The story of Protime, by Peter s’Jongers, founder and CEO of Protime
25 years... ‘time flies’ says the cliché... it feels like yesterday but of course the truth is that 1995 is quite a long time ago. The news was dominated by the war in Serbia and Croatia, Brabant was split into Flemish and Walloon Brabant, Miguel Indurain won his 5th Tour de France and Sony launched the PlayStation. The latter did just a bit better than our Protime software... And oh yes, commercial internet didn't exist yet...
We're January 1995. Eric, Luc and I had decided during the months before to start a company specialized in time registration solutions. As twenty-somethings we had our first work experience as an account manager behind us and were working in this market. However, we were sure that this market was going to change for good.
Windows applications conquered the business world at lightning speed, and in our opinion the common mechanical time clock would quickly lose ground, in our opinion. Automation would be the future! Protime would become a software company that would only commercialize one application: time registration.
A bright idea from three very ambitious young salesmen but unfortunately also three people without any software background. Just a small technical problem.
So, our first sales success was selling this idea to the head of the development department, Piet Verstraete. Piet was the man we needed to make our ideas tangible. He knew the market and was widely praised for his high-performance development capabilities. Fortunately for us, he immediately believed in the story and took the risk of quitting his job and blindly following those three salespeople. Quite a risk, if you ask me.
Our second sales success may have been even more difficult. After all, we had to convince the banks of our plan. They had to give us a loan that none of our family could vouch for. After all, we didn't have anything but an idea and our scarce savings. I can still imagine us sitting in the office of the bank director, passionately telling the story knowing that it was make or break. I don't know if it would still work out today, but we got our credit in the amount of 30.000 EUR. Fortunately, in 1995 banks were a little more accommodating for young starters.
On Thursday 12 January 1995 we were at the notary's office to make Protime an official enterprise. Proud as four peacocks.
To bridge the first years, we decided to sell classic time registration clocks from the German manufacturer Isgus in addition to the Protime software. After all, we had to make money and we couldn't wait for our software development to produce a first workable version.
Thus, our little company consisted of one person writing software and three others running around selling time registration clocks. From time to time they succeeded in making a few better deals.
First-time customers like Katoen Natie and Volvo Parts gave us confidence and a first commercial boost. Piet lost his hair and probably regretted it more than once that he was surrounded by only salesmen... I still don't dare to ask him today.
There are hilarious anecdotes from our first installations. Customer number 1 of course received invoice number 1 while he thought he had bought from an established value. How could he know, internet didn't exist yet, you know... Salesmen afterwards also turned out to be - very bad - installers... Mothers were asked to man the phone and clean the offices... in short, it was a crazy time. But already back in those days, customer satisfaction and customer orientation were our top priorities.
In February 1997 we finally had a real company, at least in our opinion. After all, we were able to move from the apartment in Deurne to a real office building, our famous white villa along the A12 highway. At least we got half of the building because there was still a bank office in the front. In the meantime, we were 7 people and thought we would never outgrow that office. But we grew faster than expected and in 1999 we got the opportunity to buy the villa from the owner, which we did promptly.
The year 2000 was another tipping point thanks to the millennium bug. Protime grew considerably in turnover and staff. We celebrated our 10th anniversary in style with more than 40 people on board. 10% of the turnover already came from outside Belgium.
The acquisition of our Dutch partner Prosphera in 2008 was another milestone. Lucas and Darek had built a Protime dealership on the Dutch market in 10 years time and joined the family. Belgium was no longer our only home market, the Netherlands would also get our full focus from then on. For the first time, group sales exceeded EUR 10 million.
In the meantime, the villa was bursting at the seams and in June 2009 we moved to beautiful new offices in Aartselaar. The opening party was memorable and even the Flemish Prime Minister paused the formation of the government at the time to come and wish us success. The only blemish on our beautiful course was that both Eric and Luc had said goodbye to Protime in previous years for health reasons. I had lost my partners who were there from the very start and had to look for a new interpretation of leadership.
However, we kept the wind in our sails. We opened an office in Paris and one in Manchester a year later. Even the banking crisis of 2008-2009 could only temporarily temporize our growth.
One of the strategic partners throughout Protime's history was HR company SD Worx. As a payroll specialist they often technically linked their solutions to our solutions and our clients recognised one process, from time registration to payroll. It therefore felt like the culmination of a marriage when SD Worx decided to step into the capital of Protime in 2011, thus helping to support the further growth of the company. Protime became a member of the SD Worx family, but sailed its own course and retained its specific identity.
In barely 4 years time, turnover grew by almost 60%, we opened a German branch and almost 60 new Protimers came on board. In the next 5 years, we also settled in Luxembourg and continued to grow with an average of 50 new employees per year. Unbelievable.
But despite our growth, the market continues to change. With the arrival of the white cash register in 2016 for the hospitality sector, a whole new demand emerged. Flexibility was given a different interpretation and systems had to adapt to this new form of time registration. There was a proliferation of start-ups and that didn’t go unnoticed by Protime either. In the summer of 2018, we therefore decided to include the young and ambitious Lommel start-up Onlinewerkrooster in our family.
Today, more than 300 Protimers, spread across 6 countries and 8 branches, give the best of themselves every day to serve our external and internal customers and to help build the future of Protime. That I am proud of this is an understatement and cannot be summed up in a few words. That's why in 2018 I decided to write the unique story of the Protime corporate culture in my book 'Proud! Why corporate culture is a strategic goal'.
But it doesn't stop here. After all, the ambitions are still sky-high. Everything that connects People and Time fascinates us immensely and the optimization of human capital is our core business. Nothing has changed in 25 years.
Protime, we make time valuable