Active Ants is growing – one package at a time

‘Stacking’ their way to a new type of financing

Jeroen Dekker and Jean Lahaye from the Dutch company Active Ants are in the business of packaging orders for online retailers. They are backed up by a team of some 100 employees and, soon enough, their facility will have an enormous order-picking machine. To reassure the customer that their shipment has been packaged and is on its way, Active Ants take a picture of every order before it is shipped out. A nice touch, right? Jean and Jeroen came up with that. And they are the first in the Netherlands to offer this feature. Their story is how a Dutch e-fulfilment company is growing like by stacking ideas, packages… and financing.

If you live in the Netherlands, it’s very likely that the order you placed online was shipped by Active Ants, as this Nieuwegein-based state-of-the-art e-fulfilment company serves a large number of Dutch online retailers. After receiving the goods from the stores, they enter them in the system, store them in their warehouse, and collect and package the orders. They also process returned items, and, if all that weren’t enough, for many of their customers they manage payments as well.

Robotic trolleys

Active Ants is growing very fast and we were forced to relocate to more spacious premises in 2015. Jeroen explains, 'We weren’t necessarily looking to become the biggest, but we certainly wanted to be the best.’ In order to achieve their goal, their company needs a machine that’s capable of picking orders at a breakneck speed. ‘If it weren’t for this machine, we wouldn’t be around five years from now.'

The machine in question is the AutoStore, which consists of 30,000 plastic trays arranged like a massive box of toy blocks. Right above this structure, robotic trolleys are rolling back and forth, grabbing the trays with the correct products and taking them to one of the workers, who prepares them for shipment. The storage system is so efficient that the company can store 85 percent more goods using the same amount of space as a regular warehouse. This means the team at Active Ants can be sure that they can stay put for the time being.

Keeping control

When the time came in 2015 to apply for a loan to purchase the AutoStore, the two business partners contacted Wim ter Harmsel, their account manager at the Utrechtse Waarden local Rabobank. Jean says we simply told him, 'Wim, we’re looking to expand our business and will need 2.5 million to get it done. The loan would cover the cost of the machine, but also the relocation and the packaging station, where employees package the orders in boxes.'

'We thought he’d simply laugh in our faces and send us on our merry way, but, to our surprise, he actually got back to us a few weeks later with a solution to our query,' says Jean.

Wim did not consider their request outrageous at all – quite the contrary: 'You’re always supposed to be open to talented entrepreneurs with strong business cases. I listened carefully to Jeroen and Jean’s needs and considered their priorities. Then I looked at the options available in that light. I reviewed as many alternative financing options as possible, not just your basic, run-of-the-mill bank loans.'

Jean says, 'Wim initially suggested involving an external financier, but we were dead set against that idea. We were adamant about keeping control ourselves. One of our company’s strengths is that we need very little time to make decisions. But that becomes a lot harder when you’re dealing with external backers, since they’ll obviously want to have their say as well.' Jeroen adds, 'That’s why we asked Wim for a type of financing that would leave us the freedom to make independent decisions, without anyone intervening in our business from the outside.'

Mix of financing types

Wim eventually came up with an innovative idea: a ‘stacked’ loan, which is a mix of various forms of financing:

  • Government-backed loan
    This is a loan subsidised by the government, which protects lenders against defaults on payment. This makes it possible to extend the loan over a longer period of time, resulting in a lower interest rate.
  • Loan provided by the European Investment Bank (EIB)
    The EIB loan is a European investment grant that gives a discount on the interest charged by the bank.
  • Factoring
    Rabobank subsidiary DLL provides factoring services to ensure that businesses have immediate access to a substantial portion of the funds provided to debtors.
  • Financial lease
    This involves a commercial arrangement where the lender purchases an asset that the borrower, i.e. the business, can use during the lease period on payment of a fixed fee.
  • Traditional bank loan

Wim ter Harmsel says,  'What makes Jean and Jeroen’s business so special is that they actually contribute to the success of numerous online retailers in the Netherlands, who, for their part, serve hundreds of thousands of consumers with their products. They really do add to the success of other businesses.'

‘For every good plan, we’ll find a way’

Paul Dirken, Businesses director: 'One in three business owners looks beyond the bank when applying for a loan. Rabobank can play the role of linking pin for businesses searching for an appropriate form of financing. We have strong roots in this part of the country and are intimately familiar and experienced with a variety of industries. We also know which businesses have a need for financing and which ones have the funds available to invest. This gives us a very good vantage point from which to support businesses in securing the funding they need, whether it’s by providing a bank loan or by putting the business in touch with other investors. If someone presents us with a good plan, we always manage to find a solution in the end.'

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The e-fulfilment company Active Ants is able to invest in growth thanks to a hybrid form of financing, a suggestion by Wim, their Rabobank account manager.