I had a very traditional Dutch upbringing. I was born in 1950 in the small city of Goes on one of the islands in the southwest of the Netherlands. My father was the director of the Zeeland branch office of De Nederlanden van 1845 insurance company when the North Sea flooded in February 1953, leaving large parts of Goes under water for nearly six months. Shortly after the flood, he was promoted to a position in the company's head office in The Hague, probably as a token of appreciation for his services during the disaster.
My family lived a very frugal lifestyle in The Hague. It was shortly after the end of World War II, and we did not have a lot of money to spend. Every week, we ate the same meals on the same days. On Thursdays, it was meatballs, Fridays, it was fish and on Sundays, bread and soup. All my school years were spent in The Hague. I had skipped the first year of primary school, so I was always one of the two or three youngest in the class. That lasted until my fourth year of secondary school when, at 14, I was just entering adolescence. Most of my classmates were 16 years old or more, rode motorbikes, smoked cigarettes and had girlfriends. I failed miserably that year, with the exception of drawing class, where I had some success. After that one setback, I had a smooth and thoroughly enjoyable finish to my secondary school years.
During my time at school, I developed a passion for sailing, thanks to my father, who took the family sailing every weekend, irrespective of the weather. There was no discussion about it. On Saturday morning when school finished at 12 noon, my mother and father would be waiting impatiently for my sister, Ineke, and me in front of the school, in their car with the engine running, so that we could go sailing.
When the time came to choose a university, I wanted to pursue my interest in drawing sailboats and become a shipbuilder. My father, however, recommended that I should keep that as a hobby because there was little employment for shipbuilders. Instead, he suggested that I take generic studies related to shipbuilding to keep my options open. With that advice in mind, I chose mechanical engineering. In Holland, there are three places where you can do technical studies. Delft, the most famous, was the logical choice for all the people who lived in the western part of the Netherlands. In Eindhoven, the university was nicknamed the Philips High School. Chances were that if you went there, you would end up working for Philips for the rest of your life. Twente, the first university campus in the Netherlands, was only five years old, so everything was brand new. It was in the far east of the Netherlands, some 200 km away from home and nicely situated in the woods, between the cities of Enschede and Hengelo. At my father's suggestion, a classmate and I went for a visit, and we immediately fell in love with Twente's total approach.
In September 1968, I started my studies at Twente, and by April 1969, the Dean had summoned me to tell me that I would be better off looking for somewhere else to study. I had failed most of my exams so far! That was the wrong message for me; I was enjoying every moment of my life at Twente. So, by the following September, I was able to get myself back on track and continue with the second year. I had never realized how difficult mechanical engineering was. It took me five attempts to pass my Science of Fluids exam and eight attempts to pass Dynamics. My reputation was built around many attempts and many failures, but I was successful in the end. In 1973, I received my bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering. One of the unique features of Twente was that it was possible to switch from a purely technical course of study to business studies, which were designed to prepare engineers for jobs in business. So, I went on to study for my Master's in Business Engineering and celebrated my 100th exam at Twente by presenting a bottle of wine and flowers to the professor. I passed the exam before it even started, and in 1974, I completed my studies.
During my six years at Twente, I met a great group of fellow students who I lived with in a house in Enschede for the last three years of my studies. We had had enough of campus life and wanted to live in the "real world". To this day, we remain friends and spend many weeks together every year on golf and sailing holidays.
In my first year at Twente, a big gala event celebrating the university's fifth anniversary was planned. I did not have a girlfriend at the time, but I thought it would add to the enjoyment of the evening if I took a partner. My sister, Ineke, who was three years younger than me, had a very nice-looking girlfriend who lived almost next door to my parents. So, I invited my sister to the party and asked her to bring her girlfriend with her. After a lot of debate and negotiation with our parents and the other girl's parents to ease their fears about a 15-year-old schoolgirl being exposed to 18- and 19-year-old students at a party 200 km away from home, my sister and her girlfriend were allowed to come to Twente. You can imagine how grateful I am to my sister and my parents - 42 years later RenÃ©e (the girl from almost next door) and I are still happily married.
The last six months of my studies were spent at Hoogovens - the Dutch steel mills - developing a plan to reduce bottlenecks and increase the total capacity from 6 million to 10 million tons of steel. I loved my time there. It was the ideal place for a young mechanical and business engineer - heavy industry, down to earth, no nonsense. It was a pity that I had to leave to spend 21 months with the Dutch navy for my military service, as both parties wanted to continue the relationship.
Why I joined Unilever
The navy was great. Thanks to an attractive job as secretary of the team responsible for introducing a job evaluation system into the navy, I was given an overview of naval operations, and for the first time in my life, I was exposed to the softer side of organizations (reward, training, career path development - in short, human resources).
When the end of my navy period was in sight, I had to make a decision about my future. I talked to a few people, including my father, who made it clear to me that it was a no-brainer to stay away from consultancy and HR (which would mean continuing with the navy to do a PhD). So, I went to see Professor Jan Kreiken who had supervised my final thesis at Twente. In his very outspoken way, he concluded that none of the options I had come up with, through a process of several job interviews and hard selling, were good enough. I was left a little speechless. So, he immediately jumped in with an alternative. I should become a product manager with Unilever! Unilever had approached him looking for candidates for the marketing function. To put it mildly, I was not impressed. Why should I join a company that puts edible fats in a tub and sells it as margarine?
On top of that, Unilever was reputed to have a very tough selection process and a management team that consisted of self-important lawyers from the University of Leiden. Professor Kreiken was a real businessman - a marketer before the word marketing was invented. Among other things, he created the King Corn bread brand1 in the Netherlands, and he was a good salesperson. He convinced me that I should go and talk to Unilever. He made a phone call, and I was scheduled to see the marketing recruiter a week later.
My perception of Unilever was that it was a dull head office, filled with boring people wearing grey three-piece suits. I arrived at Museumpark - the address of its head office in Rotterdam - on time and wearing a suit. Given that "museum" was part of the address, I was expecting the office to be full of fossils. After a long, bureaucratic process, a grim-looking guard let me in. Everything was dark - dark wood panelling and dark carpet. I was instructed to sit in an even darker, windowless corner of the lobby to wait for Mr Wolf, the marketing recruiter. Finally, he appeared, a few minutes late, adding to my already uncomfortable state. He could have been my grandfather. He was tiny, balding, with a little bit of grey hair left, and he was wearing a light grey three-piece suit. His office was dark. The architect of the building must have thought that employees should work and not be distracted by activities on the street because the windows were so high that you could not see out of them. In short, not exactly the ideal setting to convince a young engineer to join Unilever.
The first 50 minutes of the interview were as boring as I feared. But then, something unexpected happened. He picked up the phone and called one of the Unilever operating companies in the Netherlands - Lever's Zeep Maatschappij (Lever's Detergent Company). He explained that he had just met a very interesting young man who could be a good person for Unilever. He wanted them to interview me within the next five days, introduce me to marketing and convince me it was an attractive opportunity. I was totally surprised. Behind the faÃ§ade of greyness and bureaucracy, was a man of incredible action who had read me very well.
The interview at Lever's lasted a full day instead of the two hours that had originally been planned. I met all kinds of young, energetic marketing managers who were passionate about their jobs and who happened to be really nice guys. We discussed everything from the different positioning of the surface cleaners and the advertising to the reasons why certain colours had been chosen for the labels. It was a new world for me and it was presented in a compelling way. I was hooked. I wanted to join the fascinating, dynamic world of Unilever, which surprisingly had a lot of science and technology in its products.
The roles were now reversed. Unilever had "sold" me on the benefits of joining the company, and it was now up to me to convince the company to select me. The short but tough selection process culminated in a final discussion with two senior managers for about one hour. The conversation started to go in the wrong direction when they started describing a Kees I did not know. I felt I had to interrupt and set them straight. Fortunately for me, that was exactly what Morris Tabaksblat and Jaap Mortier (the marketing directors of Lever's Zeep and CalvÃ©-de Betuwe) wanted to see - Kees fighting back. An hour later, they invited me to join Unilever.
The early years at Unilever
In 1976, I began three months of sales training at CalvÃ©-de Betuwe. As a sales representative, I was responsible for selling special offers for CalvÃ© mayonnaise, Royco soup and de Betuwe marmalades to a series of small shops in the south of the Netherlands. One day, I unknowingly crossed the Belgian border where I was arrested for smuggling a carload of mayonnaise into the country. My name then became infamous within Unilever.
For the next five years, I worked in several different marketing jobs at CalvÃ©- de Betuwe. After a short six-month stint in the US with Lipton Inc., I was transferred to the national personnel department as a marketing recruiter. My objective was to secure a constant stream of top talent by improving Unilever's image with students and professors. If my father had been alive, he would have fulfilled his promise of breaking my legs if I ever even considered a dead-end personnel job. He probably wouldn't have been very happy if he had seen me from his cloud in the sky, but he would have been comforted and pleased to know that two and a half years later I jumped straight into a senior management position with Wall's Meat in the UK.
Three years later, I moved to Frigo, Unilever's ice cream and frozen food company in Barcelona, to become the Marketing Director. It was here that I fell in love with ice cream - a fascinating product category - seasonal, fashionable and innovative - with a unique distribution model that included exclusive concessionaires (distributors) and its own freezer cabinets and kiosks.
The market was exploding. We were growing fast and expanding our factory every year. At the same time, Barcelona was preparing itself for the Olympics (described in Chapter 3). It was a delightful city in which to live with a growing family. It had good international schools and a lovely climate. As a family, we were focused on dealing, in a positive manner, with the implications of my Unilever career. RenÃ©e had followed me wherever Unilever had asked me to go, always finding ways to enjoy herself. She did a great job of taking care of our three sons, which made it possible for me to pursue my objective of ultimately becoming the general manager of a Unilever subsidiary somewhere in the world. Our four years in Barcelona were some of our best years. We had nothing to worry about!
Download the Introductorty chapter
Download an excerpt from Chapter 3