Facing headwinds: Marc Koppen on Alphons Janssen

Running a business is like riding a bike. Great when the wind’s behind you, but a grind in a headwind. Marc Koppen, graphic designer and co-founder of Scherpontwerp, speaks about the departure of associate and friend Alphons Janssen and the liquidation of their agency.

Text: Henk van Straten 
Image: Mirella Sleenhoff

Marc Koppen and this magazine’s founder, David van Iersel, were fellow students at the academy of art and design in Den Bosch. It felt like the obvious thing to do once they graduated – to continue working side by side. And so they did. They founded design agency, Scherpontwerp. The agency soon made a name for itself. Great commissions, growing staff. Marc spent most of his spare time playing the drums in his rock band, Stuurbaard Bakkebaard (still going today). Life was good. Never change a winning team, so they say. “It never even occurred to me that David and I might someday not work together”, he declares on the terrace of De Bommel as he sips a beer. His friendly eyes are, as always, framed by those distinctive glasses.

“We just automatically did everything together, he and I. Meanwhile, in the background, David’s own ambition led him to found his own printing firm, De Boekenmakers. “I was aware of it, but I also ignored it.” Until a tipping point was reached and words were exchanged. David wanted to dedicate himself fully to his publishing company and leave Scherpontwerp. “I got it. But we were really busy. And by then we had a full staff and clearly set out roles and responsibilities. David was much better at networking than I was; much better at the social aspects of various partnerships. I didn’t want to have to do all of that by myself.”

This had already occurred to David. At the time, he had dealt a fair bit with Alphons Janssen, an advertising guy who was wealthy enough not to have to take on any major projects after selling his shares in the comms agency he co-founded, Communicatiebureau Frontal. For a short while, he was a partner in a catering business. But it wasn’t for him. In David’s eyes, Alphons was the ideal candidate. What’s more, Alphons had identified something in Scherpontwerp:

‘Alphons was one of those people who didn’t like to trouble you. I couldn’t accept that’

“I didn’t even know Alphons at that point”, says Marc. “I just knew him by name and by sight. When I think about it now, I can’t believe I agreed to it. I went into it blindly, effectively giving someone I didn’t know half the business. I remember my Dad telling me I was mad. But I just wanted it sorted. That was my way of coping with it. I told David: you just sort it out, I don’t want to have to spend any extra time or energy on it. I buried my head in the sand.” Laughing, he follows up with: “It could’ve ended up very differently!”

Marc and Alphons hit it off instantly. “Most people’s first impression of him was that he was cocky and unfriendly. But I think that was just his way of masking his vulnerability. I liked him straight away.” The feeling was mutual. In an interview for the Eindhovens Dagblad, Alphons said about their first encounter: “Within the first ten minutes – no word of a lie – I knew this was the nicest and best man I’d ever worked with.”

Alphons brought with him fresh insights, fresh expertise and fresh ideas. The pairing also proved to bear commercial fruit. Among other things, they were closely involved in creating the new Eindhoven logo. A Scherpontwerp branch was opened in Amsterdam. “The idea was for me to run things there for the most part. My family and I were seriously considering moving there – I spent so much of my time there, anyway.” The next step was a branch in Berlin.

‘Alphons only went to the GP after he’d been suffering for a long time. He knew deep down that something was seriously wrong.’

It was then that the news hit. Everything was about to change.

Alphons was not well. “He only went to the GP after he’d been suffering for a long time, and knew deep down that something was seriously wrong. For a long time, he acted as though nothing was the matter. Just recently I was reading over old emails from around the time. Could I have known? Should I have known? I don’t think so – our correspondence was no different to usual. He was very stoic and went on as he always did. When his skin started to look yellowish, we insisted he went to the hospital.”

Four days later, the deterioration was clear to see. Now with closely shaven white hair, Alphons retreated more and more. Marc realised that his new partner had in a way always been somewhat reclusive by nature.  “I rarely visited him at home. He was always the one who visited you, or met you at the pub. But he wanted to have the option of retreating and being alone.”

By now, it had become painfully clear that Scherpontwerp would somehow have to manage without Alphons. The two partners decided to wind up the lot. Everything was professionally boxed off, right down to the fine details. The Amsterdam branch was dissolved and the plans for Berlin went up in smoke. Announcements were made. Everything was – for want of a better word – in order.

But Alphons’s inclination to withdraw and isolate himself took on a whole new meaning in this scenario. Now that the business meetings had dried up, and he’d closed his social media accounts, loneliness loomed. He no longer enjoyed going to the pub, either. “Alphons was one of those people who didn’t like to trouble you. I couldn’t accept that. I told him he was coming to eat at ours every evening. At that stage, he was giving medication a go in the hope of it extending his lifespan. You need to eat well, I told him. He refused at first. I had to convince him that there were no expectations of him. He could come, eat his meal then leave. We didn’t need to talk. He was just free to go home. As long as he came to eat. My wife and I finally managed to convince him and he tentatively agreed.”

‘I went into it blindly, effectively giving someone I didn’t know half the business’

This was the start of many an evening spent at Marc’s house. Sometimes Alphons was too weak for long conversation and he’d leave straight away. But more often than not, we’d chat. “We saw each other almost every night for four months. Eating together, hours of chatting. It was very special. We could say anything to one another. But his time alone at home was important to him, too. He really needed that: to listen to music or read a book on his own. That’s why he didn’t have people come over, or anyone to do his cooking or cleaning. Except his kids, of course.” The video messages Alphons recorded for his children were also filmed at Marc’s house. For the funeral. “We were really lucky to have been able to do all of that. He couldn’t have had a better send off. But it was very tough at the same time.” The prognosis was that Alphons only had a few months to live. He had a tumour in his large intestine that had metastasised. It all happened very quickly after that.

That period proved so challenging and intense that Marc and his wife decided to move house. “Our house had become inextricably linked to the loss of Alphons and all the conversations we’d had there. The opportunity arose to relocate, and I took it. A fresh start.” Following the death of Alphons, on 8 August 2020, there was no more Scherpontwerp. Now, there was one-man-band, Marc Koppen. And he had no problem with that. “What will be will be. Amsterdam was fun, but it was with Alphons. Now my life has taken this turn, and I’m going with it.”

He is busy enough. He has since opened a studio office and re-employed some former staff. “By the way, Alphons helped me get a business plan together, for when he would no longer be around. That says a lot about the person he was.” And so… Life is still good. Notwithstanding the loss of a very dear friend. Today, Marc describes their partnership, which once upon a time seemed rash, as ‘the best decision ever.’

‘We saw each other almost every night for four months. Eating together, hours of chatting’

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