In 1934 entrepreneur Lucien De Puydt had an idea for a business that made the whole of Belgium take notice. Using the West Flanders town of Poperinge as a base, he started a company that made radios with parts imported from America. Soon De Puydt's product became renowned for its forward-thinking technology and clever marketing, propelling the fledgling enterprise forward into exciting new fields.
Today, Barco (the Belgian-American Radio Corporation) is every bit as creative as it was almost 80 years ago. Whether it's monitors for air traffic control towers, revolutionary flight simulators, digital billboards in city squares or huge screens at a U2 gig, the company De Puydt created now finds itself at the forefront of designing and developing visualisation solutions for a variety of markets.
"Belgium is a highly developed country with fertile ground for innovation," says Inge Govaerts, Corporate Communications manager for Barco, which is now based in Kortrijk, also in West Flanders. "And innovation is the basic DNA of Barco. The secret to our success is that Barco is a market-driven company that puts effort into finding out what customers need."
A case in point is the far-reaching success Barco has had in the field of air traffic control (ATC) over the last few years. A world leader in the production of high-resolution monitors used by air traffic controllers, the company has supplied equipment to control towers at airports around the world. Currently 20,000 air traffic controllers depend on Barco. The company has also been awarded the biggest ATC monitor contract in the history of the industry by the Federal Aviation Authority in America.
"Our displays are measured and validated against the most stringent norms within our industry," explains Govaerts. "Pixel defects, electronic interference, image reflection and reliability are all important parameters that our monitors are tested against. Our display solutions offer the best image quality and least defects, which is important in the critical environment of air traffic control."
It is not just commercial airline pilots who are given a helping hand by Barco. Late last year the company unveiled the ultimate training tool for jet aircraft - an extraordinary, 360° flight simulator, which became fully operational this year.
The domed structure is the first of its kind and gives pilots an unobstructed view of the world around them as they embark on virtual missions. Three years in the making, the simulator features 13 high-definition projectors which shine on to the outside of an acrylic sphere 3.4m in diameter. The pilot sits on the inside and looks at the inner surface.
"We are proud of having achieved the pinnacle in flight simulation technology," says Govaerts. "Reaching the highest technological achievement is our aim."
Certainly, Barco has excelled in every market it has ever entered. In the 1960s it was one of the first European companies to introduce colour TV, while the mid-1980s saw Barco becoming the prime projection technology supplier for computer giants IBM, Apple and Hewlett-Packard. Through the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, Barco pioneered new display technologies, including liquid crystal display (LCD) and light-emitting diodes (LED).
Its sporting portfolio is particularly impressive with Wembley Stadium, a number of the South African stadiums used for the 2010 Football World Cup, and venues for the recent European Championship in the Ukraine and Poland utilising Barco's products, including digital signage, projection systems and solutions for venue control rooms. The company is also involved in the healthcare market - active in more than 90 countries, employing 3,500 employees worldwide and posting sales of close to €1.1bn in 2011.
Key to the company's success has been its location in Belgium, the ideal place in terms of a highly skilled workforce and proximity to the rest of Europe.
"Belgium is a country with a very high level of education," says Govaerts. "Belgians are aware that 'grey matter' is about the only thing they have to build their well-being on because we have no natural resources with which to do business. Also, Belgium lies in the heart of Europe and enjoys easy connections to other countries in Europe and to the Middle East and Africa. Having our headquarters in Kortrijk is part of the historical evolution of Barco, because we started the company in Belgium in 1934. We feel at home here."
In the future, Barco will look to foster growth in its ventures - for example LiveDots, which concentrates on LED displays, and digital signage solutions company Dzine - by giving them full autonomy. The company is also coming to a movie theatre near you.
"We have installed more than 25,000 digital cinema projectors around the world," says Govaerts. "We are now introducing 3D sound, enhancing the immersive cinema experience."
It is the sort of innovation Lucien De Puydt would have been proud of. www.barco.com