Romain Cools of Belgium has been selected by the World Potato Congress (WPC) board of directors to be the organization’s fourth president and CEO since its inception in 1993.
Cools assumed the leadership role on Jan. 1, taking over from David Thompson, the P.E.I. resident and long-time WPC board member who served as the organization’s top executive from 2012 to 2017.
“This is the first time that we’ve gone outside of Canada for our president and CEO, and we couldn’t have made a better choice,” says Thompson, who will remain on the WPC board of directors.
Thompson describes Cools as an honest, hard-working individual who is very dedicated to the potato industry, with a strong commitment to the advancement and sustainability of the potato in the global environment.
“He has a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge that’s going to make him an excellent president,” Thompson says. “I just think he’s going to do a tremendous job.”
Cools says he’s honoured be the first non-Canadian president of WPC. “This is illustrating the huge openness of all the Canadian partners on the board to keep a view on the world. It is a great challenge to walk in the steps of my Canadian predecessors: Lloyd Palmer, Allan Parker and Dave Thompson.”
Cools, who was appointed to the WPC board in 2006 and was WPC vice-president for three years prior to accepting his current position, has a long history as a leading potato industry voice in Europe.
The 59-year-old has served as Secretary General of Belgapom, the Belgian Potato Trade and Processing Association, for the past 26 years.
Within Belgapom, Cools has led a number of initiatives such as the development of guidelines for self-checking in the trading and processing of potatoes, fruit and vegetables, as well as R&D projects like WatchITgrow, an innovative geo-information platform introduced last year for the Belgian potato sector.
In addition, Cools is a director of FVPHouse, an organization representing the Belgian fruit, vegetable and potato trade and processing industry, and is a board member of the Belgian Food Industry Association.
Cools is a co-founder of the Belgian Food and Plant Safety and Sustainability scheme called Vegaplan, and he also helped establish Interpom Primeurs, the big international trade fair for potatoes and vegetables in Europe.
During the past 15 years, Cools has served in a rotating role as secretary general of Europatat, the European Associations of Potato Trade. He’s also served as secretary general for seven years of EUPPA, the European Potato Processors’ Association. He led both organizations into a full time European secretariat in Brussels, the European Union capital. This has resulted in a more professional representation of the potato sector in Europe.
Born in Lokeren, a small town between Ghent and Antwerp in Belgium, Cools continues to live there with his wife of 35 years, Patricia. They have two children, Rebecca, 32, and Joachim, 30.
Cools says his first international experience in the potato sector came when he was just starting out with Belgapom back in 1993. It happened at the first-ever World Potato Congress that was held at the WPC headquarters in Charlottetown, P.E.I., and Cools considers it an important stepping-stone in his career path.
Cools is excited about the recent decision by the WPC board to hold the event every two years rather than three, after the 2021 congress in Dublin, Ireland.
“The World Potato Congress should be the stage for new ideas and innovations in the potato sector. We have all learned that things go faster and faster in our business. This is why WPC has decided to organize a biennial congress from 2021 onwards,” says Cools.
“The WPC doesn’t only want to create a showcase of new developments and ideas, but also wants to offer the opportunity to entrepreneurs, farmers and organizations to illustrate their steps forward of international collaboration on the stage of the WPC,” he adds.
“Our aim is to have at least 1,000 potato professionals from all over the world participating at this event,” Cools says. “I believe that this is something which is not a dream [because] there is so much enthusiasm within potato professionals.”
One of Cools’ objectives as WPC president and CEO is to help raise the profile of the congress to the point where it is a “cannot-miss event.”
“I would like to see everybody who’s a professional in the potato sector to know that there is a World Potato Congress and they put this in his or her agenda and tries to be on board and to be there,” he says.
Ontario potato grower and scientist Peter VanderZaag has worked closely with Cools for the past three years on the WPC board. VanderZaag feels the time is ripe for a European to assume the post as congress leader, and believes Cools’ outstanding work advancing the potato industry in Belgium and in Europe makes him the “perfect person” to lead the WPC.
“Romain is a very strategic thinker. I know that his strategic thinking is what’s been behind his success in Belgium and even at the WPC table,” he says. “He’s a dynamic character, I’ll tell you, dynamic and full of energy. He’s a mover and shaker, let’s put it that way.”