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Louise Hilditch on helping people setting up their Belgian business

09:56 30/09/2019

It wasn’t the most auspicious of beginnings. Having landed a job in an MEP’s office in Brussels in 1993, Louise Hilditch took the overnight bus and ferry from the UK and was dropped off outside the cinema at De Brouckère in the pitch dark, at 5am. “In those days, downtown was just disgusting, really awful. And I was just like, ‘oh, welcome to Belgium’.”

But she’s still here, and for the last decade has co-owned and run Local Knowledge, which helps clients set up and maintain their organisations in Belgium. She’s also the co-founder of Full Circle, a community of “creative, open-minded and forward-thinking members” that brings people together to discuss, and act upon, new ideas.

Hilditch combines all of that with being a parent to three children, indulging her love of horse-riding and skiing, growing piles of vegetables and adhering to her rigid rule of going out at least two nights a week “even if I’m so exhausted I can hardly stand up”. From her Saint-Gilles office, she tells ING’s Dave Deruytter what she’s learned about Belgium since she hauled her two suitcases off that bus 26 years ago.

Why did you come to Brussels?

I wanted to leave the UK. I was in my early 20s and I thought I should go and see the world, so I applied for jobs all over. It was quite hard to find one, it turned out, although thank goodness it was in the days before you had to do six internships to get a job. I ended up getting a job as an MEP’s assistant. I’d never been to Brussels.

How did Local Knowledge come about?

I had a classic European expat career first. After Parliament, I worked in the private sector as a lobbyist, co-founded a public affairs company, then switched to the non-profit sector. By this time I had three children. My job involved a lot of international travel and it wasn’t really compatible with my life. I tried to look for something within the sector that wouldn’t involve travel, which is harder than you think.

I was just talking to somebody about what I could do. They said when they set up their company, they would really like to have had someone to outsource all the horror to. And I thought, I could actually do that. That’s how it came into being – it was someone else’s brilliant idea!

What does it offer?

We help people set up and run their organisations – businesses, non-profits and self-employed people. My clients are mostly in traditional sectors. It’s probably 50:50 between people who are already here and want to establish a business, and companies abroad who want to set up in Belgium. There’s been a huge surge with the Brexit discussions.

After a few years of doing the startup scene we said, it’s great but we have to keep finding new clients, which is exhausting, time-consuming and expensive. So we became specialised in human resources. About 50% or more of our revenue now comes from ongoing HR services that we supply to clients. Part of what Local Knowledge does couldn’t exist in all countries because in some places it’s so straightforward, there’s no need for a third party to hold your hand.

Why would people want third-party help?

For example, when you register for VAT it’s a separate registration, or after you get your enterprise number from the notary, you still have to activate it in the national database. If you’ve never set up a business somewhere, it’s just annoying. We do these things every day, so we know it.

Also, when you’re setting up you’re always thinking about the sales and whether you’ve got enough money. You’re never thinking about going to the notary, or the enterprise agency. And then there’s culture and familiarity. On the whole, Belgians are not in that much of a hurry. Lots of my clients come from countries and cultures where things move faster – so they employ us to move things faster.

One of our jobs is literally phoning people up going, ‘have you done that? My client really needs it… can you please do it?!’ Sometimes people just like another non-Belgian working it all out. It’s not to do with language, because so many service providers here speak fantastic English, it’s just that clients find it reassuring.

Is it getting easier to set up here?

Belgium has been really good at digitising government processes and procedures, especially in social security and finance. Since I started it has only got easier and easier to set up a business and to register as a freelancer. But the process is still constrained by procedures you have to follow, which I think the Belgian legislature doesn’t think is so constraining or annoying, but it is really.

What could Belgium do better?

We need a single point of action. A user interface that brings everything together, where the information is being funnelled to different legal entities. Many people would also like a more flexible system. They may like to register as a freelancer and do a little bit of work, maybe just €5-6,000 a year. But in the Belgian system, everybody who’s registered has to pay a set minimum amount of social security contributions. I can see why they don’t really want to touch the system. But it’s a disincentive to some people who could otherwise work, but don’t.

How do you network and find clients?

The great thing about Brussels, and the English-speaking community of Belgium, is it’s quite a small connected world. So it’s a lot by word of mouth, both virtual and actual. If clients are not already in Belgium, it’s mainly through the website. And people find their way to our events, [including an annual seminar sponsored by ING, The Bulletin and Group S] which are really well publicised.

What drove you to set up Full Circle?

I had some spare time and was looking for something that was more intellectually challenging. My co-founder [Bridie Nathanson] and I wanted to create a physical space where people could come and discuss, and act upon, ideas. I’d always thought there weren’t enough ideas and policy discussions in Brussels, which is funny because it’s kind of a policy city. So we thought we’d bring people with ideas to Brussels.

We couldn’t afford a building then, so we were an itinerant club, but we wanted to create a community, to have the same people coming back and talking about ideas, linking different ideas together that they’d heard, and making other connections.

How does it work?

Our classic events – the debates and the discussions – are limited to about 50 people because we want it to be very participatory. We’re active moderators, and involve many people in the debate. It’s interactive, not a spectator sport.

We invite both Belgian and international speakers – they have to bring really inspiring ideas and be great communicators. They have to be able to speak engagingly, and be able to be confronted by people who don’t think as they do. It’s entertaining. We drink wine, we eat delicious food, we are motivated.

Now we’re building our ideas club into a physical community in an amazing building which we are just renovating into a home-from-home just off Place Flagey. As well as our own programme, we are already hosting all kinds of events for other people. And we even have a couple of artists in residence. Next up is our new restaurant, bar and lounge to feed all the thinking that we plan to happen!

What do you like and dislike about Belgium?

I find Belgians to be very solution-orientated – the opposite of some countries where you have a rule and they just apply it. Here, there’s always a way… but they don’t advertise it! They are very structured, planning types. I like that, mostly because I’m not one myself.

Belgians are very discreet neighbours. I live in a housing estate, and you can hear what goes on in everyone’s gardens. But they never, ever mention anything. I really like that. If you want to share, you can share, but if you don’t, no one will ask.

On the negative side, I thought primary education was fantastic but secondary has been a great disappointment. What you learn is not what you need to know when you leave school.

What would your advice be to newcomers?

Don’t be frustrated by the whole pace of things. I find everything works out eventually. You just have to persist. There is actually no need to worry or to want it all to go really fast. Belgium is an antidote to fast living… but when they need to, they deliver.

What do you do in your spare time?

I’ve got this rule that’s worth sharing. I have to go out twice a week. Even if I’m so exhausted, I can hardly stand up, I force myself to go out. I’m tempted to say I’m going out to drink but that would give a bad impression of me! I have friends who do more than me so I often tag along with something that’s already been organised. With other friends I go to Belgian brasseries in different communes – we’ve been round all 19 – and we always eat croquettes aux crevettes. The best ones are at Friture René in Anderlecht.

I go horse-riding and skiing. I’ve unfortunately chosen expensive hobbies. I got my children into them too, which was foolhardy. I also love growing vegetables. I relax by doing, because if I do nothing I just fall asleep.

Tell us more about the veggies

I’m not green-fingered, so I buy this really hardcore fertiliser. It stinks like sewage when you first put it on but it makes your plants just go. I’ve got cabbage, spinach, radishes, tomatoes, courgettes, peas, green beans. I’ve got loads. But I don’t like cooking. Kale is great, you just put the leaves in the oven with olive oil and salt for five minutes and then serve it – everybody loves it and they eat tonnes of it. Do I juice it as well? God, no. Never drink anything green, that’s my motto.

Photo: Bea Uhart. This article first appeared in ING Expat Time

Written by Paula Dear