Two years after being taken over by entrepreneur Bruno Pani, the former Cercle de Lorraine has become a social club with ex-Delhaize boss Denis Knoops as its new standard-bearer.
The three of them are there on a sweltering mid-August afternoon in a room in the former Hôtel de Merode, opposite the Palais de Justice in Brussels. There is Bruno Pani, head of the event communication agency Profirst, which two years ago took over the former Cercle de Lorraine, which had fallen into PRJ. There is Isabel CastelynCEO, a former communicator who worked for Wathelet Fils, Creg and Akkanto and there is the newcomer, Denis Knoops.
L’former head of Delhaizewho has become a serial investor, was recently named executive chairman of what is now soberly called TheMerode. Another mandate for those visibly hyperactive endorphins generated by his regular running exercise (read the box).
The abandonment of the term “circle” is not the result of coincidence. The Merode team intends break down walls and take a holistic approach to your business.
“We define ourselves more as one social club as a business club, details Isabel Castelyn, because in a period of crisis as we know it, both environmental and economic, we are convinced that people need change, to reconnect with each other after two years of crisis health, where everything became digitally. We therefore want to re-humanise human relationships. Therefore, TheMerode naturally brings together the business world, but also culture, health and education.”
“TheMerode wants to be a platform for collective change by sharing knowledge and creating encounters.”
When Bruno Pani and his Profirst employees took over the premises, we were in the middle of a pandemic. “When everything was closed, it gave us time to take a step back, to think about what we wanted with this place, he says. This period was conducive to change. We discovered a place in a state that was not possible with corpses in the cupboards and a overestimated number of members. We were told about 1500 people, but there were not 400 in order of contribution.
Today, TheMerode wants to be one “platform for collective change by sharing knowledge and creating meetings”he continues.
Merode’s executives say they were inspired by both the London club the management, which defines itself as “a collaborative community of people committed to creating a just, prosperous and sustainable future” and Ted knowledge platform, but live to develop interactions. “When we develop our activity program, we ask ourselves three questions,” continues Isabel Casteleyn: Are we surprising people? Are we teaching them anything? Do we bring them together?“
“When we develop our program of activities, we ask ourselves three questions: Do we surprise people? Do we teach them something? Do we bring them together?”
After the 250,000 euros committed to take over the business (the building is leased to a real estate company), two million euros have been invested since the takeover: first to stay afloat during the covid period, then to renovate the premises – under Bruno Pani’s creative leadership -, recruit and train staff (approx. fifteen people), develop a programme, develop marketing etc.
On the income side, resources come from membershipof provision of premises for events companies or others, and a company club which should eventually include around fifty companies paying 14,500 or 35,000 euros per year depending on the services provided (room rental, events, catering, etc.). “For membership we are ahead; for the company club a little behind in relation to our business plan”, sums up Bruno Pani.
Launched last November, the bet, according to the numbers presented by its executives, appears to be on track to pay off. TheMerode claims 24 companies for the corporate club and 1,400 individual members, including around 600 women.
One in two new members is a woman. One third are under 35 years of age. Your profile? Intergenerational, with managers, entrepreneurs, startups, technologists, liberal professions, people from the cultural world, gallery owners…
The members are like programming, eclectic: In addition to conferences, visits to companies or workshops, cocktail parties, events, seminars, exhibitions – the venues are suitable for this, with more than a hundred works hung on the picture rails – from catering (with star chef Isabelle Arpin in the kitchens of the Ciao restaurant and JML- the caterer for catering, the bars and the restaurant in the stables), telecommuting, fitness and even a Movie room where previews are arranged with the distributor Cinéart.
From start-up to scale-up
Denis Knoops, the third thief, feels like a fish in water with this concept. “The bet is already successful, he claims: the proof of concept has been validated, the numbers prove it. Now we need to go further, move from start-up mode to scale-up mode and industrialize the whole.”
“What I liked here was this holistic approach; it fits with my generalist and social animal side.”
She is the wife of Bruno Paniwhose design firm was working at the time for Delhaize, who put him in contact with Denis Knoops. He says he saw in TheMerode, the missing piece in the puzzle of his myriad activities.
“I was a member of the former Cercle de Lorraine, I met a lot of old gentlemen there in Hermès ties; I have nothing against them, but it was a bit limited. What I liked here was this holistic approach; it fits with my generalist and social animal side. I like this flutter, meeting different people, young people who want advice, seniors who want to return, startups, people from the world of culture.”
Denis Knoops arrives with his address book, his network and his multifaceted experience as a manager, entrepreneur and investor. He wants the role of animator, facilitator.
This formal lover succinctly sums up his and TheMerode’s mission: “Basically, a business club is LinkedIn; we want to be LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter at the same time.”
Denis Knoops, a very busy man
Almost five years after leaving the Delhaize Group, Denis Knoops (56) has probably never been so active. He has invested in several SMEs, foundations and start-ups/scale-ups, where he most often plays an active director role.
In particular, together with former colleagues from Delhaize, he took over From Vismijn, a producer of artisan shrimp croquettes, which had been placed in PRJ. It is also found in Chronostock (pop-up shops) and Cash converters (thrift stores). It is also part of professional couple, the Belgian fund launched by 45 investor-entrepreneurs to support the development of SMEs and family businesses, which recently invested in the Barracuda chain of e-bike shops. He also put in bullets Infinity mobile (online pop-up shops) and in biotech EyeD Pharma. Just over two years ago, just before the pandemic, Denis Knoops also became chairman of finance.brussels.
If it came out of the chain of Walloon chip shops Fritapapa (increased since his arrival from 2 to 14 points of sale), he recently invested in two other start-ups: JobGether (recruitment platform) and Linatelle (a manufacturer of spent cereal crackers). With, now, the executive chairmanship of The Merode, Denis Knoops is therefore more fit than ever.