The family business Merak manages the strategic mouth mask stocks for the Belgian government. “I can’t imagine anything going wrong with it.”
“So, this is it,” says Henrik Rooms. He owns the Belgian Merak, specialized in archive management and storage of materials. We are in a hangar in Hoogstraten, between thousands of wooden boxes. Two football fields full, stacked 10 meters high, filled with protective materials.
“Those are the government’s strategic stocks. In recent weeks, six containers have arrived here every day, leaving almost 200 million face masks. And gloves, aprons, face shields, you name it. ‘
In competition with Katoen Natie, among others, Merak obtained the storage contract from the Ministry of Health in the spring. It decided to build up strategic stocks for the coming years, after the debacle with the face masks at the start of the pandemic.
Then it turned out that the strategic supplies of mouth masks – of the best type – had been destroyed. They were badly preserved and no longer usable. Stocks were never replenished. As a result, a lack of protective equipment and a lot of misery in the hospitals and residential care centers during the first corona wave.
‘I don’t know exactly what went wrong then. Face masks are fragile, but we do everything we can to keep them in good condition. The humidity here remains continuously below 60 percent. There is also pest control, an alarm system and fire protection. I can’t imagine anything going wrong unless a plane crashes into our buildings. ‘
Merak will store and dispatch the materials for the next four years. ‘We have just received a list of 30 addresses – hospitals and others – that we have to deliver with our own couriers. Those stocks are then replenished. ‘
This can yield Merak up to 1 million euros annually. It is the largest contract for the company, which has 2,000 customers and a turnover of 17 million euros. “If that contract is canceled, it won’t get us into trouble,” says Rooms.
Two years ago, Rooms invested 11 million euros in Hoogstraten, the group’s seventh and by far the largest storage space. ‘To be honest, I never dreamed it would fill up so quickly. I have to say I’m glad we got this in. ‘
Paper is on its way back, that’s clear. But it continues to flow to us.
The contract will absorb the shrinkage of other activities – mainly archive management. ‘Due to corona we hardly receive any new orders. People are out of the office and don’t bother to get the paper archive out. It’s quieter. But thanks to the government contract, everyone has remained active. ‘
In the 1980s, Rooms and his father launched Merak. He was barely 24 years old at the time. My father saw potential in it. He saw that I had not yet given direction to my life, and asked if I wanted to participate. I had just made a long journey through Asia, so it took some adjustment, ‘he says. ‘It was not easy to work together at first, but we quickly understood each other’s capabilities.’
> Turnover (consolidated): 17 million euros, of which 14 million in the Belgian branch.
> Operating profit (Belgian activities): 1.3 million euros.
> Net profit: 0.7 million euros.
> Employees: 130, including independent couriers.
> Locations: 11, in Belgium (7), the Netherlands (2) and Switzerland (3).
> Activities: archive management, data management, digitization of company mail and storage of materials.
> Customers: 2,000, including Crelan, Indaver and VRT.
Merak – named after a star from the Big Dipper – started in a warehouse with space for 100,000 boxes. ‘The beginning was difficult. Everywhere we went, they already had a solution for their archive. In the cellar or a shed. Then try to convince a company to pay for it. In Europe this was not yet evident at the time. For many it was still science fiction. But it worked. And every time a building was full, we thought we had reached the limit. But every time something crazier followed. ‘
Merak keeps almost 2 million archive boxes. Put them next to each other and you get from Brussels to Lyon. Boxes full of papers for taxes, personnel files, hospital records about patients, information about the research of pharmaceutical companies, and so on. ‘Each box contains 4,000 pages. Do the math. ‘
The company has 2,000 customers, including VRT, Crelan, Santander, a hospital in Torhout and the publishing house Sanoma. ‘We also kept all the newspapers from De Tijd here for a long time.’ Most contracts, however, remain secret. Rooms points to his mouth mask, with the image of a zipper. “Shut up,” he says.
He does not immediately think of another large new building. ‘I want to reduce the debts first. I want to grow, but I don’t have an enormous urge to expand. I leave it to my children if they want to take further steps abroad. ‘
Future without paper
Rooms now focuses on the development of new concepts. Stock management for companies, for example. The first customers for electronics and office supplies have already arrived. Merak also targets private individuals, with storage boxes in all sizes. ‘For expats who are away for a few years and want to keep their household effects. Or composite families who suddenly have everything double and cannot yet say goodbye. You can store everything in it, except for fireworks and petrol. ‘
In this way, Rooms tries to prepare a future in which paper will play a smaller role. ‘Paper is on its way back, that’s clear. But it continues to flow to us. Many companies empty their basements and store their archives with us. When they request certain documents, we digitize them. That is more efficient than digitizing everything at once like crazy. I think we will have more work than ever for the next 10-15 years. Then it will descend more quickly and come to an end. ‘
Secret bunker as the opposite of the cloud
At a secret location in Belgium, Merak keeps backups of data and computer systems for a number of multinationals. 9 meters underground, between meter-thick concrete walls, protected against a plane crash. In sealed cases, in a safe, with a Faraday cage around it for ultimate protection against magnetic rays.
Henrik Rooms is not allowed to name customers – ‘big boys’ – by name, but former customers such as Procter & Gamble and Sabena. ‘In an emergency there was a recovery plan to deliver the tapes by helicopter.’ says Rooms.
‘With our bunker we are the opposite of the cloud. There are techniques to shield online data, but hackers are becoming more and more inventive. It is almost impossible to overcome all new dangers quickly enough. Offline backups are the only way to protect you. You should see an offline backup as fire insurance. You hope you never need them, but if something happens, you are glad you have them. ‘