we are now. But providing services that we get paid for is another challenge we face. We currently provide lots of service to our customers; we do it as a matter of course, and for free.”
Surrounded by other entrepreneurs, Joosten felt completely in his element. “At Arion, we work with an array of current models, ideas and principles. We are well on track. From that perspective, LimburgMakers was certainly an affirmative experience for us. But there were also real eye-openers, like the story of Anita van Gils, Associate Professor In Entrepreneurship and Family Business Management at UM, about how inner innovation, born of your own sense of drive, can work outwardly too. Innovation doesn’t always have to be outside-in; it can also be inside-out.”
For value-based marketing, the students researched how Arion can monetise service. “A number of teams set to work for us. All of them were extremely creative, without exception. The winning team surprised us with their approach. It was a very sobering experience for us, because we had never considered things from that perspective. We are currently exploring how to add paid services to our products, though it will be a while yet before we can market the combination in that way. But it has got us all thinking.”
For Joosten, the greatest gain from the student presentations may well be felt at his own company. “Ten of us attended the presentations and everyone was very impressed. The presentations were of an extraordinarily high level. And fair’s fair. Previously, Arion employees could sometimes be sceptical. But now everyone is immensely enthusiastic.”
For the students, the event was a great opportunity to get a taste of the real world, the world they will all be committed to eventually. Moreover, it’s a new generation, according to Joosten. “You really notice it. They have a high degree of independence, a fresh perspective, broad knowledge of new trends and models and they make connections quickly. That’s why we’ve hired a number of young graduates at Arion in the past few years. Apart from LimburgMakers, we also take part in other programmes and training courses. We attended the PREMIUM project twice, and currently we are participating in the Strategic Performance Analysis training course given by Dr Alexander Brüggen (of SBE). And in the past year we took the Business Innovation and Sustainable Development course. Each time, we realise the importance of working with young know-how. It keeps us fresh as a company.”