INTERVIEW WITH REYNIER VAN BOMMEL by Jeroen Geelhoed, &samhoud consultancy
Van Bommel’s seven-mile boots
We can learn a great deal from companies that thrive in times of economic crisis. If there is one firm that has successfully negotiated the economic storms that have raced over the Netherlands in recent centuries, then it is shoe manufacturer Van Bommel. The company has been in existence since 1734 and has therefore been in a position to continuously develop and innovate for more than 275 years. Van Bommel is currently run by the ninth generation of this entrepreneurial family. We spoke to Reynier van Bommel, the managing director of this flourishing company, which has international ambitions. This is a unique story about three brothers, their business and being successful in times of economic crisis. The lessons we learned in the previous section are very clearly borne out here. Van Bommel: “I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for when I decided to work in the family business. I had probably not been there more than four or five times. The firm was never discussed at home. My father worked there, and my mother brought us up. When my father was at home, he was there to spend time with my mother and the children, so I never felt any pressure in the sense that I was the ninth generation and was expected to work for the company, not at all. When I was 21, I saw the company as a good opportunity. I thought I could start working there, and if it didn’t work out, I could always leave. I later found out that things do not work like that. There is a long road to go down before you are made a director here. A committee of various company departments has to unanimously agree to any appointments.”
Everything indicates that the family is dedicated to the company: “The most important thing is that, as the owners, we derive a certain satisfaction from the work. My brother and I have often discussed this.
It has absolutely nothing to do with money or status. I have put my heart and soul into this company and it occupies my mind 24 hours a day. If I no longer enjoyed it, then I would give it up. That is my prime motivator, followed by the employees. I feel a great responsibility towards them. My attitude is – and this is how we were brought up, in business terms – that someone else can take over the company if the company and the employees would be better off. The most important value that I grew up with is that you are responsible for 140 people – in other words, 140 families. As a company, we legally register a great deal. My brother Pepijn has just joined the company, for example, and has eighteen months to decide whether to do so on a permanent basis. The company comes first.”
Down the years, the shoe manufacturer has managed to grow even during periods of economic difficulty. Van Bommel says of this, “When I started, there were thirty or forty shoe factories in the Netherlands – now there are only two! In 1960, there were 140 factories, employing 13,000 people. Now, only 350 people work in the whole of the shoe industry, fifty of whom in the two remaining shoe factories. Our customers’ turnover has decreased by 3.3 per cent, which is nothing in comparison with the ten per cent, on average, for the market. Van Bommel has grown by 140 per cent in the last ten years.
We are the largest men’s brand in many shops. We export to Belgium and Germany, where our growth is in double figures. During the last season, we grew by 26 per cent in Germany.”
Why is it that the company is still doing so well? What does Van Bommel see as the most important factors behind its success? “The first reason has to do with having a unique and reliable history. There are many family firms in the international shoe industry, and our international name is perhaps not as big as those of our competitors.
But the story behind our company is unique. On the one hand, we are a shoe manufacturer that has been in Moergestel since 1734 and which is currently run by three brothers, the ninth generation. That fits in nicely with the traditional Van Bommel shoes. On the other hand, there is the persona of my brother Floris – he is very stylish and likes rock music. He represents the Floris van Bommel brand of shoes. That combination of the traditional, dating from 1734, and Floris’ hip style, is very powerful. Our communications are genuine and reliable – nothing is photoshopped. That reliability is where our strength lies. No other company in the world has that: it’s what makes us unique.
Of course we spend money on communications, but we also have the wind behind us. The press have been a godsend. In the fourth quarter of 2008, we had the equivalent of 253,000 euros of free publicity in Germany, which is way beyond our communications budget.”
Having a unique and reliable history is not the only factor, though. Van Bommel continues, “We try to keep things as personal as possible. Whenever any of our employees retires, then the whole factory is invited to the party, and I try to be there myself if at all possible. Our doors are always open. Good internal communication is important. Everything is based on trust and good relationships. It is all in keeping with the organisation. Of course there are people who resist all that, but we push on anyway. I have noticed that the personal approach and open communication has changed that kind of resistance. We are not afraid of confrontation.” This personal approach does not just apply to the employees, but also very much to the customers. “During the season, I see as many customers as possible – I spend about a third of my time selling. I set the prices for the next season myself. Twice a year, Floris flies around Germany to visit the magazines and to talk to relevant people. Whenever a shop is opened, we are there with flowers. That personal touch is a greater motivator for me: it gives me a lot of pleasure. My father wanted to give every customer the feeling that they were the only customer. The idea of making everyone feel special is part of the company’s culture. We do not have a contract with any of our suppliers. It is all based on trust, and they are happy to work for us. I will be getting married in October and I am having entire families of suppliers flown up from Portugal. It’s a good combination of trust and a personal approach.”
Even in times of crisis, quality and reliability are the top priorities: “In fact, we carry on exactly the same when there is a crisis as when there isn’t. Our archives include an item about the economic crisis of 1930. I quote, ‘Difficult years, what should we do? Produce more cheaply? Abandon the name that we have done so much to build up? The board has decided that we will continue to make the familiar quality product. Our good name must be maintained at all costs.’
This seems to have been the slogan that got us through those critical times. We repeated it in the 1980s and we are doing the same now. We will never compromise on quality. At the same time, we also make sure that the price/quality ratio is sound. A customer will know that the quality of a Schoenenreus shoe is of a different order to that of ours. It’s a question of the right ratio.” This is also all about reliability.
“We are a stable factor as far as our customers are concerned. That is important to us. A retailer knows that the telephone will always be answered. He knows that if there is a problem, a representative will call on him within three days who can be relied upon to resolve the problem. He knows that we bring out a certain number of new shoes every season, including successful versions, and that we know how to reach the consumer. In the Netherlands, that is important. That’s why we are not in free fall, as is the case with those brands that relocated their production to China in order to keep their costs down and that deliver poor quality.”
The company’s collective memory includes careful spending, but much is being invested at present. “We want to realise our ambitions for the company in the next fifteen years: to make the company big and to set up a retail branch. If we haven’t done that by the time we are 48, we never will. We cannot fund this entirely out of our own pockets. I think this target is what is driving the organisation forward and inspiring the employees. Our father put the ball in our court, and now it is our job to play it. We have made a shoe in collaboration with Timberland, a family firm, for example. We met Jeff Swartz in the process; he flies all over the world in his private jet. We found that very inspiring. In a recent interview, Floris said, ‘I too would like a private jet by the time I am fifty.’ It is not about the aircraft, but about the fact that by then we will be selling shoes in at least ten countries. It is precisely in times of economic crisis that thinking about the long term and having a challenging goal is so extremely important!”