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Family businesses around the world are increasingly focused on implementing a sustainability agenda in their often tradition-bound companies. Some have gone further than others by embedding sustainability practices and standards at the very heart of their business model, requiring significant changes to supply chain, governance and organisational culture.
Koninklijke Van Wijhe Verf, currently led by fourth-generation CEO Marlies van Wijhe, is one of these companies. Van Wijhe Verf was the first chemical company in the world to achieve the B Corp status – an accreditation that guarantees performance, accountability, and transparency through ESG metrics.
In this episode of WiFB, Marlies van Wijhe discusses her family enterprise’s journey towards this sustainability milestone, the leadership practices that got them there and what’s next for Van Wijhe Verf.
- To succeed in a changing world and ensure the longevity of the family business, leaders must make their processes and operations sustainable now. Focusing on a sustainable future should be part of a family business’s strategy and company culture, but getting there requires action today.
- Achieving the B Corp status doesn’t mean you can slow your efforts or lose your sustainability focus; it’s not about checking a box and forgetting about it. Constant improvements are required for recertification – so the bar continues to rise.
- Growth is much more than an increase in turnover and profit; it’s also about ensuring the continuity of the company. And now, for a company to succeed into the future, sustainability must be placed at the heart of its operations and governance strategies.
R: Welcome to another episode of Women in Family Business. I am here with Marlice [inaudible 00:00:24]. Marlice, welcome to the conversation.
M: Thank you. Good morning.
R: Tell us, when you were growing up, knowing that you’re part of this multi-generational legacy that is your family business, did you see yourself joining from day one? It was clear to you, “I want to be part of the family business”?
M: No. Absolutely not. Actually, I had a passion for biology when I was younger. I had a passion for nature. So, after some thinking and going to school, I decided I wanted to become a biologist and not do what my father did. No. So, I was really focusing on the universities, where to go, Utrecht, Groningen. Suddenly it came to me that it was probably not the right thing to do. I was visiting these universities as a 17-year-old. So, I had to find out what this study is and I thought, “No. This is not me working in the lab.” I wanted to travel. I wanted to go out to Africa.
So, I really decided at an instant that this was not my future and I had to find out what was my future. At that time I went to a bookstore and I bought a book where all kinds of studies were mentioned, which universities to go to in the Netherlands. That’s how I found out about my study, business administration, which was really new at that time. No one in my school went there and my teachers didn’t know what it was. My father was like, “Wow. That’s my job.” So, that’s how I ended up studying business administration. Then the next step, going to join the family business was relatively a smaller step.
R: So, ultimately an organic step. So, you weren’t forced? Your father did not coerce, he did not manipulate the situation, if you will?
M: When you’re young and that’s probably what triggered it, when you’re young, the family business is always there. Always. It is there during dinner. It is there during the morning. My father was never at home. He was always at the office. There was a time my mother told me that I said to her, “It looks like my father is dead or it feels like my father is dead because he’s never there.” Then she told this to my father and my father managed to be home early for one month and then he went back to doing what he always did. That’s it. But we went there when we were young, visiting his office on the weekends. I worked there when I was 15 years old. I was making tea and coffee for the guys in the factory. So, the company is always there. So, somehow it is in your system already. It just has to get out.
R: What struck you the most when you actually started working in the company? Were there things that surprised you about how things were done?
M: Well, after my study, I decided to go somewhere else first. I wanted to start in another company and I chose a chemical company, which was a multinational on the stock exchange. So, it was to find out what a big company was like as we were a small medium-sized paint company. So, that’s where I learned things about the company, but also about myself.
And my first job was exports, to build a bigger export department. We had very little activity in exports. One man was running that, but it was our aim to grow. That was interesting because this gave me the opportunity to be a little bit of an entrepreneur in expanding this business outside… I had not that much focus from people inside the company on me. I was able to develop my skills by doing my own thing abroad and that’s what gave me a lot of freedom. I think this was, for me, a good way to prepare for the next step, and that was to be the successor of my father after roughly six years.
What I noticed in the company… I was away a lot. I was traveling a lot. What I do remember is that sometimes I had some questions for people at the laboratory and later I found out that other activities were not done. Then I said, “Why did you do my question and not the question of other colleagues of mine?” “Yes, but it was you who asked.” It took me some time to realize that when I asked something, people viewed me differently than when somebody else was asking something. So, that was my first awareness of being not a regular employee of a company. I think that is something that you can tell your children also when they enter. You will never be a regular employee. You have to take care of that process.
R: Did it bother you when you found this out? Was it something that made you question whether what was happening to you was based on merit, or did you have a conversation with your family about the fact that this was happening to you?
M: Yes. I think I did, but it was not bothering me. It’s like, “Okay. Yes, I understand. So, I have to be careful there.”
R: A lifelong passion of yours that you’ve always had is to make sure the environmental impact of what you do is minimalized and that nature is being preserved. How has that been for you though because producing paint naturally involves a lot of chemicals and a lot of chemical processes? So, how have you made these two sides of you compatible? So, your responsibility towards your family legacy, but your very activism towards environmental protection?
M: Good question. Well, first there is, of course, the love for the family business, and my family business is making paint. But do understand that making paint is protecting and making buildings last longer and give color, and protection to make it more sustainable or durable in the future is, of course, also some form of sustainability. I think if you look back in the history of our company, there was always some sort of sustainability there, but the definition of sustainability changed over time. When I came into the company in 2000, my first job was, of course, to survive. I was a new leader there and I had to survive as the CEO of my company, to get acquainted with everything. But along the line around 2007, 2008, I think there was more attention also in the world for sustainability. When the crisis came, the financial crisis, I also got elected as businesswoman of the year in 2010 and I had to explain to people what we did as a company, and innovation and sustainability were already then two important pillars. They were rising somewhere between 2000 to 2010. This prize was some sort of catalyst for me to tell what we were doing and to tell better what we were doing.
Also then the question came, paint and sustainability. That was for me the most interesting combination. How can I explain that a company producing paints is also able to be a sustainable company? That somehow was the best trigger for me to explain what we did and why we were doing it in the right way. It gave me motivation as well.
R: It’s very interesting how these opportunities are sometimes given from the outside for us to reflect on what it is that we’ve been doing all along. So, whilst you were doing all of these things, even without necessarily communicating them to the outside world, what were your competitors doing? When did the major shift happen for them? Did you see something like an upswing around the same time that you described your realizing as well that this was actually something to be communicated?
M: The other ones weren’t busy with it. Maybe some rare small company was focusing on it as well, but my big competitors, no. The way you’re talking to people about it is getting more and more interesting and you get more and more ideas and you combine more and more sustainability and innovation. For me, it still goes together a lot. But I remember that around 2012 when I look back on the crisis, talking about sustainability was becoming more okay. Before that, it was something in the left corner, and that’s what surprised me in a positive way. When I also got asked to be a member of a foundation, Nutch, about sustainability, that’s when I was aware that I could merge sustainability and paint good together. It was for me a challenge to show people that we can do good protecting.
R: Well, I think it is a feat. The conversation has definitely had an uptick in recent years, especially over the last decade. Entirely agree there. We’re talking about this much more than we used to before without prejudice. But then there are still a lot of industries who are using their industry as an excuse to say, “For us, this is harder to do. For us, this is more difficult.” So, that’s why I’m particularly inspired by the fact that even a process that involves chemicals such as paint production can actually take very significant steps towards minimizing the impact you have and I think this is very encouraging.
M: But don’t forget, Ramia, the whole world is about chemistry. Without chemistry, there is hardly anything. Even our bodies are small chemical factories. So, chemistry somehow has this idea that it is wrong and I must admit there are industries that are doing wrong, but chemistry is a very important part for us.
R: Absolutely. You’re right to correct me on that note. I think the association we have when we talk about it, as you said, is that we associate it with a negative environmental impact. But you’re perfectly right, of course. Without it, it wouldn’t work at all. But I think that the science behind making it zero-emission or even a positive impact, I think that’s what’s interesting and that’s what’s driving companies forward nowadays that we’re making progress in that area.
But you took it a step further to be fair. You also got got the B Corp status. I believe that you are one of the or even the first company in the Netherlands to have achieved the B Corp status. Can you tell us a little bit more about why that became important to you? Was that something that you were really aiming for a long time and how the process unfolded?
M: Well, actually we were not the first company in the Netherlands that got the B Corp status, but we were the first chemical company in the world that got the B Corp status. There were some first there, yes.
R: Big first. It’s a big first.
M: Well, it was due to this Nutch member I was, this foundation. The owner said to… I remember that I was in the car and he phoned me up. Young, was his name. Young said, “Marlies, I got something for you. Have you ever heard about B Corporation?” I said, “No. I have no clue.” That was in 2015. “Never heard of it.” “Ah, Ben and Jerry is a B Corp and we are trying it too. You should try too with your company and I’m sure you will do it without any problems.” I said, “Okay.” So, I was triggered.
When I got back to the office, I looked it up, what it was, and it was an American thing, a nonprofit organization. Well, I saw it more as a challenge and the fact that you could yet you were able to find out how sustainable you were was interesting for me because all the big listed companies have this Dow Jones sustainability index where you have no clue what they have to do and why they get it. I thought, “Okay. Now I can do my own thing here.”
I had one colleague that was also very curious and we started to do this quick scan. We got some help from a company in the Netherlands to do the questionnaire, but it was hard. It was really hard. I think we tried three times and three times I thought, “I’ll quit.” I stopped doing it. Then we got some help again. “Come on. You have to continue.” Finally, we were able to answer all the questions and get those 80 points because you need 80 points to become available for the B Corp Certificate.
Finally, we had this and we did it with a small group because you have to find out a lot of figures and a lot of things we never checked. They asked us for figures that we had to find out in our company. Where are the percentages and the numbers? We managed and then we suddenly had the B Corp status. So, I told my management team. I said, “Guys, we got it.” Then, “Okay. Well, nice for you. We don’t know what to do with it, but if you like it, continue.” I said, “Yes, I will continue because it is important for us. You’ll see.
Two years later we had our recertification and I had a little bit more help in the company. But for two years I didn’t push. We just had it and that’s it. The thing with B Corp is that you have to get better. So, “It’s not like we had it two years ago and we will keep it for the next 100 years.” No. Every time you have recertification, you have to get better. So, the bar is getting higher. So, we had to work again to get this B Corp status with enough points. I had, again, at least 80 points. I think we had 95 or something. I told my management team. I said, “Okay, guys. What do you want? Do you want to quit now or shall we keep this B Corp status and do something with it?” “No. No. Don’t quit. Don’t quit. We need it because it shows that we are a sustainable company.”
So, that’s how I got my management team involved. Then, of course, you have to involve the company as well. So, that is how it started with us.
R: This is such an interesting point that you’re raising. So, the agreement at the ownership level, at the family level, that this is important. So, that was not a difficult conversation for you? They backed you up from day one?
M: Yes. They did. That’s what I said earlier. If you look back in our history, there was always some sort of sustainable action although sustainability has another definition now as it had 30 years ago.
R: What’s interesting, I feel, is that what we’re seeing now is also this wave of companies who adopt sustainability or ESG agendas almost like a separate department. It’s almost like there’s an ESG officer. I’m not taking away at all from the efforts that these companies are making, but it’s of course, very interesting when it’s almost done like another thing to do as opposed to it being truly part of the culture of the organization. So, basically sustainability is not something we do extra, but it’s the whole point of why we are here.
M: That’s why I have a little bit of a problem with the sustainability managers because you cannot say one person is responsible. “Arrange everything and report to me how far we are.” No. I think the top has to be involved. Like me, I am someone who is a driver. Maybe I am the sustainability manager of our company. Maybe you can call me that. But you have to have someone who is enthusiastic about it and you have to try to get your whole company with you. I think I had some help with my green team. My green team is a team of young people that help me to get sustainability more in the veins of our company. That was of much help for me as well.
What we see now is that the young people that come to my company to work for me and to work for the company are also attracted by the fact that we are focusing on sustainability because they want to work for a company that takes its responsibility there.
R: Have you experienced the benefits in other areas where you’ve said, “Okay. So, it’s really helped us, this reputation of being particularly sustainable as a company, this reputation with the B Corp certification”? What other benefits have you seen come out of it?
M: I must say that the Netherlands are lagging a little bit behind, our professional painters. Well, they are getting more and more interest because their customers are thinking it is more important. At a consumer level, it is slowly growing, but what I noticed in our export business, there we were able to present ourselves as a sustainable company, which was for our customers there something different. Compared to the other ones, they already were selling the other brands. So, I see more awareness outside the Netherlands than inside the Netherlands although it is growing right now, I must say.
One of the strategies we formulated a couple of years ago was to be a front runner in sustainable coating and coating solutions in a steady family business. We are now getting back more and more that people see us as a front runner. That also means that sometimes you make some mistakes. If you’re a front runner, there’s another risk, of course, but that’s something you deal with. But the fact that we want to show that we try to do better and be more sustainable is now something that people notice.
R: You’re right. I think the times are a little bit more favorable now than they were maybe 10 or even 20 years ago, I think in terms of the awareness of people, of course, and I think this next generation will help particularly in creating a definitive flip in what we consider to be good business.
M: But you must as a company be sustainable now. I think if you are now not focusing on being a sustainable company with all the things you do, you will have no future at all.
R: Here we come to the crux of the matter. So, how to. This whole question of how to. Again, I want to be adamant about this for our listeners. Hindsight is 2020. We can look back now, and Marlies, I think it’s very honest of you to say when you’re pioneering you make mistakes and not everything has worked out exactly the way that you wanted it to or exactly at the speed that you want it to. But you did do it and you did get to this point where you can confidently talk about this. Now, a lot of companies are still not there and they’re struggling.
I have particularly a question for family businesses because it feels like the sustainability in the family business topic obviously really goes hand in hand quite naturally. So, if you’re striving for multi-generational success, it makes total sense to try to look at your business practices in this way and to make sure that you are handing over something to the next generation that’s not a burden or something that has to be cleaned up or something that has to be justified.
The fact is though that it’s very difficult for a lot of people to know where to start. So, if you look at the family businesses around you, and I know that you’re very engaged with the family business community nationally and internationally, where do you feel like a lot of families might go wrong initially? Are they setting the agenda too ambitiously to start with, or is it not enough for one family member to champion the cause? Where do you think family businesses are struggling the most in really, really turning things around towards this and having this more as a focus?
M: Well, I’m not a researcher, so I must do this a little bit with the feeling I have. Struggling? Maybe there will be several struggles. I think the most important thing is that you realize, as you just mentioned, as a family business that you want to survive in the future. If you want to have continuity in your family or your family business, you have to look at your business into the future. So, the first step is to conclude that if you are not a sustainable family business right now, you have to become that very fast. Your strategy has to be focused on a sustainable future. That’s step one.
Then you need someone who is maybe a little bit fanatic about it. For me, it’s just so much fun doing it. I love innovation. I love to think of new things. I love that so much that every now and then people say, “Come on. Come on. We have to finish first what we started. Don’t come with new ideas, please.” But that is something that I like so much. You have to have fun in what you do and create new things and do that sustainability. I think you have to find the fun. That is the answer. Find the fun of doing it because sustainability is a serious business, but it can also be a lot of fun.
R: I love that piece of advice. I don’t think anyone has ever put it that way. Because I think people always associate this topic with seriousness. So, maybe that’s the solution. Is to find the fun.
M: It’s the feeling if you got the solution. The feeling that you got a new idea. The feeling that you made that next step. The feeling that you have at least 80 points again in your new B Corp recertification. It’s also a question of a little bit of wanting to win. You want to win. There’s these challenges there. Find the challenge.
R: Have you spoken to your next generation about how important they feel this aspect is to make [inaudible 00:33:25] their future choice of career?
M: No burden. No pressure on them. The family business is always there, but no pressure. Well, the thing about family businesses is that you have so much freedom. Or your own company, not only a family business. But you have so much freedom. We always say in the family it’s lonely at the top but the wind blows very pleasantly your nose. I think that is something we show to our next generation. My nephew Bob is now already working in the company in the marketing department. He was also like, “Oh no. Never.” Somehow he ended up between two studies and he never left. So he now likes it a lot. My niece, she knows it’s there and she talks more and more about it also to her friends. That’s what my sister noticed.
Well, they have to make their decision in a couple of years. It’s there. You’re born into it. So, you have to find out if you want it or not. Both answers are okay with us, but you have to give me and my sister, because we are two, an answer in a couple of years, we want to continue or not. That’s the only question we are going to ask. Then they have to say yes or no, but in the meantime, during this road, we of course somehow try to find out how they fit in the whole business. But they have to decide for themselves.
R: Last question for you, Marlies, also to just understand a little bit where you are now. So, we’ve talked a lot about how you got here, how these practices were established. What do you think are the big obstacles and opportunities ahead for you guys right now?
M: Well, business-wise, there is this green deal launched by the European Commission, which can mean that maybe 80% of our raw materials will not be there anymore in a couple of years. So, we have to reinvent our products, our paints, our protection products. So, that’s a big challenge but also a very interesting challenge because it’s still dealing with innovation again and sustainability. So for me, it’s also fun to look at the possibilities. The other one is also, and that’s not only for my company, what is the definition of growth? Because if I look at the solvent-based lacquers that we use in Holland a lot, the volume in Holland is down by 25% compared to 10 years ago. So, where the durability of our products goes up, the volume goes down. So, what do you do with a volume that is half of the volume you had 10 years ago or 50 years ago? So, that’s my struggle with the definition of growth. Where is it going? So, that’s something we have to solve.
For me, growth is not how much did you get last year and how many percentages did you grow in your turnover? Growth is much more than growth in turnover and growth in profit. We have to be healthy. We need to have a healthy profit for a healthy business and I try to do some spreading of the risk. So, we’re trying to do things in other areas. We have a startup actually. Our own startup since a couple of years in the north of our country where we are working more on the chemical side. So, not making paint, but also making a new chemical, which is green deal proof and helps in… We can put it in our paint. It could be raw materials for our paints.
So, that’s something we also do and that is also a challenge because we have to work together with raw material suppliers and to find out new possibilities for the future of our family business, which is maybe in 50 years something different than it is now. I think that is a challenge. During this road, you need enthusiastic people in your company that like to work for you and that like to work the way the company is organized so they can do whatever they want and feel freedom in their own way.
R: So, your to-do list is not getting shorter anytime soon, Marlice. I feel like there is quite a lot on your plate and we’re so grateful that you’ve taken the time to sit down with us and talk to us and talk to women in family business all over the world. Thank you very much for joining us today.
M: You’re welcome.