Celebrating Gilbert Vangampelaere: A Conversation with TerraCottem's First Production Manager

26/12/2023 - 09:32

As we near the end of our celebration year, we'd like to shine a spotlight on Gilbert Vangampelaere, one of our early staff members who retired six years ago. Gilbert played a crucial role as our first Production Manager, even before the TerraCottem company was born. Throughout his time with us, Gilbert showcased an impressive range of skills, both in his professional role and in his personal life. He's not just a retired pro; he's also a talented artist, writer, poet, and more.

Interviewer: Davy Ottevaere, Technical Manager TerraCottem BV

Hi. So nice to see you again Gilbert. How are you doing?

Hi Davy.

Fine, thanks.

A bit older, but also a bit tougher (laughs).

A few ailments here and there, but I certainly can't complain.

How long have you been retired now?

It's been 6 years now... At 62. I wanted to continue working, but it really wasn't possible anymore. I got osteoarthritis, among other things. But I had worked enough, 44 years. Started when I was 18.

Time flies... How long have you worked for TerraCottem?

I had been working for Bernard Devos, founder of the TerraCottem company, since before TerraCottem came into being. Mainly at the Waregem tennis and golf club Happy. As a jack-of-all-trades. In 1993 the company TerraCottem was founded and when, after a year, someone was needed to succeed the production, the choice fell on me.

I also handled customer orders and performed various tasks at that time. However, you could say I was pretty much a "factotum" even back then (laughs).

So how did you get to know Bernard?

Well, initially, I spent around 10 years as a salaried plumber, but that abruptly changed due to death. Then I went to work at Sofinal, a spinning/dyeing company for printing and finishing textiles. That was a family business owned by Bernard's dad. I did all kinds of odd jobs there, including at Bernard's home. Over the years, a close friendship developed between the two of us.

Bernard became a friend?

Indeed, he did. I recall a challenging phase during my time at the Happy golf and tennis club when work was scarce, and I was contemplating searching for a new job. It was then that Bernard gave me a call, and he insisted that I put everything aside. The very next day, he whisked me away to his house in Zanona, Spain. It was an incredible experience, and we even embarked on a wild boar hunting adventure together. That trip solidified our bond, and I realized that I was going to work for him all my life.

"I've always been a solo worker, and I've found great enjoyment in it. When you work alone, you don't have to worry about anyone else, and you can just focus on the task at hand (laughs)".

Bernard understood this and granted me that freedom. In return, I never betrayed that trust, and I relished the sense of self-responsibility.

Speaking of TerraCottem, you were in charge of production?

Yes, but at that time, TerraCottem didn't have its own production facilities. The soil conditioner was produced through contracts with other companies. However, things didn't always run smoothly, and there was a need for someone to oversee and manage the production process more effectively.

I remember the days when I used to personally deliver the bags of TerraCottem to our clients, even abroad, with a van. One particular memory stands out, involving a boat trip to the UK. The Blackburn Rovers football club had decided to upgrade their pitch with TerraCottem, but the decision came very last minute, and they urgently needed the product by 7 am the following morning. So, I was called into action and immediately hit the road with the van and the goods.
It's worth noting that back then, GPS and mobile phones were non-existent. Armed with just a piece of paper for directions, my journey began with a boat ride across the channel, and then a six-hour drive to Blackburn. However, when I disembarked from the boat in the middle of the night and consulted my rudimentary plan, nothing seemed to align correctly (laughs). Thankfully, a kind-hearted gentleman at a late-night store helped me find a new route, and I miraculously managed to deliver the TerraCottem just in the nick of time.

In 1994, Ewood Park, the Blackburn Rovers' main pitch, received a completely new sandy topsoil improved with TerraCottem. The results were excellent: thanks to the brilliant work of Steve Patrick and his team, Ewood Park was voted 'Best Field in the U.K.' in 1997 & 2000 and was in the Top 3 Best Fields in U.K. each time in 1998 & 1999.

That’s funny. Do you have any of those anecdotes?

Well, one that's etched in my memory is the trial at the beach of Het Zoute in Knokke-Heist. We wanted to demonstrate that TerraCottem could nurture plants on saline soil, so we sowed grass in the shape of the letters "KZ" for Knokke Zoute. It turned out to be a resounding success, but here's the kicker – those letters inadvertently caused quite a stir. You see, "KZ" also happens to be the abbreviation for "concentration camp" (from the German "Konzentrationslager"). For some folks, this was a painful reminder of their past.

I recall being at another job when my trusty beeper went off – mobile phones were still a futuristic dream back then (laughs). Whenever that beeper sounded, it meant something urgent was afoot. So, we rushed back to the beach to remove those letters. Despite the unexpected twist, the test was a triumph (laughs).

I even had a stint as a "market stallholder" (laughs). During TerraCottem's early days, we wanted to boost product recognition, so we came up with the idea of me setting up shop at weekly markets to spread the word. I even had my very own "peddler's card" and travelled across Flanders with my trusty van and trailer. I'd strike up conversations with people and offer them samples. I kept this gig going for nearly a whole year...

Then when the TerraCottem company built its own production unit, you became the person in charge there?

True. That was in Vichte ("the current production unit is now in Oeselgem, see www.terracottem.com/en/manufacturer-0" (ed.)).

There, production and storage facilities were brought under one roof. But I still continued to deliver our clients. Furthermore, I played a key role in establishing various demonstration projects. These were the early days of TerraCottem, a time when numerous experiments were conducted to showcase the remarkable benefits of this soil conditioner on plant growth. I vividly recall one instance when I headed to Brussels, where a large, ancient tree was in a state of decline. Armed with an auger and a shovel, I dug roughly 20 holes beneath the tree's canopy, right where its roots were situated. I then painstakingly mixed TerraCottem with the soil by hand and used this blend to refill the holes. Miraculously, that tree regained its vitality and thrived once more!

Read here the blog article “How to plant a tree with TerraCottem?”

And you also lent a hand to Professor Van Cotthem with his extensive experiments, right?

Absolutely! That was quite an entertaining and enlightening experience. I picked up a lot from the professor during that time. Originally, TerraCottem was developed to combat desertification, and the professor conducted numerous pot tests using sand. Luckily, the municipality of Koksijde allowed us to collect sand from the beach back then – it's no longer permitted nowadays. But in those days, I would load up the van and trailer, head to the coast, and fill them with sand (laughs). With this sand, we carried out a variety of experiments at the Proefcentrum voor Sierteelt (Research Centre for Ornamental Horticulture) (PCS) in Destelbergen.

Haha, yes, I remember that well. When I joined the team, I pitched in to help with those trials too.

One of the professor's experiments involved testing various carrier materials. Did you know that the initial TerraCottem formulation included sand and cork as "carriers"? However, during those growth trials, the professor discovered a more fitting component: the lava we use today. And from that discovery, TerraCottem universal was ultimately born.

And later also "AgroCottem" which later became TerraCottem complement.

Klopt. Ik heb ook nog geholpen met die testen….

True. I also helped with those trials....
Yes, I remember that too. You then continued the professor's research work. That's also when TerraCottem arbor and TerraCottem turf were created.

The company was also growing rapidly at that time. More sales, more soil conditioners in the range, different packaging. It got busier and busier in "my" warehouse (laughs).

When you worked at TerraCottem, you wrote books and made paintings. Are you still doing that?

Yes indeed. Under the pseudonym Beritos. I've just finished a new book. A sequel to “Ghost”, which came out last year. That was already my eleventh book to be published.

All in-house. I certainly don't get rich doing that (laughs), but I enjoy doing it. Because it is self-managed, I can always order extra copies if the demand is there.

Why the pseudonym Beritos?

It dates back to my childhood. I read a lot of Jommeke (Flemish comic) back then. When I was playing "cowboy & Indian" outside with friends, I remembered a comic strip in which Jommeke was in Mexico. His friend Filiberke was then nicknamed Filiberkos. The parrot Flip became Flipos.... You how it works: that "-os" at the end of Flemish words to make it sound Spanish. My friends back then called me Beri... which then became Beritos (laughs).

I came across your "swap bookcase" concept on social media. Could you share some details about that?

In Dentergem, my hometown, which is comprised of four boroughs, I've established approximately five of these book exchange points:

I'm an avid reader and, as a result, I've amassed quite a collection of books. While I was aware of the concept of swap bookcases, I often found that they were located in cold, damp places. So, I decided to set up my own in more inviting locations where people frequently gather. The idea is straightforward: I place a bookcase and fill it with books. Anyone can take a book and, if they wish, replace it with one they've already read. The goal is to encourage social interaction. When someone comes to pick up a book, it often leads to interesting conversations and the chance to meet new people.

That's lovely to hear! You also paint. I remember purchasing one of your works, which now adorns a prominent spot in my living room. It holds special significance for me and my family, as we acquired it during a memorable time when my wife was pregnant with our first child, and it was love at first sight when we saw it at one of your exhibitions.

That's good to hear. That painting "new life" was part of a quartet of works I made around that theme.

Painting goes in periods. I am brimming with ideas, although the available time doesn't always align with my creative inspiration (laughs). Plus, in the past year, I've been contending with some back issues, which has kept me away from my easel for a while. Additionally, I'm involved in organizing exhibitions, which does require a fair bit of preparation.

While it is still possible

I also "rent" some large works. I made a work especially for the construction sector. And one for the textile industry. Large paintings measuring 1m20 by 2m50. After several roundtrips, Fedustria, the professional association of companies from the textile, wood and furniture industry, finally bought my "Tribute To Flanders Textile". That now hangs in their Brussels office. And the other, "No construction = no economy" was purchased by BBC (Bekaert Building Company) for their Waregem office. I donated half the proceeds to the non-profit organisation Kinderkankerfonds (Children's Cancer Fund).

Tribute To Flanders Textile
No construction = no economy

Why to the Children's Cancer Fund?

Unfortunately, I had a personal encounter with this devastating illness quite some time ago. My eldest brother was diagnosed with leukemia 30 years ago, and I witnessed his prolonged struggle with the disease. During my visits to the hospital, I also saw the children's ward, and the sight of young patients battling their illnesses left a profound impact on me. It's incredible how you can consider yourself strong until you witness such situations; it truly touches your heart.
In response, I felt a strong desire to make a difference. For 14 years, I organized "Koester Kunst," an art exhibition where all the proceeds were dedicated to supporting the cause.

Last year, I lost another brother, also to leukaemia (sigh).

Sorry to hear that....
You're in retirement now: what does your day look like?

Breakfast, of course. And then I go and feed the chickens. Either I then work in the garden or in my vegetable garden. Or I paint. I write.

And when the weather is nice, I go cycling in the afternoon. For my retirement, you gave me a bike computer, which I use a lot. It allows me to plan nice trips.

And when I get home I also like to get behind my computer. I post on Facebook. Read the newspapers. Write readers' letters (laughs). I like to do the latter, to shake people up a bit.

I of course spend a lot of time in my studio, my "muzekot" (laughs). I’d like to show it to you: will you walk with me?

Super cool workshop, Gilbert! Thanks for letting me visit. I enjoyed our conversation and seeing you again.

You know you're always welcome, Davy. And send my many greetings to colleagues.

More information about Gilbert Vangampelaere aka Beritos?

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