Two years after the takeover by entrepreneur Bruno Pani, the former Cercle de Lorraine has grown into a social club with the former boss of Delhaize, Denis Knoops, as the new standard-bearer.
The three of them sit there on a stifling afternoon in mid-August in a room in the former Hôtel de Merode, opposite the Palace of Justice in Brussels. There is Bruno Pani, boss 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 Casteleynthe CEO, a former communicator who worked for Wathelet fils, the Creg and Akkanto, and there’s the newcomer, Denis Knoops.
l’former boss of Delhaizewho has become a serial investor was recently named executive chairman of what is now called sober The Merode. Another mandate for this visibly hyperactive endorphin generated by his regular practice of running (read the box).
Leaving the term “circle” is no accident. The Merode team is planning break through walls and take a holistic approach to your business.
“We define ourselves more as a social club as a business club, Isabel Castelyn explains, because in a crisis period as we know it, both ecologically and economically, we are convinced that people need change, to reconnect with each other after two years of health crisis in which everything went digital. That’s why we want to humanize human relationships again. That is why TheMerode naturally brings together the world of business, but also that of 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 property, we were in the midst of a pandemic. “Because everything was closed, it gave us time to step back, to think about what we wanted to do with this place, he says. This period was conducive to change. We discovered a place in a state which was not possible with corpses in the closets and a overrated number of members. We were told there were about 1500 people, but there weren’t 400 in order of contribution.
Today TheMerode wants a “platform for collective change by sharing knowledge and creating encounters”he continues.
Merode’s executives say they were inspired by both the London club in charge, which describes itself as “a collaborative community of people committed to creating a just, prosperous and sustainable future” and the Ted knowledge platform, but live to develop interactions. “As we develop our activity program, we ask ourselves three questions, Isabel Casteleyn continues: Do we amaze people? Are we teaching them something? Do we bring them together?“
“As we develop our activity program, we ask ourselves three questions: do we amaze people? Are we teaching them? Are we bringing them together?”
After the 250,000 euros pledged to take over the company (the building is leased to a real estate company), two million euros have been invested since the takeover: first persevere during the covid period, then redevelop the property – under the creative direction of Bruno Pani -, recruit and train staff (about fifteen people), develop a program, develop marketing, etc.
On the revenue side, the resources come from: membershipof the offering venues for events companies or others, and a corporate club that should eventually include about fifty companies that pay 14,500 or 35,000 euros per year, depending on the services provided (room rental, events, catering, etc.). “We are ahead of the membership in terms of membership, but slightly behind in the corporate club compared to our business plan,” summarizes Bruno Pani.
Launched last November, the bet, according to the numbers waved by the leaders, looks set to be fulfilled. TheMerode claims 24 companies for the corporate club and 1,400 individual members, including about 600 women.
One in two new members is a woman. A third is younger than 35 years old. Their profile? Intergenerational, with bosses, entrepreneurs, startups, techies, liberal professions, people from the cultural world, gallery owners…
The members are like the programming, eclectic: in addition to conferences, company visits or workshops, cocktail parties, events, seminars, exhibitions – the rooms lend themselves to this, with more than a hundred works on the painting rails – from the catering (with star chef Isabelle Arpin in the kitchens of restaurant Ciao and caterer JML for the catering, the bars and the restaurant in the stables), teleworking places, fitness and even a movie room where previews are organized 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 has already been made, he says: the proof of concept has been validated, the numbers bear witness to it. Now we need to move on, go from boot mode to scale-up mode and industrialize the whole thing.”
“What I liked here was this holistic approach; it suits my generalist and social animal side.”
She is the wife of Bruno Panicwhose design company was working for Delhaize at the time, who in contact with Denis Knoops. He says in TheMerode that he has seen the missing piece of the puzzle of his countless activities.
“I was a member of the former Cercle de Lorraine, I met a lot of old gentlemen there in Hermès tires; I have nothing against them, but it was a bit limited. What I liked here was this holistic approach; it suits my generalist and social animal side. I like that fluttering, meeting different people, young people wanting advice, seniors wanting to bounce back, startups, people from the cultural world.”
Denis Knoops arrives with his address book, his network and his multifaceted experience as a leader, entrepreneur and investor. He will have the role of animator, facilitator.
This one formula lover summarizes his mission and that of TheMerode sharply: “Actually 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
Nearly five years after leaving the Delhaize group, Denis Knoops (56) has probably never been so active. He has invested in various SMEs, funds and start-ups/scale-ups in which he often plays an active director’s role.
In particular, together with ex-colleagues of Delhaize, he took the From Vismijn, a producer of artisanal shrimp croquettes that was placed in PRJ. It can also be found in Chronostock (pop-up stores) and cash converters (second hand shops). It is also part of Profinpar, 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 electric bike shops. He also put marbles in it Infinity Mobile (online pop-up stores) 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 from the Walloon chip shop chain fritapapa (since his arrival increased from 2 to 14 points of sale), he recently invested in two other start-ups: JobGether (recruitment platform) and Linatelle (a manufacturer of spent grain crackers). With now the executive chairmanship of De Merode, Denis Knoops is in better shape than ever.