30 Oct “Investing in yourself is crucial. This is how you can grow quickly as a leader and also bring your team into your story” – Bloovi (Oct ’20)
By Bert Vandebuerie 27th oct ’20
Thijs Claes, who studied Germanic languages and philosophy and even taught for a while, decided in 2009 to join his parents’ printing business. For him, it was a leap into the unknown, an experiment. Above all, he wanted a taste of what a family business is like. Meanwhile, Claes knows the ropes, and has been the CEO of Daddy Kate since 2013, which today employs about 100 people and generates around 21 million in turnover. “The banking crisis ensured that I immediately found a nice challenge: ensuring the future of the company. Otherwise, I might have stepped back out after a year.”
Daddy Kate presents itself as a one-stop shop. The customer can come to them for classic printing, but also for personalised products. He gets a total offer. All needs are met at once, which is their biggest asset. “By making a difference compared to your competitors, you can still grow in a declining market and a world that is digitalising more and more,” CEO Thijs Claes points out.
Joining the family business
While his two sisters Heidi and Sandra had already started in their parents’ printer in 2006, Claes had no intention of taking that same step. In 2009, he nevertheless accepted his mother’s suggestion to at least give it a shot. Just then, they were struggling with the effects of the financial crisis, but that was motivation for him to stay. “It presented a challenge for me and I love that. I definitely wanted to help ensure the company’s future. Had that motivation not been there at the time, I might have stepped back out after a year.”
Despite the fact that Thijs Claes had no real position in the beginning and still had to learn everything, he received a lot of appreciation from his employees. He acquired the necessary understanding of the different departments and asked many questions about the future. Unlike his father, he did want to respond to external changes such as the rise of the internet. Together with his brother-in-law, he started thinking seriously about the further professionalisation and structure of the company. In 2010, for instance, an Advisory Board was set up. This provided the CEO with a lot of useful information on strategy, organisation and structure.
“We are not aiming for 100% satisfaction with the company culture, people should above all feel good in their jobs.”
He explained his vision to the rest of the family and they immediately agreed to his role as CEO. “I was lucky to have the support and full trust of my family,” Claes adds. “Even now my parents are proud of me, although they themselves have since distanced themselves from the company. That’s fine, it makes for a good relationship.”
Because the company fell pretty much in the middle in terms of size, at a certain point it had to choose: shrink or grow. “I was convinced that we were too small to survive then,” says Claes, who therefore chose to grow further. As a result, he involved his employees more in making decisions. That transition required patience on both sides. But the most important thing was that they kept making steps along the way.
The merger and separation
When Thijs Claes realised that Daddy Kate needed to grow to be successful, he made contact with a CEO of another family business. They were in a similar situation and shared the same vision. So in 2015, the merger was a reality. However, this was not without controversy. “It is not obvious to bring two different business cultures together. You try to create something new, while each wants to return to their previous working methods. It was definitely a turbulent period, but I have absolutely no regrets. We became big thanks to this merger,” Claes says.
Yet it turned out that their opinions differed too harshly, which eventually led to a breach of trust. This put the Claes family back at the helm. The current CEO sees the separation as a learning experience: “Then you realise what can go wrong. Everything can be beautifully written out on paper, but in reality things often turn out differently,” Thijs emphasizes.
“Investing in yourself is crucial. That way, you can grow quickly as a leader and bring your team into your story.”
What helped him throughout the process was his self-confidence and knowledge. He sensed what worked and what didn’t. Getting feedback from your team is also important. For instance, he is evaluated annually by management, which he likes!
Claes insists on open and clear communication: “You have to communicate constantly and not wait until the performance review. With us, results are shared, we are transparent about it. Through openness, taboos disappear and that only benefits cooperation.”
A qualitative goal
At Daddy Kate, the objective is crystal clear: to still exist as an independent family business within 100 years. Talk about ambition! In doing so, Claes provides a framework that can be understood by everyone in the company. “By giving employees more say, we create more independence and are less dependent on other bodies. That way we have a better chance of surviving across generations.”
The CEO always thinks long-term and focuses only on qualitative rather than quantitative goals. He does not need numbers to function well. The main thing is that they keep taking steps in the right direction.
“Don’t try to become Superman, but rather invest in self-awareness”
Despite his blazing self-confidence and relentless energy, Thijs Claes is also occasionally insecure. Then he wonders whether he is the right man in the right place. “I am a change manager so I always look forward to change. In 2009 that worked out perfectly, but is it still OK now that we are in a stable situation?”
Fortunately, setting up a second company in France provides plenty of distractions. So new twists and challenges are definitely on the way!
To conclude, Claes urges fellow business leaders: “Know yourself, know well what your strengths and weaknesses are. Surround yourself with people who fill in your weaknesses and focus on your strengths. Don’t try to become Superman, but rather invest in self-awareness.”