Most know Meltemi as a well established player in the healthcare uniform industry. We are perhaps best known for being a consistent and trusted supplier of clinical and non clinical uniforms for the NHS. But, not many people know the story of how Meltemi came to exist. Did you know that we are actually a sub-division of Alsico laucuba, one of the largest workwear organisations that is still owned by the family?
Only a few really know our true origins, so, we’d like to tell you the story of Alsico, and why Meltemi became part of the UK operation.
One man with a big vision
Leopold Aelvoet, a man from Belgium, dreamt of having his own textile workshop. It was 1934, and prime time for a business venture of this nature. Clothes, or in Leopold's case, workwear, were not only simple to create, but were ceaselessly in demand… a sure footed enterprise for a man with a background in textiles and who’d always dreamt of being his own boss. With a great deal of ambition and spirit, Leopold set up shop in his local town, making miners outfits and aprons. And with that, the early seeds of Alsico were sewn.
Even during the interwar years, during the times of the great depression, the workwear industry was flourishing. There was no indication that the need for functional and safe workwear clothes was slowing down. If anything, the demand was rising! Seamstresses that worked from home soon reached their limits, and Leopold bought a local workshop in Zenobe Grammestraat, in his home town Ronse which had the capacity for about forty machinists. His god son, Bernard, said, ‘I recall the large garden at the factory that backed onto the railway line. We regularly went to play [there] often in the workshop,during weekends, when there was no work going on but plenty of room to run around. And fabric trolleys to race.”
Enter Gaston Siau, the first generation
Leopold had a daughter called Lucie. And in 1947 Lucie married an ‘exceptionally dynamic and entrepreneurial’ man named Gaston Siau. It was in this year of thor marriage that the couple took over management of Leopold’s garment business. The young duo pushed the business to new heights and in 1960, they decided to move the business to an even larger premises, an old textiles factory in Zonnestraat. This was a real step up in terms of capacity to deliver mass scale production and advance their services.
Sadly, in the mid 60’s Lucie lost her father, and Gaston took permanent ownership of the company. It wasn’t until a few years later, in 1969, that Alsico’s name was first coined. The name was derived from Gaston's business predecessor, Leopold ‘Aelvoet’, an abbreviation of Gaston's own name, ‘Siau’ and ‘confectie’ which is the Flemish word for garment. And so was born, ‘Ael - Si - Co.’
Polyester cotton - A game changer
It was always clear to the people around Gaston, family, friends and colleagues alike, that Gaston would be the engine that drove Alsico to new and innovative places. According to those close to him, Gaston was a ‘very dignified man’, who always wore a tie and held a cigar in one hand. He was also said to be a great storyteller. His seemingly charismatic disposition along with his ambitious nature stood him in good stead when travelling for business. It was whilst travelling that Gaston discovered the new fabric technology that would revolutionise the workwear garment industry. A fabric that would catapult the business into new possibilities and products that could cater for even more industries. Polyester cotton. Gaston knew instantly that the utilisation of such a material was paramount to the success and evolution of Alsico.
Taking Alsico overseas
A new law, introduced in the 70’s meant that businesses were required to provide as well as maintain work uniforms for their employees. The new regulation changed the marketplace for them dramatically, in the sense that now, rather than selling to end users and small businesses, Alssico were being approached by huge Laundries and manufacturers and they soon became their main customers, generating a massive turnover…
Then, in 1973, the oil crisis hit. With redundancies and inflation threatening businesses big and small, Gaston had to make some smart decisions, and quickly. It made sense to Gaston in this economic climate, to de-localise the business. It was time to take Alsico abroad. On his travels to North Africa, Tunisia seemed like a good place to start.
“Erik Magnus, expert in the sector, emphasises ‘Alsico’s pioneering role in the delocalisation wave in our country.’ It really was strength to strength from here.” (Alsico)
Passing the torch of Alsico
Gaston and Lucie Siau had four children between the years of 1948 and 1957. Christine, Bernard, Evelyne, and Philippe. Bernard, the eldest son, said that it was ‘inevitable’ that he and his younger brother Phillipe would join the business. And after their father suffered a heart attack, when Bernard was still in college, the sons began to take over Alsico, which at this point had grown to house over 150 employees.
Lucie and Gaston Siau
The sons ramped up the momentum of growth over the next 30 years and saw Alsico set up factories across Europe, America and Asia. The group is now multinational, and active in over 20 countries.‘Bernard Siau, however, prefers to use the word ‘faminational’. He says ‘That is a significant nuance because with Alsico we want to convey certain family values. Respect, trust, and social mindedness and actions, those are the three values we lean on.’ (Alsico)
A new venture in healthcare
Fast Forward to the early 2000’s, Alsico merges with Meltemi. Meltemi was a stand alone scrub/workwear manufacturing company which started in 1970 and in 2013 Meltemi made the decision to merge with the Alsico Group. In the early years, Meltemi, although owned and managed by Alsico, still operated as a stand alone business. It wasn’t until Spring 2020, that Alsico UK consolidated the businesses into one operating team based in Preston, and now operates as the ‘healthcare division’ of Alsico. The decision was made to consolidate the expertise, shared services and supply chain with that of Alsico UK. This allowed the business to broaden the benefits from being a part of a bigger and more diverse group.
It was workwear then, and it’s workwear now
Alsico Group has been weaving its way through the workwear manufacturing industry for over 85 years now and has never diverged from its founding values of growing a family enterprise. The growth passed down from 4 generations has sewn values of dedication and passion into the very fabric of the company itself, making it more than just a workwear company, it’s a family project gone global!
The Siau family
Bernard’s son, Gauthier Siau, is now in the driving seat of Alsico and has been CEO since 2011. His brother Vincent, then stepped into the company in 2014 as Managing Director of Alsico NV. Their sister Caroline, who resolutely chose a career in medicine, says, ‘We have all inherited the same spirit and values, being respectful and empathetic, for example. But when I see my brothers working in the company, I notice how different they are. Gauthier is very realistic and down to earth; Vincent is more the idea person or the philosopher. They complement each other well and can each do their own thing in the company.’
‘Only one per cent of Belgian companies is a fourth generation family business.’
The success of Alsico, and Meltemi in turn, is a direct result of strong family relationships. Entrepreneur Herman Van de Velde notes that Alsico’s ‘unmistakable strength is the emotional connection with the business,’ and says that family run businesses are ‘exceptional in terms of growth, ambition and vision.’ (Alsico)
Alsico now runs 22 factories in 11 countries, and has grown into a huge business that superseded anyone's expectations. It’s interesting to think about how Leopold Aevolet would react if he were alive today, knowing that his seedling of an idea and passion for business had grown into a multinational corporation that supplies workwear across many sectors, including supporting perhaps the most successful healthcare system in the world (the NHS), and across many continents. What an ode for the sentiment: follow your passions, and play to your strengths. We can learn alot from Mr Aelvoet, the beginning of Alsico, and the making of Meltemi.
NOTE: All facts and quotations have been extracted from “Alsico sews its own seam - How a small workshop became a world player.” - Eline Maeyens