From the outside in
"When you’re an owner of a growing organisation, every step you take is new. You have a lot of questions and insecurities. I joined our family company, the Driessen Group, about 12 years ago, when we still only employed around 35 people. Since then, though, it’s been quite a rollercoaster ride – we’ve experienced growth of around 20-30% each year.
The business is a family company that was started by my father 25 years ago to provide HR outsourcing solutions for non-profit/public organisations. Over the years we’ve transitioned from one small family business, to a family of businesses with about 525 people. And for us, that’s big business. All the group is digitally driven, and we provide services for people and organisations specialising in the public sector - municipalities, schools, government and healthcare.
During that period of rapid success, two things bothered me. Purpose and pleasure in work is what drives our business - happy employees make happy customers. Looking around our own company, I felt like we didn’t know each other anymore. When you work with 100 people it’s easy to stay connected, policies are pretty relaxed, and everything is quite entrepreneurial. But when you scale up and start growing, you start adding layers and new services, new business lines emerge, and suddenly you find you don’t know many people anymore. It adds a lot of complexity.
I did a great deal of soul searching and realised that we were going to continue growing very fast in the years to come. And I didn’t want to lose those intangible things that both we, and our customers, hold dear. I didn’t want success to cause us to lose what had made us successful in the first place.
It was an interesting problem – I was wary of changing what was effectively a winning formula, but I also knew the situation wasn’t healthy for us in the long-term. I’m responsible for a lot of people and for growing the business and providing purposeful work. So I talked to a lot of entrepreneurs a few stages ahead of us who had done the same journey, but I didn’t get the answers I wanted. Not many people I met were thinking in any serious way about the potential disadvantages of growing a business.
And that’s what led me to London Business School. I started looking around, and found that the Developing Strategy for Value Creation course asked all the right questions. ‘Where do you want to go? What do you want to sell? How are you going to create a strategy which brings you to a place where you want to be?’ That’s why I joined, and it’s been a very, very important step in my development as an entrepreneur.
Going abroad to study in London was a real advantage. I’m based in the Netherlands and it’s never been our intention to go international with the business, but what I wanted to achieve at LBS was to meet and understand people who worked in businesses bigger than mine. Most of our competitors in the Netherlands are publicly listed companies; in every area we compete in, we are the only family owned, non-PE backed company. I wanted to understand how strategy works in those larger companies, but without coming face-to-face with direct competitors at a local business school.
In fact, there were so many different nationalities on the programme, I found I had to talk about the business in a much more abstract way than usual. That was hugely helpful. For example, we’re an online driven staffing company, but in the Middle East, half the services I sell don’t even exist. That was quite an eye-opener, and it forced me to look at our business from the outside in. I couldn’t talk about the details of the services and why they’re great - I had to think on a more abstract level about what it is to have and run a business, and to have a strategy that works. It was wonderful to engage with and share experiences with these big companies."