“Simply having a strategy is not enough: you need to have a raison d’être”


Thanks to Vieille Montagne, zinc appeared in the middle of the 19th century. And just a few decades later, it had become a core product for a rigorous professional community: that of roofers. This is the thrust of what Mr. Jean-Marie Tong reminded me of a few weeks ago. Mr. Tong is a marvellous, highly skilled Belgian roofer and major zinc specialist (only VMZINC!), but also a fine connoisseur of the Vieille Montagne company’s history in Liège.

In the run up to our company’s 180th anniversary on 24 May this year (1837 – 2017), my conversation with Mr. Tong was particularly relevant. How did zinc succeed in accomplishing the unrivalled feat of becoming indispensable so quickly? How did Vieille Montagne (today called VMZINC for newcomers to my blog!) contribute to this notoriety?

Understanding the past always prepares the present and predisposes for the future!

Well-marketed versatility: the pioneering DNA of Vieille Montagne

I met Jean-Marie Tong during one of my recent trips to Belgium for the Vieille Montagne Directorial House renovation project in La Calamine. His family-run zinc-roofing business, based in Crisnée, has worked on numerous heritage projects (see a video on the company on vmzincatwork.be)

Jean-Marie Tong and his sons have in-depth knowledge of the original zinc installation techniques developed by the Vieille Montagne engineers at the end of the 19th century. Especially the patented roll cap roofing technique that Mr. Tong still regularly uses on numerous historic Belgian monuments.

His role as a teacher (building trades school) allows him to put the use of different roofing materials over several centuries into perspective. “You know”, he said to me, “zinc is a young material in terms of construction history. Unlike tiles, slate, copper and lead, some of which have been used since antiquity. Because they have been around for so long, these materials are well known by roofers. Know-how was passed down from generation to generation.”

It was different with zinc. This new material suddenly appeared at the beginning of the 19th century. Everything had to be created and invented. In a little less than fifty years (between 1810 and 1850), assembly & fixing techniques and installation methods were established with the emerging profession of zinc-roofers, which today is considered as ancient!

As Mr Tong reminded me: “this feat was possible largely thanks to the Vieille Montagne company, which was directly involved in the creation and development of zinc applications and supported professionals in the design of roofs and installation of the material.”

I can corroborate this because as soon as an abundant supply of quality zinc was made available to roofing professionals, the Vieille Montagne engineers were constantly proposing systems and solutions to meet almost any situation that could be encountered on a roof!

Jean-Marie Tong and I browsed through the old Vieille Montagne catalogues. Like myself, he has some very old issues (*) that provide a wealth of inspiration and demonstrations of this approach, which was unique for the period. One publication in particular – “zinc roofing”, published in the United States in 1851 (see attached photo) gives a very clear explanation of everything that can be done with this new material. The involvement of engineers and the production of professional documents demonstrate the power of what is now called marketing, the pioneering and very deliberate marketing by Vieille Montagne of its offer.

(*) Further reading: “the first practical sheet metal work guide by Mr. Eugène Smits (engineer with Vieille Montagne and teacher at the school of plumbing and sheet metal work in Liège) in 1904 and the “Instructions Pratiques”, magnificent works of reference published as early as 1881, whose drawings alone enabled roofers to install easily and flawlessly.”

What have we been doing better than others for the last 180 years?

As we are preparing to celebrate the 180th anniversary of Vieille Montagne on 24 May next, I asked myself the following question: What have we been doing differently from others over the last 180 years that has made us the leading player on the market to this day?

It was an article published by the Harvard Business School last December that got me thinking: “Simply having a strategy is not enough: you need to have a raison d’être”. This fascinating paper concluded with this enlightening questionnaire:

“To ascertain if a company has a raison d’être, just ask its director three questions:

  • If your company disappeared, who would really miss it (apart from you)?
  • Which clients would miss it most and why?
  • How long would it take for a competitor to fill the gap?

When the answers are “no one”, “none” and “very little time”, the company has no raison d’être. This questionnaire and its conclusions are obviously rather simplistic but they do get straight to the point!

Personally, and after more than three decades with this company in diverse roles (commercial, marketing and communication director among others), I think our raison d’être cannot be summed up by a simple technical or commercial skill focused on zinc, nor by the aesthetics of our products or their applications. For me it is inherent in the fact that zinc and our systems can be used to manage rainwater runoff and prevent, by all means necessary, the latter from getting inside buildings.

I think that you – zinc-roofers – would have a lot to say on this subject. Please don’t hold back, because the rapid success of zinc is intrinsically linked to the skills of the roofer and inversely the roofer’s skill is linked to our skill as an industrial. Zinc allows what other materials do not – tiles, slate, membranes, aluminium (the latter in particular, which is not welded on-site is considered far less reliable by installers, in particular because aluminium junctions must be made using gluing and riveting).

In conclusion, here is a summary of VMZINC’s raison d’être:

“VMZINC is specific in that, focusing from the beginning on the unique qualities of the rolled zinc for which we are production specialists and a broad offer of solutions and services, more than anyone else we have created and continue to create an ecosystem involving the entire chain of players - including zinc-roofers - with a view to ensuring the long-term prevention of rainwater in all its forms entering buildings via their envelope.”

Roger Baltus
Engineer - Architect
VMZINC Communication Director

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