Two years after being taken over by the entrepreneur Bruno Pani, the former Cercle de Lorraine has turned into a social club with the former boss of Delhaize, Denis Knoops, as the new standard bearer.
The three of them are there on a suffocating afternoon in mid-August in a room in the former Hôtel de Merode, opposite the Palais de Justice in Brussels. There are Bruno Pani, boss of the event communication agency Profirst, which took over the former Cercle de Lorraine two years ago, which had fallen into PRJ. There are Isabel Casteleynthe CEO, a former communicator who worked for Wathelet fils, the Creg and Akkanto, and there is the newcomer, Denis Knoops.
L’former boss of Delhaizewho has become a serial investor, was recently named executive chairman of what is now soberly called TheMerode. One more mandate for this hyperactive visibly doped with the endorphins generated by his regular practice of running (read the box).
The abandonment of the term “circle” is not the result of chance. TheMerode team intends break down walls and take a holistic approach to your business.
“We define ourselves more as a 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 went digital. We therefore want to re-humanize human relations. This is why TheMerode brings together the world of business, of course, 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 associates took over the premises, we were in the midst of a pandemic. “As everything was closed, it gave us time to take a 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 not possible with corpses in the cupboards and a overvalued number of members. We were told about 1500 people, but there were not 400 in order of contribution.
Today, TheMerode wants to be a “platform for collective change by sharing knowledge and creating encounters”he continues.
The Merode executives say they were inspired by both the London club The Conduit, which defines itself as “a collaborative community of people who are committed to creating a just, prosperous and sustainable future” and the Ted knowledge platform, but live to develop interactions. “When we develop our program of activities, we ask ourselves three questions, continues Isabel Casteleyn: Do we amaze 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 amaze people? Do we teach them something? Do we bring them together?”
After the 250,000 euros committed to take over the business (the building being rented to a real estate company), some two million euros have been invested since the takeover: first to hold up during the covid period, then to redevelop the premises – under the creative direction of Bruno Pani –, recruit and train staff (about fifteen people), develop a program, develop marketing, etc.
On the revenue side, resources come from membershipof the provision of venues for events companies or others, and a corporate 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 corporate club, slightly behind compared to our business plan”, summarizes Bruno Pani.
Launched last November, the bet, according to the figures brandished by its leaders, seems on the way to being met. TheMerode claims 24 companies for the corporate club and 1,400 individual members, including around 600 women.
One out of two new members is female. A third are under 35 years old. Their profile? Intergenerational, with bosses, entrepreneurs, startupers, tech people, liberal professions, people from the cultural world, gallery owners…
The members are like the programming, eclectic: in addition to conferences, visits to companies or workshops, cocktail parties, events, seminars, exhibitions – the venues lend themselves to this, with more than a hundred works hung on the picture rails – from catering (with the starred chef Isabelle Arpin in the kitchens of the Ciao restaurant and the JML caterer for the catering, the bars and the restaurant in the stables), teleworking spaces, 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 is already successful, he claims: the proof of concept has been validated, the figures bear witness to it. Now, we have to go further, go 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 company was working at the time for Delhaize, who put him in contact with Denis Knoops. He says he saw in TheMerode, 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 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 fluttering, meeting different people, young people who want advice, seniors who want to bounce back, startupers, people from the world of culture.”
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 formula lover scathingly summarizes his mission and that of TheMerode: “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, funds and start-ups/scale-ups in which he most often plays an active director role.
In particular, he took over, with former colleagues from Delhaize, From Vismijn, a producer of artisanal shrimp croquettes which had been placed in PRJ. It is also found in Chronostock (pop-up stores) and Cash Converters (second-hand stores). 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 bicycle stores. He also put marbles in 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 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 grain crackers). With, now, the executive presidency of The Merode, Denis Knoops is therefore more than ever in shape.