30 Jul ‘It’s not my job to motivate people’ – De Tijd (Jul ’20)
‘The only reason I was happy as a child that the printing business was growing was because then I had a bigger workshop to sashay through on my bicycle.’ That’s the feeling Thijs Claes had with the family business until he was 25. In shorts, 36-year-old Claes welcomes us to the modern but simple buildings in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw of Daddy Kate, one of Belgium’s larger printing companies. Of which he has now been CEO for more than a decade.
‘I lived next door to the print shop. For me, it has always been there. But I never had any affinity with it. I was horrified by the thought that everything was already mapped out for me. My interests were in literature and art. I studied philosophy and Germanic languages, and I saw myself as an abstract thinker rather than a printer. Until my father, mother and sisters asked if I wouldn’t like to try it for one year.’
To this day, of all his employees, Claes knows the least about the fine craft of printing, he tells himself. But gradually it began to fascinate him. The company, which started slacking off shortly after the transfer – the financial crisis had just erupted – and was barely profitable, today makes an operating profit of 1 million euros, on a turnover of 21 million. ‘I did a lot on gut feeling in the beginning. When I requested the figures in the autumn of 2009, the accountant – an uncle, also typical – gave me the 2008 annual accounts. How we were doing at that time nobody knew.’
There was not even a strategy on where to go. ‘As most printing companies still do, the only attempt was to produce as efficiently and cheaply as possible. ‘Operational excellence’ is what management books call it. When sales dropped 30 per cent in 2009 due to cuts in the marketing departments, there was no answer.’
The entire sector has been structurally declining ever since. Digitalisation has caused print volumes in Belgium to decline by 40 per cent over the past decade. ‘I don’t think the company has grown organically a single year since I’ve been there,’ Claes says without blinking an eye. ‘But that’s not a bad thing. You can cope with that by making acquisitions, according to a clear strategy, of competitors that are no longer doing well. Cheap takeovers too, because many are sitting on their gums, having spent years tending to a depreciated but outdated fleet of machines.’
Stop the presses
So what was that strategy that helped the company get back on its feet? Once again, a management term follows: ‘customer intimacy’. In human language: ‘Being so close to your customer’s wishes and needs that you can charge a higher margin for your products and services with a higher added value. This means that, thanks in part to the six acquisitions we have made in the past nine years, we can handle a very wide range of printed products, from brochures, books, displays and posters to business cards, labels and business documents, and personalised digital printing in large volumes. Exactly what major retailers and marketing agencies, among others, need: a one-stop shop for all their printing.’
Two years ago, Daddy Kate was approached by the ‘largest online booking site in the world’ to print the personalised satisfaction scores that hoteliers can hang out at their reception desks. Claes is not allowed to name the company, but it is clear that it is Booking.com. ‘It’s the best reference you can get.’
But ‘customer intimacy’ also means breaking with taboos in the printing world. Like suddenly stopping the presses when another important customer needs something quickly. ‘Totally inefficient and more expensive than running a machine for two days on the same order,’ says Claes, ‘But if the customer is willing to pay for it, it’s not a problem. That’s why we are making a profit now. It even goes so far that we have deliberately parted ways with some customers who bought purely on price. For cheaper printing, we showed them the way to some competitors. We have thus divested 4 million euros of turnover in recent years. And replaced it with 4 million turnover with a higher margin.’
Such thorough flexibility and attention to the customer must demand a lot from Daddy Kate’s hundred employees, we remark. Whereupon Claes settles a little straighter in his chair to bring up his hobbyhorse: his idiosyncratic HR policy. To get people more involved, Claes started employee profit sharing in 2017. ’20 per cent of company profits are distributed to employees. In 2019, it was €1 million, so €200,000 of that went to the 100 employees. After deducting social security contributions, that’s still 1,300 euros net per person.’
But Claes is the first to put that financial bonus into perspective. ‘I don’t believe it is our job to motivate our people. They have to be intrinsically motivated, it has to come from themselves. As management, we can only remove the obstacles that can demotivate them, such as machines and systems that frustrate them because they don’t work properly.’
When people get the drive out of themselves, Claes says they need very little guidance. ‘Our employees are divided into a dozen teams, with an average of eight people and a coach-team leader at the head. Those teams are the core of our business operation. They take decisions that in other companies are taken at the highest management level. Such as recruitment. Who is better placed to know who is right for a job than the team members themselves? For a year, one of the teams insisted – against my opinion – that no additional force was needed with them. After a year of overtime, I was told that this was difficult to sustain after all and they gave in. Fantastic after all! Never did I have to demand to do overtime, and we skipped the many discussions about my vision for the business.’
‘In the end, the team did the hiring itself. Determined the profile, wrote out the vacancy, drew up a selection procedure, processed applications and CVs, did interviews and tests and chose. And they take that seriously because it is their own colleague. Candidates often had to come back three times. They go further than I would ever dare to go. But they also own that decision, even if it goes wrong.’
Claes gets the mustard for that participatory approach from Brazilian entrepreneur Ricardo Semler, CEO and owner of the industrial group Semco. ‘I was blown away by his insights on radical employee participation. He also states that the size of a company is best limited to 150 employees, because otherwise you get alienation and managers can no longer know everyone personally. I apply that too. As soon as it gets bigger, I split something off into an independent company, as we did with the communications agency that used to be under Daddy Kate.’
The recent acquisition of French printer Becquart Impressions also fits into that business philosophy. Claes wants to replicate the success of Daddy Kate there in the coming years. ‘But it remains an independent entity that will never end up in a large printing group.’
Growth for growth’s sake does not interest Claes, he says. ‘Nature doesn’t grow forever either. Our only mission is for the company to still exist within a hundred years. That is why I am working on a new shareholder system, where shareholders – today that is my two sisters and me – can never cash out individually unless the company is sold as a whole. And that decision can only be made in the board of directors, which includes only one person from the family, in addition to four independent directors. I don’t want the company to become the plaything in a family feud, because one family member wants to sell the shares and the others don’t have the money to buy him or her out. The bottom line is that I want to protect the company from its shareholders, including in future generations. I also don’t want my children to suddenly, without ever having worked for it, get their hands on a large fortune. Wealth can become a big burden that can make you very unhappy.’
Claes himself looks back with satisfaction on his entry into the company, which was initially just a ‘trial run’, even though he does not know what the future holds. ‘I had a great time here. But where ten years ago I worked six days a week for the company, today it is only four, and in a few years it will be two. With the time freed up, I do want to do something else. First that will be French printing. After that, I don’t know yet. I have been asked to sit on a board of directors before, but I still feel too young for that. I did learn that I really thrive as a change manager. The first 70 per cent fascinates me enormously. After that, I prefer to leave the execution to someone else.’
Thijs Claes (36)
Son of a printer, studied Germanic languages and philosophy
Was a teacher of Dutch and English for several years.
Accepted the family’s request to become CEO for 1 year, after which he made the company substantially profitable in a declining print market.
Was inspired by the management insights of Brazilian entrepreneur Ricardo Semler.
The printing company, renamed Daddy Kate, is one of the country’s larger printing companies and made €21 million in revenue in 2019, with a profit (after depreciation, before tax) of €1 million.
Took over French printer Becquart Impressions this year, where he plans to repeat the success story.
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