When you're already among the bigger players, it's hard to grow further domestically. Hence, we are moving more and more abroad.

In the spotlight: Thorough and complex foundation work

Earlier this year, Ostend-based company Soetaert celebrated its anniversary. It all began in 1922 as a general contractor, and 100 years later the company has become an international expert in the field of foundations. Since 2015, the company has been flying under the wings of Jan De Nul, but the family DNA among its 200 employees remains.
This text is a translation of the article 'In de kijker: Grondig en complex funderingswerk'
Source: Embuilders, January 2024 - Edition 2, Embuild West-Flanders


It is Director Pieter Nagels and Operational Manager Jan Landuyt who talk to us about Soetaert's rich history. “Soetaert started as a general contractor just after WWI, when there was a lot of reconstruction work to do," they start the conversation. “Back then it was mostly about civil works like bridges and tunnels, which always involved a large part of foundation work as well. That's how that specialization came about. In 2003, the company was acquired by Peter Caset, who was strongly committed to growth. The company began to hit its limits, and in 2015 it was acquired by Jan De Nul. A win-win, because the Group did not yet have a foundation company and, moreover, for Soetaert the acquisition meant a big financial boost. This helped us to invest strongly in new techniques, including several developed in-house. We can provide a solution for any foundation question. We are known as the most versatile expert in foundations and belong to the top 3 foundation companies in Belgium.”

Soetaert undertakes more than 100 construction projects each year and generates nearly 60 million euros in turnover. Every day it has 25 teams on the job. 80% of the work is performed for other contractors, 20% for Jan De Nul. A great reference is the new VRT building, which has 6 floors above ground and 6 below. “I am not easily impressed, but the excavation of 100 meters wide, 100 meters long and 20 meters deep, left me speechless for a moment," Jan laughs. Soetaert is also active in the Flemish ports and in the energy sector, including foundation works for a new gas plant for Engie, wind turbine foundations and the infrastructure piling to bring sea cables from offshore wind turbines ashore. In addition to those domestic projects, internationalization is increasingly prevalent. “When you're already among the bigger players, it's hard to grow further domestically. Hence, we are moving more and more abroad under the wings of Jan De Nul. In recent years, we have already carried out projects in Ghana, Guyana, Poland, Panama, France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom.”

Training on the job

The company employs about 40 employees and 160 labourers. “Because we do such specialized work, our sites are almost exclusively staffed by our own people. We train them all on the job. They start off working with a simple pump and grow to work with different machines. That flexibility is a win-win: they get the necessary variety in their job and we can adjust the schedule more easily to the market.” And although this may no longer be a family business, there is certainly still a family atmosphere here. “We have certain 'clans' whose fathers and sons (in law) work here" .

Training is high on the agenda. “We greatly stress the importance of a solid training. We also play a leading role in the trade association in this regard. We make complex structures and so people need to know exactly what they are doing. They must take into account changing circumstances repeatedly: a different subsoil, diameter, reinforcement,….”

No serial work

That complexity is a challenge, of course, but they love it at Soetaert. “Serial work is not our thing. Clients can come to us for the total package of a construction pit: groundworks, piling, dewatering, injections, ... Recently, we even started offering geothermal energy. We are not an executive subcontractor; we like to think also about such complex cases. There are not many players who can handle the size and depths of our projects. And thanks to our large in-house fleet, we can guarantee short execution times.”

Technological evolutions are also a hot topic in this sector. “Our machines are equipped with technology that takes measurements automatically, things that had to be done manually before. The reporting of all kinds of parameters is especially important to ensure quality. This is what clients want.” Soetaert not only invests in new technology, but also innovates. “Our people have a good sense of what is going on in the market and what main contractors might have problems with. We are trying to find solutions for that. Thus, we regularly test out innovations from and for our suppliers.”

Ready for the future

Thanks to the major investments of recent years - both in equipment and the Ostend site - Soetaert is ready for the future. “We also have a high-performance technical department that knows every machine like the back of its hand. Our gigantic stock with nearly 12,000 tons of sheet piles is also a great asset. The fact that our site is located near the water is also a bonus. For example, we transport large machinery by water rather than by road, saving both time and a large number of trucks on the road. And that, in turn, is good for our carbon footprint.”

Embuilders - Januari 2024 Editie 2 - Grondig en complex funderingswerk

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When you're already among the bigger players, it's hard to grow further domestically. Hence, we are moving more and more abroad.

Pieter Nagels

Director Soetaert nv