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Lessons in leadership and M&A from Dutch investor Jordy Kool

27 April 2021 in Videos

The former CEO of IT company Infotheek Group shares his secrets for successful M&A integration, picking the right bets, and saving time on emails. ...

Jordy Kool, the major Dutch investor, has an old-fashioned method to fight endless work emails: he prints them out on paper and takes handwritten notes that his assistant types up and forwards.  

It‚Äôs not¬†environmentally friendly,¬†but¬†he¬†says¬†it‚Äôs productive:¬†‚ÄúI only touch email once, [otherwise] I will be stuck in my¬†[inbox]¬†for six hours a day. Sometimes I don‚Äôt touch my phone for¬†[up to]¬†10 hours.‚Ä̬†¬†

Kool, who in 2015 was named EY’s Accelerating Entrepreneur of the Year, lives in the fast lane. He is the chairman and owner of multiple companies, and is also a non-executive director. Kool founded Iron Asset Management, a family office, in 2016 after a distinguished corporate career.  

An alumnus of IMD, he was speaking in an interview with Jean-François Manzoni, the President of IMD, as part of his CEO Interview Series.  

Kool,¬†chosen as¬†Computable Magazine‚Äôs¬†CEO of the Year in 2015, joined Infotheek Group¬†in 2009¬†as chief commercial officer.¬†He¬†was named¬†CEO¬†in 2013¬†and stepped down in 2018, becoming a non-executive director.¬†Under his leadership,¬†annual revenues grew from¬†‚ā¨55m to¬†nearly¬†‚ā¨1bn.¬†

Kool, who drove the expansion of the business organically at first and then through a series of acquisitions, says a critical factor in the company’s success was a novel business model.  

Infotheek¬†was an early pioneer of the “circular economy”¬†‚ÄĒ¬†reducing waste and boosting product lifespans.¬†It¬†buys¬†back¬†companies‚Äô¬†depreciated¬†IT¬†hardware, refurbishes¬†and¬†resells¬†it¬†‚ÄĒ¬†at a high margin,¬†he says¬†‚ÄĒ¬†to extend the product lifecycle,¬†while¬†reducing¬†customers‚Äô¬†environmental footprint.¬†There‚Äôs also a rental¬†service¬†to¬†keep products in circulation.¬†¬†

At first, customers were reluctant to¬†purchase¬†second-hand¬†hardware¬†but¬†there‚Äôs¬†now a widespread¬†appetite¬†for sustainable products, Kool says.¬†‚ÄúWe were too early‚Ä̬†but¬†‚Äúin the long run it obviously helped us‚ÄĚ.¬†¬†¬†

Kool’s acquisition strategy was made possible through equity financing. In 2016, Infotheek sold a majority stake to Altor, a private equity firm based in Sweden.   

‚ÄúWe knew we needed to do acquisitions to be able to grow and to survive; the competition was getting more intense and we wanted to diversify into other markets,‚Ä̬†he says.¬†¬†¬†

A year later,¬†Infotheek¬†bought up¬†Dutch¬†competitors¬†Scholten Awater¬†and¬†Central Point,¬†creating a combined entity with annual revenues¬†of¬†approximately¬†‚ā¨900m.¬†¬†¬†

If you want to build a bigger business, you need to understand what you’re good at and not good at, and then surround yourself with people who fill those gaps.
- Jordy Kool

Invest as a mentor, not just a financier 

Kool,¬†a successful dealmaker,¬†notes¬†that¬†acquisitive companies have a tightrope to walk in blending rather than bulldozing¬†corporate¬†culture.¬†‚Äú[Integrations are]¬†an ongoing journey of reinvention and learning, but maintaining culture¬†is¬†pretty difficult,‚ÄĚ he says.¬†¬†

Kool resigned as Infotheek’s CEO in 2018 to pursue other passions including his family office, which has backed swathes of companies spanning industries from health and wellness to IT and telecoms, among others.  

He¬†typically¬†invests in¬†mature¬†businesses,¬†with¬†between¬†‚ā¨1m¬†and¬†‚ā¨5m¬†of net earnings,¬†which are¬†led by founders who want his guidance, not just¬†his¬†money.¬†¬†

Kool¬†wants to be¬†closely¬†involved in¬†scaling up¬†businesses.¬†‚ÄúA¬†lot of entrepreneurs are not the best leaders,¬†managers¬†and¬†communicators,‚Ä̬†he¬†points out, stressing the importance of¬†delegating.¬†‚ÄúIf you want to build a bigger business, you need to understand what you‚Äôre good at and not good at, and then surround yourself with people who fill those gaps.‚Ä̬†¬†

Living clean and giving back 

Kool¬†started out¬†in the Netherlands Marine Corps, an elite infantry unit,¬†which laid the¬†foundations¬†for¬†success in leadership¬†roles.¬†During two years of¬†military¬†service,¬†he¬†learnt¬†the¬†importance¬†of¬†discipline and staying calm under pressure¬†to make effective decisions.¬†‚ÄúYou get used to¬†being¬†in a VUCA world,‚ÄĚ he says,¬†referring to¬†volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.¬†¬†

Kool¬†signed¬†up for 12 years in the Marines¬†but¬†two ankle injuries¬†led to his early retirement in 1995.¬†He went on to work as a fitness instructor¬†and¬†assistant manager, alongside studying,¬†before going into business. He still keeps himself in good shape.¬†‚ÄúFor me,¬†it‚Äôs¬†very important to stay active,‚Ä̬†he says.¬†‚ÄúYou also¬†need to take time to sleep and to recuperate. I try to eat very clean and keep a clear mind.‚Ä̬†¬†

Kool’s focus on health and fitness is reflected in his investment portfolio: he owns The Urban Gym Group, a fitness chain based in the Netherlands, as well as My Local Gym Group.  

Also, in 2013, he set up IT4Kids, a foundation that helps children in lower-income families participate in sports. IT4Kids collects used IT hardware from companies and donates its value to charity projects, mostly sports activities. Research shows that participation in sport improves children’s educational attainment and skills development.  

He¬†set¬†up¬†the foundation after reading¬†the news¬†that¬†hundreds of thousands of¬†children¬†were living in poverty in the Netherlands.¬†‚ÄúGiving these people opportunities makes my heart tick,‚ÄĚ says Kool, who reflects on his¬†own¬†childhood: ‚ÄúMy parents took two jobs so I could study and buy soccer shoes to do sports.‚Ä̬†¬†

He has come a long way,¬†but¬†he doesn‚Äôt want¬†to¬†rest on his laurels.¬†Kool is a committed lifelong learner. ‚ÄúI still want to develop myself,‚ÄĚ he says,¬†dismissing¬†retirement.¬†For now, he plans to continue to nurture¬†the next generation¬†of business leaders¬†as an investor and advisor. ‚ÄúI get a thrill when I see someone develop,‚Ä̬†Kool¬†says. ‚ÄúI want to touch as many lives as possible.‚Ä̬†¬†

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