At the Flanders International Business Awards, Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT) is presenting three awards, including Exporter of the Year, a title that will be bestowed upon a top exporting company from Flanders. But what does that mean exactly? Jolijn Swinnen, Area Manager Middle East & North America at FIT, describes the ideal candidate for the award.
An award with a name like Exporter of the Year creates high expectations. Does this mean that only seasoned export companies are eligible?
Jolijn: “Far from it! You don’t need to have the perfect export story. FIT encourages companies to be open about their challenges and setbacks. By competing for the award, you can show just how resilient you were in dealing with obstacles. In other words, the ideal candidate is a company that perseveres despite the ups and downs of international entrepreneurship while daring to share the good, the bad and the bold.
At the same time, the ideal candidate values cooperation and wants to be an ambassador of Flanders’ economic ecosystem: a company that connects closely with other organizations to strengthen both its own position and that of internationally enterprising Flanders.”
Which criteria does the jury look at when evaluating the candidates?
Jolijn: “Robustness is an important element. This can be seen in a well-defined long-term vision for internationalization in which sustainability, diversity and innovation also play central roles. However, these aspects should not be used as mere buzzwords. They must be an integral part of daily operations and permeate all levels of the company.
Another important aspect: how does your company deal with change? How do you turn challenges into opportunities? There has been no shortage of obstacles for export companies in recent years. Think of Brexit, the COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine, for example. Many companies have had to continuously reorient themselves at breakneck speed – by exploring other markets, making new connections or collaborating with new types of partner companies.
In addition, the war for talent is raging ever more fiercely, both at home and abroad. How do you keep your staff on board in these challenging times? And how do you attract new, diverse and talented employees to ensure the future of your export business? These are all plot elements actively sought after by the jury in a winning export story.”
Besides the Exporter of the Year title, what can companies gain from participating in the Flanders International Business Awards?
Jolijn: “It’s a great opportunity to introduce your company within a broad network of fellow exporters, startups and foreign companies investing in Flanders. All these types of companies will be attending up the awards show. This allows you to easily make new connections for your business within Flanders’ economic ecosystem and share your experiences with other companies as a source of inspiration.
Furthermore, being part of the awards ceremony serves as a recognition of what your export company has already achieved. It’s an indicator of your resilience in a rapidly changing world, which helps attract new business opportunities both close to home and across the globe. An award from the government is still a great asset to open doors in many markets worldwide.”
Does participating in the contest also offer benefits within a company’s walls?
Jolijn: “Absolutely! Being part of the competition gives your company the chance to let your employees shine as well. After all, behind every strong export story is an even stronger team: one that is often very versatile and able to coordinate seamlessly across numerous regions and time zones. That’s no obvious feat and deserves to be put in the limelight.
In addition, the competition provides a stage to help you win over new employees. Finding talent is challenge number one for many companies. But an innovative employer with international appeal often has an edge. By competing for the award and through the press coverage that comes with it, you’re bound to reach a larger audience in the labor market.”
Do you have some golden advice for award candidates?
Jolijn: “If your company makes it to the shortlist, you’ll need to pitch your export story to a professional jury. Keeping things short but powerful is the way to go there. Think of it as an elevator pitch at an international prospecting or networking event. Usually, you only have a few minutes to convince a potential customer or partner that your company is worth the while. This is also the case at the Flanders International Business Awards.
While this is not an easy exercise, it can be very useful for your company – even outside the context of the competition. Knowing how to formulate your unique added value and story in a razor-sharp way opens doors to further internationalization.”