2023 promises to be a remarkable and busy year for Aartsen as the company is experiencing turbulent growth. The team knows the challenges ahead, and everyone is willing to chip in to fulfil our ambitions. We sat down with Jack Aartsen and the newly board of directors and discussed the company's future. In this interview, Jack is as candid as he is business-minded. As colleagues and business relations know, Jack does not dwell on prior victories. "It's not my style. I prefer to devote my energy and time to today's and tomorrow's challenges."
To fill our readers in on the latest developments within Aartsen: the ERP computer system 'Fresh' has been operational since November. The construction plans for the new St. Katelijne-Waver site in Belgium are ready to be implemented. With the appointment of Jasper van der Sandt and Menno van Breemen, Aartsen's board of directors has grown younger, and the entire team is energized for the future.
At the start of the conversation, Jack can't suppress his enthusiasm when talking about 'Fresh'. 'Five years ago, all the IT specialists I consulted advised us to take a standard ERP package and build our organization around it. Our implementation team decided to turn it around. Over the past four years we have designed a new computer system, meeting our requirements. "This company has never invested so much in a project in which I have been so little involved. It is a world achievement for all colleagues who have put their heart, soul, time and energy into it. I'm super proud of it, also because it says everything about the atypical company we want to be in our sector. We're quirky, sometimes stubborn, and in the end, distinctive. We make our own choices, have our vision and never choose the easy way. Everybody can take the easy route and most people ignore the difficult path. But not with us. For more context: we are not quite there yet with Fresh. The ERP system now scores a 6.5. That should be an eight this year, not a seven or a 7.5 but an 8. The following applies to everything we do in this company: we either do it well or don't.
"There is a tremendous family-like connection. That's why we always talk to each other in the we-form. I can't do anything here alone; working closely together is ingrained in our culture. In principle, people come first, not the position someone holds and the amount of experience or training they may have had. Nothing will get me angrier than seeing someone disrespected by another person.
'At Aartsen, we are all equally important and equally driven. Regardless position or job title. Everyone makes an important contribution to our organization. And vice versa, Aartsen ensures everyone working for us is satisfied, and we have a small staff turnover. Our people are our capital and our most significant treasures.
"Yeah, incredibly hard, everyone has a winners mentality and we've been winning many 'races'. Sometimes you have to protect them from themselves. We have been going through a tremendous growth spurt in which turnover and the number of colleagues have doubled quickly. Our development is fantastic, but I've been saying for years that we can't keep up with our current growing organization and shrinking office buildings. Our commercial department doesn't see this as a problem; as far as they are concerned, the express train should keep rolling. This spirit says it all, and I agree [laughs]: if keeping up with our enormous growth is our biggest problem, our problems are insignificant!"
"The new location in St. Katelijne-Waver will be ready in the first quarter of 2024 and will have double the capacity, it will be our most stunning location to date. The wonderful thing about this location is that it will serve as an example for all future sites. This site is our new office standard with a fully equipped gym and a restaurant full of healthy options for our employees. In short, we will take even better care of our people in these tailor-made construction projects than we do now. It's one of those fun tasks I can keep busy with in the coming years. We'll realize a new master plan for the Breda location in four or five years as well."
"We are switching from a three- to a four-person board to secure the future of our company. We want to maintain the line we have followed as an independent corporation, and at the same time, we are creating space for a new generation of managers to whom that future belongs. Such a decision is not a solitary one for me. It fits my philosophy that you should always keep an open mind to young people's ideas. Besides travelling, they are a great source of inspiration for me. You will not hear any negative stories from me about the so-called youth of today. I'm rigorously on their side.
'With Menno (CCO) and Jasper (COO), we've welcomed two very talented and capable thirty-somethings to the board, who are well-trained for their positions. They face an enormous responsibility and will certainly have to learn something or two, but with my utmost support. I am already grateful to them for wanting to grow into this position over the past few years. They became co-shareholders because I think that's best for the company, and everyone at Aartsen knows the work they've put in to achieve these goals."
‘’Certainly, it is the first time in our history that two people without our last name have joined the management board and as co-shareholders of Aartsen. And now I naturally expect the question that has been asked me a hundred thousand times before: aren't your sons Gijs and Freek already destined to succeed father? The answer is that their seats are not automatically reserved in advanced for them here. I know too many family businesses where that eventually went wrong. Who knows, that succession will soon be reserved for them. As a father, I would, of course, be very proud of that. But they must seriously want it and have the ambition and the right personality. We will see. Their involvement and interest are already great. Just as they are both very enthusiastic about the appointment of Menno and Jasper.’’
''Before I combined the positions of commercial and general manager. Now, I will only focus on the last role. My main focus will be supervising our three directors and our second management layer in the coming years. What else? Now, I'm in a luxurious position where I can choose to do the things within the company that I enjoy most—thinking about the new locations for our offices, creating marketing campaigns and aligning everyone's vision for tomorrow and the future. Hopefully, I can spend more time with my precious wife, family, relatives and friends. At 57, I want to find a better work-life balance. No one needs to be afraid that I will wander through the halls as an old, grey man, getting in everyone's way and asking unnecessary questions. I never want to hold Aartsen back, everyone knows to send me home immediately if this happens!
As a Small Business & Retail Management student, Jasper van der Sandt joined Aartsen as an intern. Since January 1, he has been our company's Operational Director/COO and co-shareholder.
"I was taught everything about the fruit and vegetable trade at home. My father has been active in the sector and my mother is Jack's sister. I visited this company regularly as a kid and it was always part of discussion when we were together with the family. I never thought I would come and work here."
Trainee | "During a Christmas family dinner, I still hadn't found an internship, and luckily uncle Jack invited me for an interview the following Monday morning. Since then, I have always worked with Aartsen. First in commercial positions: overseeing imports from Spain. Later, I became a member of the commercial management and in recent years I have mainly been involved in supervising overseas imports."
Fresh | "I was closely involved in the development of Fresh. It is one of the most important developments within Aartsen. The innovations and expansions we implement must keep up with the doubling turnover and caring for our personnel."
People | ‘’As a management team member, it's my responsibility to keep the company operating in all its departments. By further growing our Human Resources department, we can continue putting our staff first. Every person here is part of the engine of our company.’’
Family trait | ‘’We invest in people at Aartsen and often train them ourselves so they can continually advance in their careers. For myself? I have always had the ambition to end up in this position, and everyone knows I worked hard to get here. I hope that in the coming years, the work will remain challenging for me [laughs].’’
He has been working at Aartsen for 8.5 years. In addition to Aartsen's financial ins and outs, as CFO, he is also responsible for the IT strategy.
Fresh | "One of the first significant assignments I faced at Aartsen 8.5 years ago was implementing a new ERP system. We initially opted to introduce a standard application, as has been done by many companies in our industry. However, extensive internal research showed that this solution would not suffice for Aartsen. Our working method differs too much from what a standard application could offer. We have set up our processes very differently, so we had to look for a system based on customization. We, therefore, started from scratch on a Thinkwise low-code platform with the development of our own Fresh."
Team spirit | ‘’Our project group proudly built the system itself in four years with help from our IT partner Thinkwise. The system is innovative and a great example of our team spirit. Everyone had to pick up extra work because our main focus was developing Fresh, transiting to an entirely new system required much effort. It feels like we've all been reset and rewired."
Fresh Asia | "In 2023, we'll continue to develop Fresh in the Benelux, while Fresh Asia will also be launched. My main priority is to find and keep the right individuals to realize these tremendous ambitions. It all starts with the people you work with."
Data | ‘’Fresh also enables us to collect the data that optimize the processes at Aartsen. The next step is expanding our business intelligence tools, increasing effectiveness and efficiency and making faster and better decisions. We are at the beginning of this journey, but as far as I am concerned, it's one of our most promising projects to start."
Finance | ‘’Our organization is covered against problems, but many other industry companies face difficult times. Apart from the high energy prices and the substantial indexation of wages due to new collective labour agreements, suppliers and customers of Aartsen are confronted with rapidly increasing general costs, which can't always be incorporated into the prices of our products. Entrepreneurs in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany will have a challenging time.’’
He has worked at Aartsen for the past ten years as Managing Director of Asia in Hong Kong. Since January 1, he's been appointed as our company's Commercial Director/CCO and co-shareholder, now with the Breda headquarters as a permanent location.
Asia | ‘’The significant contrast with the Netherlands is that everything runs 24/7 in Asia. In our sector, for example, the working day starts at 1 a.m. Everyone is constantly on it and doesn't stop working during the weekend. You automatically adapt to this dynamic and we raise the bar for ourselves there every week. We constantly hype each other up. I want to take that work ethic and mentality to the Netherlands and Belgium. With that drive, we continue to build on the evolution of our company.’’
Breda | "I'm the one who had the most difficulty moving back home compared to my family. It felt like I was leaving my child, Aartsen Asia, behind. You miss the city, speed, life, hustle, and bustle. I live in Breda; if you look out the window, you'll see an occasional car passing by. Fortunately, we work so hard at Aartsen that I don't have much time to stare out the window [laughs]. This was the best move for my family and me, with a view to the future within our company. I will stay involved with the team in Hong Kong as I'm still managing them and in my new role as CCO of the entire group, my involvement will not decline. I want to seize this opportunity and put my heart and soul into the growth of our organization. I like to say: if everything seems under control, we are just not going fast enough."
Ambitions | "I am driven, energetic, impatient and tenacious by nature. I'd rather bang my head against the wall ten times than give up. That drive will come in handy again in my current position. As a commercial department, we face critical challenges. I want our commercial teams in Breda, Venlo and Belgium to operate much more as a unit. By exchanging figures and other factual information more adequately, we keep each other sharp and strengthen Aartsen's clout on the global market. This also includes integration with our team in Asia. With our new ERP system Fresh, we have the engine for it. I was listening to people and coming up with ideas to retake steps. I emphatically want to focus much more on data. Relying solely on the old gut feeling stems from the era before digitalization. The feeling is hugely important, but the strength will be the combination."
Core Values | ‘’When I was active as an entrepreneur during my university days, I was often one of the youngest in that industry, and again when I started at Aartsen Asia. A decade ago, I couldn't even tell an apple from an orange; I succeeded because I was allowed to grow within the business. As a manager, I now want to return the favour: I want people to become independent thinkers, learn from each other and make sure they can handle their responsibilities while continuously growing and trusting that we have their backs.’’