On American cruise ships, in hotels in the Middle East, and in 2014 even briefly at the ‘Stedelijk’ Museum in Amsterdam. Bathroom and toilet accessories by Geesa pop up all over the world. Success-story, an adventure story, a dream come true: it all applies to this Amersfoort business that has been around for 130 (!) years, and is still growing. Director Ben van der Steen: “We have a strong identity”.
“The dynamics of exporting won’t let go of you”
At Isselt Business Park in Amersfoort, a large grey building appears, looking almost bland. Nothing on its facade betrays anything about the mysterious world of bathroom accessories that hides behind it. But once inside, your eye is immediately drawn to the text ‘Poetry for your bathroom’, used as a slogan for one of the latest collections.
It says everything about the way they approach bathroom accessories at Geesa. In the words of director Van der Steen: “We love design, the combination of a beautiful design with a practical application”. This approach has won Geesa the mid-range and upper tier of the market. They are market leaders for professional users in the Netherlands – fitters and bathroom specialty stores – and in addition the company exports soap dishes, toilet roll holders, shaving mirrors, and toilet brush accessories – to take just a few examples of their wide offer – to as many as 65 countries.
Imagine Geesa started over 130 years ago as a small shop on the Krankeledenstraat in the Amersfoort centre. Founder Smink, a copper worker, manufactured items such as hot-water bottles and sprayers for weed killers. Two sons continued the business and took on the production of bathroom items, like chromed soap dishes, around 1930. This turned into their core-activity during the ‘60s.
Thus the Smink family anticipated the wide-spread building activities in the Netherlands in that period. Especially in the metropolitan area of the Randstad, houses popped up at a frenetic pace. As a consequence, the sanitary industry was also boosted, and as a result Geesa – an acronym for ‘Gebroeders (‘Brothers’) Smink Amersfoort’ – flourished. The following decade the company expanded and Geesa’s bathroom accessories started to shine in hotels and other types of accommodation in countries like Belgium, Germany, Greece, and the United Arab Emirates as well.
By now, Geesa’s products, mostly manufactured at the Amersfoort home base, travel around the world. The bathroom and toilet accessories hang or stand in over 1,000 hotels, and Geesa also supplies to cruise ships. Van der Steen: “We rode two major waves. One: bathrooms in Europe have increased both in size and in luxury. There’s more attention for wellness, the bathroom has become a more important subject for consumers. And two: the increase of hospitality projects, such as hotels and cruise ships world-wide”. But how come it was Geesa that succeeded at selling its products globally? “We’ve engaged the market with a strong proper identity. We are an A-brand, we focus on the upper and middle tiers, so we always focus on providing quality. That makes the difference. But also our ‘Dutch DNA’ is important, and we proudly propagate it. ‘Dutch design’ in another wrapping. Besides: we are reliable, we do what we promise.”
Art in the bathroom
It’s also a matter of innovating and daring to do business, states Van der Steen. Geesa thought the time was right in 2010, for example, to move even more towards the upper scales of the market. Van der Steen and his team, therefore, sought the collaboration of a renowned designer, Marcel Wanders. This is how the Haiku-collection ‘Poetry for in the bathroom’ was born. And its status as art has been approved. A selection of this series was exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2014, as part of the exposition ‘Marcel Wanders: Pinned Up’. “Collaborating with Wanders was a big step for us”, says Van der Steen. “And an important stimulus, too. Even in Indonesia, bells started to ring when we mentioned his name. We made our entry in fields where we hadn’t been yet, especially in high-end segment.”
Van der Steen, employed at the company for some 23 years, has travelled a lot. To conquer new markets, or to maintain existing relations. But, he says, as he’s pointing to the painting ‘Benny’ by Herman Brood in his office: “It might just as well have read: ‘Ben is not in’. I was often abroad, and that makes it difficult to manage a company, too. I am a lot more present on our production floor. We have two export managers that are on the road often. I’ve become the super-substitute. If it concerns a big, new project, or a French company, I get on the plane”.
It was, after all, his profound knowledge of the French language, acquired during his training to become a French teacher (“it wasn’t exactly the right profession for me, after all”), that introduced Van der Steen to the world of export. Initially at another company, later on at Geesa. Over there he expanded his global network at a high pace. How? “Adapt quickly, be flexible and easy in dealing with people. You encounter varying cultures and individuals. A Lebanese has different more than a Scandinavian. That’s what I find beautiful about exporting, but you have to know how to deal with it. We do. And in no time we can include our new contacts in the ‘Geesa-family’. By now, the entire organisation is used to the dynamics of exporting. I’d even say: it’s like a virus you won’t shake off anymore. Our lady at the switchboard isn’t going to jump at a call from abroad.”
During the Olympic Games in Sochi, Geesa supplied thousands of bathroom accessories to the Holland Heineken House, the Olympic Village, and the hotels in the surrounding areas. At the moment, the company is trying to get some more foothold in the U.S. And everything from our headquarters in good-old Amersfoort. It will stay that way. “We are rooted here, this is our spot.”