You are an immensely inspiring example of entrepreneurship in the water sector. What sets you apart from other entrepreneurs? In other words, what is the secret ingredient?
Whether or not I’m a successful entrepreneur is something I prefer to leave to others to decide. I’m honoured by all the attention, of course. It usually takes time for people’s talent to be recognized. Being successful in water technology requires ambition and perseverance, in any case. Knowledge is also essential; knowledge about a specific topic, the technology, the application, the domain in which you work as an entrepreneur. But in the end, it is your drive and passion that keeps you going and gives you energy, time and time again. Entrepreneurship in the water technology industry is incredibly challenging and complex, especially when you are working on a new technology.
I also think it helps to be open to other countries and cultures. The Dutch water technology market is relatively small. If you envision growth and have ambition, you will have to export. I love to travel, which helps. First during my maritime engineering studies at TU Delft, later when I worked for Heineken. During my time with Heineken, I worked in Greece, Ireland, Slovakia and Papua New Guinea. After that, I moved to Norit as director of an operating company. The operating company was active in 50 countries when I started there; fourteen years later, we were operating in 182 countries. I have been to more than 100 countries around the world over the years. These are all experiences that stay with me as an entrepreneur.
Beyond that, an entrepreneur needs to have a good feeling about what customers are looking for. You have to be able to translate that insight into your product. What does the customer really want, and what do you deliver?
Of course, business success is never attributable to just one person; it is always the success of a team. It may sound a bit cliché, but as an entrepreneur, you have to surround yourself with the right people and prioritize people who are better than you in certain aspects. Ultimately, it is about building a team that enjoys achieving and maintaining success.
How do you view the development of entrepreneurship in the water technology sector?
The water technology sector is largely dominated by public organizations. Entrepreneurship is hard in a sector like this. I am sometimes envious of other sectors where entrepreneurship is much more advanced. Take the energy sector, for example. In terms of organization, they are a lot further ahead than we are. People are more dependent on energy than they are on water. Consumers will always make sure their mobile phone is charged, but they are not yet focused on drinking safe and clean water. In short, the energy sector has done some things better than the water sector, but the water sector is developing and becoming more professional. We have seen a lot of positive change in water technology entrepreneurship over the past twenty years. Water technology is increasingly becoming a real sector. It is developing as a sector that is open to and actively seeks connections with other sectors. That has led to an influx of talent with different education, backgrounds, ideas and frames of reference, giving the sector external impulses. This is crucial. We need to focus on the “Teslafication” of our industry in the coming years. First of all, water should be delivered more as a service instead of merely as technology. At Nijhuis Saur Industries, we are already focusing on this. On the other hand, we also have to find ways to make innovations stand out in the market. I believe marketing and communication to be our industry’s Achilles’ heel. We can learn a lot from other sectors in that regard.
From my role as chairman of the water technology steering committee (forerunner of the Top Sector) and my ten-year NWP board membership, I see how difficult it is to get the public and private sectors moving. There is always a lot of focus on things that are missing, while I believe that you should focus more on what is already there. The Netherlands has an exceptionally strong ecosystem compared to the countries around us. As such, I call on entrepreneurs to make the most of what is available and use it to their advantage. Luckily, we are seeing a growing number of people that really want to make a difference. We must work together to help those entrepreneurs from within our unique ecosystem.
What opportunities do you see in terms of entrepreneurial development in the water sector?
I think it’s amazing that our industry is trying to facilitate budding entrepreneurship; that is not where my concerns lie. However, there is a large group of businesses that have the potential to grow but don’t know how. Many entrepreneurs between fifty to sixty years old have grown their businesses slowly. At some point, that growth levels off, and they become a little disillusioned. They wonder if they should invest their own money again to make another move. I also meet many entrepreneurs with a wait-and-see attitude who expect a trade association to provide growth. It doesn’t work that way, sadly. Entrepreneurs have to want it and put a lot of energy into the development of their organization. That is not to say that they should not receive as much support along the way as possible. We need to organize that support properly, together. Financing, for example, is essential. If you start a water technology company, you know that it can take twelve to fifteen years from the Eureka moment to commercialization. It then takes another ten years to achieve a twenty-five percent market share. You need deep pockets, and that is what causes disillusionment. If you present this perspective to an investor, not many are actually willing to provide funding. Just before the last Aquatech, I expressed my concerns about the financing ecosystem in the Netherlands in an interview in the Telegraaf. I received many questions regarding that article. The simple fact is that, until recently, most of the available funding was reserved for dredgers and boat builders. The water technology sector struggled to benefit from it. Fortunately, that is changing now that greenification is much higher on the agenda. There are opportunities here for that large group of small businesses with growth potential; now is the time for them to open the throttle. I also see an important role for the facilitating organizations such as the Water Campus. When looking for funding, entrepreneurs run into all kinds of unfamiliar jargon, but there is a lot of potential if they listen to people who are knowledgeable about it, maintain focus and take some risks now and then.
Of course, the backbone of any organization is its employees. You mentioned earlier that it is crucial to surround yourself with the right people. If you are growing rapidly, as Nijhuis has done in recent years and Norit did during your time there, it is important to attract and retain the right talent. How did you do this?
The key is to get people excited. At the end of the day, people would rather buy a ticket to see a team that is in the running for prizes than a team that narrowly avoids relegation every year. It is no different for companies. We transformed Norit from a somewhat stuffy activated carbon/pill manufacturer to a company that develops leading new technology, works in interesting sectors such as food & beverage and water purification, and supplies comprehensive solutions instead of just consumables or purification components. That must then be actively promoted by the organization. This is how we managed to facilitate strong growth with good people at both Norit and Nijhuis. Nijhuis has grown from sixty to more than seven hundred people in around eight years. The numbers don’t lie.
As I mentioned earlier, the water business is international. As such, organizations need to attract international talent. When I started at Nijhuis, there were two nationalities at the head office: Dutch and German. Now there are twenty-four, and I don’t mean the people working at our foreign branches. These are people working permanently in Doetinchem, who live in the area. A lot of them are people who, after graduating in Delft, Wageningen or Leeuwarden, are looking for a few years of experience and want to make a contribution to a company that matters in the Netherlands. Incidentally, I don’t expect Nijhuis to grow much in the Netherlands in the coming years. We are now growing mainly where the customers are, which means our foreign branches. We are in the process of further developing those regions. For example, we had two people in England in the beginning. That has grown to 100 today. We have grown from seven to fifty-five in Poland, and we now have more than forty in Russia. We have gained 9,000 colleagues with Saur in France, and we have grown from 20 to 80 FTEs in the industrial division, for which I am responsible worldwide.
Keeping so many people connected seems like a complex process. How do you deal with that?
We have a one-team policy. Everyone is part of one team. The biggest orders we landed in recent months—of which you may have seen some great press coverage—were all won with teams working on the project from as many as 6 to 8 different locations. For example, we have excellent civil consultants in England, fantastic process technologists in the Netherlands and amazing designers in Poland. They work together with the local teams who play a crucial role in translating customer demand. After all, they are the closest to the customer. There is still room for improvement in the Dutch ecosystem in that regard. What we often do in the Netherlands is develop and test technology in our home market and then scale it up. This technology is primarily applicable for customers who already have a good infrastructure and score an 8 on a scale of 0–10. However, in most places in the world, there is still no or only limited infrastructure available. This is where the real difference can be made, and it is precisely this aspect that entrepreneurs need to capitalize on. As such, we have opted to make Nijhuis a one-stop-shop and, especially since we are part of Saur, we can also compete internationally. We can now make the transformation from providing technical solutions to providing water as a service.
What is the Netherlands’ role and position within Saur?
Our parent organization is French. The industry group, on the other hand, which operates very internationally and where innovation is the key to success, is managed from the Netherlands. It is a Dutch legal entity based in Doetinchem with two Dutch directors, under which all Dutch and foreign participations are housed within Saur’s industry platform. I am trying to bridge the gap between the Netherlands and France. The insight into the French side of things is fascinating; not just the cultural differences, but also how the government plays a role within the French ecosystem. I am learning a lot from that, and those lessons help me in my role at WTEX10. I can point out fundamental differences between the ecosystems to my colleagues there, as an insider. We can also use that experience within our possibilities in the Netherlands. It’s a two-way street, too; the French are also learning from us, and they envy our innovative image. That is something they don’t have. On the contrary, the old Suez and Veolia concessions were strongly focused on maximizing profit for those organizations. The local water companies lost control. This has gradually been reduced, and governments are getting their infrastructure back under their own management and are receiving management support. Contracts and collaboration are based on expertise and added value rather than a big bag of money and power.
How do you think we can better support entrepreneurship from the WaterCampus?
I have great respect for what has been achieved in the North in recent years. At the same time, I see opportunities to strengthen the ecosystem further. I think there is too much focus on science. As an entrepreneur, investments in the long term are essential, of course, but at the same time, that is only possible if I solve short-term problems as quickly as possible. That is how I generate turnover and profit, which I can invest in the long term. The WaterCampus ecosystem needs more practical people; people who can help solve the short-term challenges. For example, in my early days as director at Norit, you had Syntens innovation brokers. I still have fond memories of them to this day. You develop a relationship of trust with innovation brokers. They really get to know your company or institution, and with that, the value of the company. The innovation brokers provided great added value with their advice on solving short-term challenges and, thereby, in Norit’s development as a company. I believe there is still a need to facilitate companies in that way. They need support in solving the problems of yesterday, today and tomorrow. It would be wonderful if that could then be a breeding ground for long-term research. WaterCampus is the perfect organization to bridge the gap between theory and practice. What I like about the WaterCampus is that you work with scouts who have real experience in the field. To complement that, I believe there is a need for practitioners who enjoy thinking about past, current and future problems. These are minor improvements, not systemic changes. By focusing more on practice in addition to science, I expect the WaterCampus to attract more notable companies. This will allow the WaterCampus to spread its wings and give it a less regional character. You currently really need to be an insider to understand the ecosystem. That is a shame, and unnecessary. PhDs and students at the WaterCampus come from all over the world. It would be wonderful if we could give the whole thing an international expansion. The infrastructure in the Netherlands is very strong, after all.
Are there other places where you think the connection between science and practice is better?
At Deltares, the practice of yesterday, today and tomorrow and long-term research come together nicely. Deltares’s industry is more practical than water technology, obviously, but it is great to see Wetsus and Deltares working increasingly closely. Nijhuis also has partnerships with the University of Queensland, which is developing technology we consider important for our future. The study fits well with our strategic plans for the next five years and is not being worked on in the Netherlands. We are also working on low-chemical solutions. We have scoured the whole world to find the right electro-coagulation technology. We ended up with a start-up in Canada, a long way from the nearest airport; we now have a partnership with them. The start-up was affiliated with one of the universities in Canada that we work with, which is developing incredibly interesting technology. We are seeing water becoming a global industry with a lot of local influences.
How do you find a company like that in Canada?
We just searched online. We were then able to meet them at an event in Seattle. There was a clear match, and I got on a plane again to visit them in Canada. My point is that you can find a lot on the Internet these days, and that makes things interesting. You can find everything, and companies themselves search for the place to find the necessary knowledge and expertise. Let’s make the WaterCampus one of those places.
My next interview is with Henk Ovink. Is there anything you would like to ask him?
I have already asked Henk many things, but I would like to hear from him how he plans to ensure that, in addition to Dutch knowledge, Dutch entrepreneurship and Dutch technology are also embedded in many water-related matters. This is not about ‘Bring in the Dutch’ but about ‘Integrating the Dutch’. To integrate the Dutch, it is important to properly connect the public and private sectors in your home market. Henk works with local entrepreneurs, public and private stakeholders in many of his initiatives. Don’t get me wrong, working with local people is a good thing, but why do we as the Netherlands, when making investments, not say that at least a solid percentage of Dutch technology and governance—including management and maintenance—is delivered along with it? I am curious how Henk, as water envoy, could give this an extra impulse.
Ronald Wielinga has worked as entrepreneurship manager at WaterCampus Leeuwarden since July 2020. Every month, Wielinga interviews inspirers who play a prominent role in entrepreneurship or the water technology sector.
He uses these interviews to reflect on and strengthen the WaterCampus’ entrepreneurship programme, which has strong ambitions for growth.
The interviews can be found online at www.wateralliance.nl and are also regularly published in WaterProof magazine.
For more information, contact Ronald at +31 6 121 38 876 / firstname.lastname@example.org.