Interview with Willem van der Leegte, President, VDL Groep, The Netherlands

When Willem van der Leegte took over as President of the Netherlands-based VDL Groep at the age of 35 in November of 2016, he may have been considered by some as young for the position. However, compared to his father, Wim van der Leegte, who took the reins of the company in 1966 at the age of 19, Willem is a seasoned expert stepping into a role he is well prepared for.

Today the VDL Groep is primarily an industrial corporation headquartered in Eindhoven. Its interests lie in the development, production, and sales of semi-finished products, buses & coaches and other finished products and the assembly of cars. The group, which is still a family business, consists of 93 operating companies, in 19 countries with more than 16,000 employees.

Hard to believe when looking at VDL as one of the most successful Dutch businesses, but there was a time when it appeared the company would not break even. All that changed when second-generation family business member Wim van der Leegte heeded the advice that he should open the lines of communications with his frontline employees. After he changed his leadership style, the company started recording record profits and never looked back.

Following in his father’s footsteps and representing the third Van der Leegte generation to run the VDL Groep, Willem van der Leegte, and his brother Pieter and sister Jennifer, faces the challenges of leading a large family-owned corporation in a time of constant change and disruption, looking to apply the leadership lessons learnt by the generations before him to a 21st century landscape. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that to this day; the company motto remains ‘Strength through cooperation’.

Tharawat Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with Willem van der Leegte and discuss his company’s early days, what it’s like stepping into an established family business, and what leadership looks like in a time of constant change.

The VDL Groep: Lessons in Leadership
e rst VDL building in the Schootsestraat in Eindhoven, courtesy of VDL Groep.

How did the VDL Groep come to be?

We started the business in 1953, at that time like most people here in the region, my grandfather worked for Philips, and he had the opportunity to start something for himself with a loan that equated to less than €5000. He started very small with five employees making products for Philips as a subcontractor.

When my father started working for the company it had equity of -250,000 Guilder. If a group today were in that kind of financial state, they would probably go bankrupt. My grandfather was no longer in the business, so my father at 19 years old took over the company. After six years, he was able to turn the company around and make it profitable. As time went on, he faced good and bad years. Eventually, somebody asked him, ‘Are you talking to your employees about your challenges?’ And this was a turning point in our history because my father started to have a very open dialogue with his most important employees. He put the balance sheet on the table; he put the profit and loss accounts on the table, he was transparent and open about everything. He did this once a week, and from that moment on, everyone started working in the same direction.

Were the effects of that decision immediate or did it take time?

It was almost immediate. That year he made a profit higher than all the other years put together. The following year that profit doubled. It was only after talking to the people about the real problems, being open with employees, that the company flourished. And then he had a new problem because all the stress he built up was gone and he had no problems to solve. He would come to the office and ask what challenges he could fix, and they would say ‘There are no challenges, everything is running smoothly.’ This was the point in time when he started thinking, ‘Should I go travel for six months or should I start looking at acquiring other companies?’ I think it took him less than a day before he decided he would start taking over other companies. So that brings us where we are today with 93 companies with an estimated turnover of about €5 billion and more than 16,000 employees.

The VDL Groep: Lessons in Leadership
Willem van der Leegte, President, VDL Groep, courtesy of VDL Groep

Was it always your intention to join the family business?

When I was young, I always told myself that I’m going to start in a different company than our family business. Someone once said to me it’s better to make your mistakes in another business. Once you enter your own company, then all lights will be shining on you and everything you do will be scrutinised to a high degree. I went to university studying economics for three years, but I was too eager to go into business, so I quit early and went to work. I came home, and I still thought maybe I should work for a different company when my father pointed out that I was without a diploma and would find it hard to land a job with another company. He gave me the chance to apply with the family company, so I had to talk to one of his colleagues to formally apply for a job.

I started in our company in 2004 working in the factory for a couple of months to get to know the products, the processes, and the technology. I found that the most important thing was to get to know the people working in the factory. After about four months, I started doing sales in a sub-contracting company. In 2007, I became Managing Director of Sales for the buses. In 2012, I became Vice-President on the executive board, and in 2014, I combined my position within the bus division with supervising the high-tech subcontracting part of the company. And then in 2016, I became a member of the board and succeeded my father after he ran VDL for 50 years.

What are you taking from your father’s leadership style and applying today?

The way he really inspired me was how he was open and transparent throughout the whole company. He took the interests of the employees into account. He always said his interest is also the interests of all the people who work for him. You cannot rule the world on your own. I follow his lead in that regard. It’s important not to be too bureaucratic, so the doors are always open. Going from someone in a lower level job in the company to get to me can be done through just three or four layers maximum. I think that is extraordinary for a group of around 16,000 people.

Concerning entrepreneurship, in the past, it was about taking the right risks. Being able to calculate the risks and then making a swift decision. In the future, this will become even more important. We have more information at our disposal than we had in the past. When you get new information all the time, your decisions need to be faster than ever before. Too much hesitation will lead to your downfall. I think that is a crucial lesson for modern leadership – waiting equals losing. 

The VDL Groep: Lessons in Leadership
VDL AGV (Automated Guided Vehicle)

You learned all this from your father…

Not just my father. The one thing my father did was surround himself with extraordinary people; they were extremely competent. He created a culture where if you talk about his success, you’re talking about their success as well. I learnt a lot from all of them.

During this process of taking over the family business what has surprised you and how has it helped shape your current leadership style?

You cannot anticipate everything before it happens. You will face surprises and you have to find a way to deal with that. One of my colleagues had a brain hemorrhage just after I took over. When I found out, obviously it was quite emotional. But after a couple of hours, I told myself ‘You’re now in a position of leadership so you can be emotional, but you also have to think about what actions you have to take. It happened on a Thursday, and by Sunday I was ready with my plan and shared it with the other team members. Surprises will happen even if you don’t like them and you have to be ready to take action.

The VDL Groep: Lessons in Leadership
Bodywork of the BMW X1 and MINI at VDL Nedcar in Born, courtesy of VDL Groep.

Is this leadership position changing you as a person?

Of course, it’s changing me. In this position of leadership, you must be a very quick learner because otherwise, you will not be able to make fast decisions. I have the ultimate responsibility, and I see things in the big picture. I have to act on them in the moment because the next day will bring new challenges. We also keep track of the impact of these decisions in order to inform future strategies. Of course, we don’t rush big decisions, but overall, we are fast and efficient when it comes to moving things along.

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Do you feel your fast decision-making is attributed to the fact that it’s a family-owned business?

Absolutely. I feel family-owned businesses, in general, have a culture of making fast decisions and decisions which are good in the long run. Especially when ownership and management are aligned with each other. In the family business, we don’t look at our balance sheet from a short-term perspective. We think about what is good for the company in five years’ time, in 10 years’ time, in 20 years’ time. If you are a stock exchange company, then you have shareholders who focus especially on the current year. It’s a different perspective and a different scope. In a family-owned company, you can take a broader look and plan for the long run.

To give an example; we took over a large high-tech company in 2006. While 2007 was a good year, 2008 brought the global crisis and hit the semi-conductor industry hard. But instead of letting employees go, we retrained them to work in our bus division. By keeping the know-how of our employees, we came out of the crisis strong and have since successfully moved into the nanotechnology field and grown the high-tech company into a global player.

The VDL Groep: Lessons in Leadership
Pieter van der Leegte Senior, Founder of the VDL Groep.

Looking into the future, what is the greatest wish you have for the VDL Groep?

Continuity is the highest achievement we can have. I think growth is not a goal on its own, but if you don’t have growth, then you’re standing still. So my long-term wish is to grow and to have continuity. I think we will become more international than we have in the past. Embracing innovation is key because I think if you don’t do it, you will fall behind very rapidly. You have to listen to the market, and my wish is that we can fulfil this role and continue VDL for many years to come.