An entrepreneur avant la lettre

Anna-Maria Haesen & Alfons Nelissen

As the son of a blacksmith, and even more so when he took over the blacksmith's shop following the premature death of his father, Alfons Nelissen learned what hard work meant. And it paid off. Even though he had no idea how to create bricks, he did not let himself be discouraged from starting a brand-new business: the Nelissen brick making company!

Driven, persevering and passionate about the still young family business, he rolled up his sleeves and got started. He laid the foundations of the brickworks as a local and national player in the brick industry. Today you would probably describe him as an accomplished but old-school factory boss, a traditional manager. However, when he entered the brick business 100 years ago, he was a genuine entrepreneur.

In the family

Entrepreneurship was part of the Nelissen family’s DNA. He was no stranger to taking initiative, taking risks, showing courage and running a business like a good father.  His father Laurentius never shied away from hard work. He was a well-known blacksmith and seller of, for instance, agricultural machines and tools. His blacksmith’s shop was a successful business. Anna-Maria Haesen, Alfons's wife, was the equal of her husband. Not only did she give birth to seven children, she also raised her offspring and bestowed important values upon them to succeed in life. Together with her mother she also ran a pub. She worked in “a shop of various spices” such as yarn, woollen bonnets, linseed cakes, linseed, tobacco and cigars but also clogs. And later, she went on to sell bicycles. On top of all that, she also ran a boarding house for customs officers in her own home.

Quickly off again

Alfons Nelissen was, as it were, married to his business. This is evident from a testimony by Julien Nelissen. He is 90 years old and the only surviving member of the family of seven children of Alfons and Anna-Marie. “When he cycled back home at noon (his house was actually within walking distance of the brickworks), lunch had to be ready on the table”, Julien recalls as if it were yesterday. “He wanted to eat his meal quickly. Also, he sat at the table in a very peculiar manner. He was not sitting straight, with his plate in front of him. On the contrary, he sat cross-legged and facing away from the table. Time was precious,  and he wanted to return to the kiln and drying chambers as soon as possible. It had to be quiet at the table. He had to be able to think”, concludes Julien Nelissen. “That’s how it was. That’s what made my father tick.”

The dilemma

He wanted to move forward. He saw growth opportunities in this business and, over the course of time, he got his family involved as well. He employed seven workers. He was a strict but fair boss to his staff. He was careful and only took calculated risks. He was very frugal, a value that has been passed on to the next three generations. He was eager to learn and open to innovation. However, he had to be persuaded. Gaston Nelissen, his grandson and one of the third generation managers of the family business, has an interesting story about this. “Grandpa really wanted me to join the company but I was about to go to Congo (our African colony at the time) to teach at the university," he says. "He would often tell me that he needed me at the brickworks." But Gaston was clever. "I presented my grandfather with a dilemma: invest in new kilns and machines, or else I pack my bags and set for Congo forever! Well, he agreed. He spent a fair bit of money to modernise the production of the bricks, and I joined the company. I worked there for almost 50 years, I was always allowed to do what I felt was right". 
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