Belgium’s V.H.F.R. Group completed repair work on Boskalis’ trailing suction hopper dredger (TSHD) Causeway in February this year. In March, the Boskalis’ TSHD Strandway underwent a 2.5-week drydocking project at the Damen Harlingen shipyard. Throughout the project, overseen by the V.H.F.R. Group, the team multitasked and provided guidance and support to the crew where necessary, assisting with various tasks, including welding and drawing preparation. 

photo courtesy of V.H.F.R.

Regarding this, and many other related topics, Dredging Today caught up with Rene Rodriguez, V.H.F.R. CEO, and Jelle Heestermans, Operations Manager V.H.F.R., to find out more about the latest developments within this young Brecht based company.

DT: As an introduction to some of our readers who are not familiar with your company’s background, what can you tell us about your business, the beginnings and where is V.H.F.R. today?

Rene Rodriguez (CEO): Initiated by Volvo, my educational journey commenced at a prestigious institution in Paris, where I specialized in engineering and hydraulics. Subsequently, I embarked on a professional path with Caterpillar, dedicating my expertise to the maintenance and operation of heavy machinery, including bulldozers and excavators.

This experience paved the way for the establishment of my own venture.

Initially operating independently, my proficiency in hydraulics and deep understanding of heavy equipment led to a collaboration with several great company’s leading in the industry.

During this period, I was dispatched to a dredging project in Abu Qir , Egypt, where I had the privilege of working alongside Jelle Heestermans. Together, we successfully completed the project, which not only solidified our professional relationship but also fostered a lasting friendship.

Following the completion of the project, I pursued an opportunity with an international company, serving as a hydraulic specialist for two years. However, it was during this time that I recognized a pressing desire to fully realize my entrepreneurial vision.

Motivated by my accumulated experience and a strong belief in my capabilities, I made the decisive move to establish my own company, this time expanding my operations to include a dedicated team of professionals.

photo courtesy of V.H.F.R.

Jelle Heestermans (Operations Manager V.H.F.R): With extensive experience as a dredge operator-master on non-propelled cutter suction dredgers, my career has spanned various roles across trailing suction hopper dredgers (TSHD), backhoe dredgers, and barges.

In recent years, I transitioned into the role of marine and site superintendent, overseeing safety inspections and operations of vessels globally. This diverse background has not only enriched my expertise but also ignited my pursuit for new challenges.

When Rene Rodriguez approached me with the opportunity to embark on a new venture, the proposition immediately resonated with me. He inquired about my interest in assuming the position of Operations Manager at VHFR Engineering, an opportunity to lead and innovate alongside him.

This prospect presented an exciting new chapter in my professional journey, promising a blend of leadership and challenge.

As we embark on this new chapter, I recognize there is much to learn.

My journey with Rene Rodriguez is a step-bystep process, ensuring that each action is deliberate and professional. Our collaboration is founded on a commitment to growth and excellence, and we approach every challenge with determination and a readiness to evolve.

VHFR Today: At VHFR, we pride ourselves on being a distinctive entity within the industry, attributing our uniqueness to the diverse expertise we bring to the table – a fusion of hydraulics and dredge knowledge & repairs. This combination allows us to offer comprehensive project management capabilities, handling 95% of projects from start to finish, which stands as our significant advantage.

Our collaborations with esteemed partners further enhance our ability to deliver exceptional outcomes.

As a small start-up company, we are a compact team, yet we draw immense satisfaction from the trust our clients place in us. Acknowledging the learning curve we face as a nascent company, our progress has been steady, supported by our dedicated personnel and a resilient mindset.

We believe in a measured approach to growth, prioritizing a calm and step-by-step methodology to ensure we maintain the highest standards of quality for our clients.

This philosophy is pivotal to our operations and the value we aim to provide.

photo courtesy of V.H.F.R.

DT: Overall, the last couple of years were challenging around the globe in many ways, how did your company sail through that period?

V.H.F.R.: As a startup, the past year has presented a unique set of challenges that tested our resilience, creativity, and adaptability. Despite the uncertainty, we managed to navigate these turbulent times by adopting a strategic and flexible approach, focusing on the following key areas:

Rapid Adaptation: Understanding that agility is crucial for survival, we quickly adjusted our business model and operations to respond to the changing environment. This included embracing remote work, reevaluating our product-market fit, and pivoting our services to address new customer needs.

Focus on Team Well-being: Recognizing that our team is our most valuable asset, we placed a strong emphasis on supporting their mental and physical health. Flexible work policies, open communication channels, and access to wellness resources were instituted to ensure a supportive and productive work environment.

Customer Engagement and Retention: We stayed closely connected with our customers, understanding their shifting needs and pressures. By providing relevant, value-driven solutions and maintaining strong communication, we not only retained but also expanded our customer base during these challenging times.

Embracing Technology and Innovation: Leveraging technology was more crucial than ever. We accelerated our digital transformation to streamline operations, enhance customer experiences, and open up new growth avenues, all while keeping costs in check.

Prudent Financial Management: As a startup, managing our finances effectively was paramount. We focused on careful budgeting, reducing nonessential expenses, and seeking out strategic funding opportunities to ensure our financial health and sustainability.

Community and Network Engagement: We recognized the importance of building strong relationships with stakeholders and the community. Engaging in partnerships, support initiatives, and collaborative projects helped us not only to contribute positively but also to enhance our brand visibility and trust.

By embracing these strategies, our startup was able to weather the storm, learning valuable lessons in resilience and adaptability. The experience has not only fortified our foundation but also positioned us for exciting growth opportunities ahead.

Our journey underscores the importance of innovation, community, and a steadfast commitment to our mission, enabling us to thrive in the face of adversity.

photo courtesy of V.H.F.R.

DT: What is in the pipeline at the moment and what are the solutions that your team is currently working on?

V.H.F.R.: At the moment, our team is diligently working on several initiatives that are confidential, and therefore, we’re limited in the details we can provide publicly. However, we are eager to highlight our fruitful collaboration with Boskalis on two significant projects that we finished recently.

Our gratitude extends deeply to everyone involved in these successful projects, notably the Fleet Management Department of Boskalis, as well as the committed crews of the TSHD Causeway and the Strandway.

Their united efforts and dedication have been pivotal to our achievements.

Additionally, we are thrilled to acknowledge our recent partnership with CEO Harrie Vandersteldt and Operational Director Pascal Bounin from Boreas Maritime.

photo courtesy of Boreas

Following a series of introductory meetings, it’s clear that V.H.F.R Engineering and Boreas Maritime share a harmonious synergy, marked by a mutual mindset and effortless communication. This promising alliance positions us for a future of collaborative success.

With several projects already underway, we are optimistic about the prospects this partnership holds.

In general, we are both pleased and humbled by the possibilities that the future may hold.

As highlighted earlier, V.H.F.R Engineering is committed to proceeding step by step to assure our esteemed clients of the expertise and meticulous attention to detail they expect and deserve from their requested projects.

Our approach is rooted in a deep understanding of our clients’ needs, ensuring that every project is executed with precision and tailored to meet their specific requirements. We look forward to continuing to deliver exceptional service and forging strong, lasting partnerships with our clients.

The anticipation of what lies ahead motivates us to uphold the highest standards of quality and dedication in all our endeavors.

photo courtesy of V.H.F.R.

DT: Do you believe that dredging industry can make a difference in improving the environment’s quality, and what is your opinion on this?

V.H.F.R.: The dredging industry, by virtue of its operations and innovations, indeed has the potential to make a significant difference in improving environmental quality, albeit within a nuanced context. My view considers both the constructive and challenging aspects of dredging, balanced by the industry’s evolving practices and technological advancements.

Positive Contributions

  • Environmental Restoration and Habitat Creation: Dredging can play a pivotal role in environmental restoration projects. For instance, it is used to remove sediments from riverbeds or lakes to restore water flow and improve water quality. The industry also contributes to habitat creation, such as constructing wetlands or restoring beaches that have eroded over time, which can bolster local biodiversity.
  • Pollutant Removal: Targeted dredging operations are capable of extracting contaminated sediments from water bodies. This process is crucial in areas where industrial runoff has compromised water quality, posing risks to aquatic life and human health. By removing these contaminants, dredging can significantly improve the ecological health of these areas.
  • Flood Prevention: By increasing the depth and capacity of water channels, dredging can help prevent flooding, a benefit that indirectly improves environmental quality and safeguards human settlements.
  • Challenges and Considerations Ecosystem Disturbance: The act of dredging can disrupt aquatic ecosystems, especially if not carefully managed. Disturbances can range from the physical alteration of habitats to the resuspension of sediments, which might release previously buried pollutants or affect water clarity and quality.
  • Carbon Footprint: The operation of dredging equipment, especially on a large scale, contributes to carbon emissions. Hence, the environmental benefit of specific dredging activities must be weighed against their carbon footprint.
  • Long-term Sustainability: The key challenge lies in ensuring that dredging practices are sustainable over the long term, minimizing negative impacts while maximizing environmental benefits.

The industry’s awareness and increasing adoption of more sustainable and less invasive dredging techniques reflect a commitment to environmental stewardship. Innovations such as electric dredgers, precision dredging technologies, and enhanced sediment management strategies aim to reduce the environmental footprint of dredging activities.

In conclusion, the dredging industry has the capacity to contribute positively to environmental quality, provided that its activities are carried out with a strong commitment to environmental sustainability, rigorous planning, and the adoption of best practices designed to minimize negative impacts.

The balance between benefiting navigational and commercial interests and protecting environmental health is delicate but achievable with continued innovation and responsible management.

DT: Sustainability now comes in many forms, and as one the companies involved in solving a wide range of engineering problems, you have knowledge, data and expertise to make a positive difference. What are your priorities when it comes to creating sustainable dredging solutions?

V.H.F.R.: Creating sustainable dredging solutions is essential for aligning the operations of the dredging industry with broader environmental and social sustainability goals.

The priorities for achieving this involve a multi-faceted approach, focusing on reducing environmental impact, enhancing efficiency, and ensuring the social and ecological well-being of the areas in which dredging operations occur.

Here are key priorities for creating sustainable dredging solutions:

Minimizing Ecological Footprint: Implement practices that reduce the disturbance to aquatic ecosystems, including minimizing sediment resuspension and preventing the spread of contaminants. This involves using more precise dredging techniques and equipment that can limit the impact on the seabed and surrounding marine life.

Pollution Control and Sediment Management: Develop and implement effective sediment management strategies to handle and treat dredged materials responsibly. This includes identifying suitable uses for dredged material, such as land reclamation, habitat restoration, or as raw materials in construction, thereby reducing waste and supporting circular economy principles.

Carbon Emission Reduction: Focus on reducing the carbon footprint of dredging operations through the use of energy-efficient and alternative fuel-powered vessels and machinery. Investing in research and development of electric, hybrid, or low-emission dredging equipment can significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Innovative and Adaptive Technologies: Invest in technology and innovation to improve the precision and efficiency of dredging operations. This could include automated and remote-operated dredging systems, advanced monitoring tools to better understand and mitigate environmental impacts, and techniques that adapt to different environmental conditions.

Community Engagement and Transparency: Engage with local communities, stakeholders, and environmental organizations to ensure that dredging projects are aligned with local needs and environmental conservation goals. Transparency about the environmental impact assessments and the measures taken to mitigate negative impacts is crucial for building trust and ensuring the social license to operate.

Compliance and Best Practices: Adhere to international standards and best practices for environmental protection and sustainability. This includes compliance with regulations set by bodies such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the implementation of guidelines from environmental agencies and industry associations.

Restoration and Enhancement: Where possible, incorporate environmental restoration and enhancement projects as part of the dredging operations. This could involve creating new habitats, such as artificial reefs or wetlands, to promote biodiversity and compensate for any potential environmental losses.

Continuous Improvement and Learning: Establish a culture of continuous improvement, learning from each project, and integrating lessons learned into future operations. Encouraging research, sharing knowledge across the industry, and collaborating with academic and research institutions can drive innovation and improve sustainability practices over time.

By prioritizing these areas, companies involved in dredging can not only mitigate the negative impacts of their operations but also play a proactive role in environmental conservation and sustainable development.

photo courtesy of V.H.F.R.

DT: What can you tell our readers about V.H.F.R.’s most important goals and business plans for the upcoming period?

V.H.F.R.: The paramount objectives for us are to cultivate a financially robust organization characterized by a healthy cash flow, and to persist in our current trajectory, prioritizing client satisfaction and the delivery of professional expertise as needed. We remain humble and honest, placing a strong emphasis on the value of transparent communication with all our clients.

Both Rene and myself are convinced that this open dialogue represents the cornerstone of our company, V.H.F.R Engineering Group’s strength.

Our commitment to these principles is unwavering, as we believe they are essential not only to our immediate success but also to our long-term viability and growth.

By maintaining these core values, we aim to build and strengthen relationships with our clients, ensuring that we continue to meet and exceed their expectations.

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