Case study: Tech to market and Brabantia

Could there be a more wonderful place for entrepreneurs to get to know each other better than Brabantia’s new sustainable headquarters in Valkenswaard? CEO Tijn van Elderen talks to Patricia Beks, owner of the tech marketing agency Tech to Market. Tijn kicks off the conversation with a slight advantage, by being somewhat forthcoming. In fact, his vision of Brabantia is reflected in every detail of the property.

Text Ronald Frencken 
Image Eddie Mol

Surrounded by walls decorated with discarded green army uniforms, Tijn and Patricia talk about being entrepreneurs and human beings. The partially circular furniture on which Tijn and his guest Patricia are sitting during the conversation, never budges. Not even when Tijn turns the conversation up a notch right with the very first question – and why not, actually: What is the meaning of your life exactly?”


I have always enjoyed getting others moving, working on the next step,” says Patricia, unphased by Tijn’s warm-up. It’s a role I took on naturally, way back when as captain of the hockey team. As captain of Tech to Market, I consider it my job to help my employees and customers become better and more complete, to get more out of themselves. More than anything, I’m a good listener. I like to guide people, but from a distance. And never from a desire to control.”

Contentious issues

I don’t believe in control either,” agrees Tijn. I do believe in being united. That’s what you are when your actions flow from your personality. That’s the only way you can help others improve.” Tijn talks about his self-appointed role as a fire stoker at Brabantia. I’ve learned to get my incentives and my energy externally and not just from within, as is the case with many introverts. I feel comfortable in a room of people who are facing a challenge. Asking questions, bringing any contentious issues to the surface, pushing and pulling and then seeing that energy start to flow.”

In an organisation like Brabantia, with 1,100 people, it is impossible to keep control anyway,” says Tijn, because then you simply never sleep. I believe more in trust. For example, look at this fantastic head office. We had a number of architects visit us for the design. Great visions, but we weren’t feeling them. Until the very last one. This one started talking about our rounded squareness. By that he meant our familiar logo with the open house and rounded corners. He thought that should be the basis for our new premises. Bang on! Let’s get to work! It was as simple as that. These headquarters were the result, the beating heart of Brabantia.”

‘Brabantia is right at the centre of the universe. Am I making too big a deal of it? No.’ – Tijn van Elderen

Letting go

That is absolutely true here,” agrees Patricia, looking around. The eye for detail, the perfectionism – a Brabantia product that everyone wants. There are several companies that stray from that thirst for perfectionism for a variety of reasons. What you then get is a poor copy. Creating a building like this is only possible by surrounding yourself with the right people, who you then have to let go their way. That’s why in my company I look for assertive, self-confident employees who are brave enough to reveal their strengths and weaknesses. I like that, because then they understand all too well that, as a boss, I can also have insecurities. But I only have control over that during the hiring process. After that, I also have to let go.”

Centre of the universe

Going from an aversion to control towards a leadership style is just one small step. Tijn feels comfortable in his role as CEO. 23 years with the same company makes you stop and think. But if the shoe fits, is what he wants to say. “When I was five, I already knew I wanted this job. I got it at 41. Brabantia is right at the centre of the universe. Am I making too big a deal of it? No. You can find Brabantia in the kitchen, the place where people share all their ups and downs with family and friends. We cater to this by making it just a little more attractive, more enjoyable and more sustainable. An ironing board that works well, a bin that never falters, and that looks great to boot. Brabantia eliminates the little inconveniences that make life less fun.”

Step back, and move forward

Patricia recounts the inner journey that gave her insight into her own strengths. “I often heard people around me say that everything could been done bigger and faster than I was doing it. Going from 15 employees to 30. But I now know that my passion is not in ‘more’ and ‘bigger’. My passion is in ‘better’ and ‘more refined’. So I chose to step back – by moving one step forward. Currently, I work as a consultant three days a week with our key accounts. These days we lead Tech to Market as management and I have more freedom to sit with customers myself. That combination is extremely satisfying.” Tijn applauds Patricias choice: Never get trapped doing what you no longer enjoy. It starts leaking then flows away.”

The fact that Patricia is now taking a more content-focused role is working out nicely. As a leader, I put myself in a vulnerable position. My employees notice that. It is okay to doubt, I tell them. But choices do have to be made. I’m a good example of that.” Tijn’s interaction with employees is different. “With us in the management, everything is open for discussion. I do notice that some employees feel a bit hesitant to approach me. This means that I don’t always hear about the real challenges. In other words, I have to listen very attentively to know what’s actually going on.”

‘As a leader, I put myself in a vulnerable position. My employees notice that. It’s okay to doubt, I tell them. But choices do have to be made.’ – Patricia Beks

Three servings of modesty

You don’t have to look far to see that a lot has changed at Brabantia over the past several years. That change is a result of a SWOT analysis. But SWOT is actually no more than Simply a Waste Of Time. Everybody knows whats wrong with the company,” argues Tijn, stoking the fire. However, we did get a lot out of that analysis. We knew very well what was important, but we hadn’t given it a name. Three key points emerged from the follow-up session on identifying the values: being reliable, flexible and conscientious.  All well and good, but those aren’t really very exciting traits. On top of that, we are a Brabant family business with a sizeable Belgian delegation – modesty with an extra serving of modesty and yet another serving of modesty. We found the solution in adding two values of our own: surprise and leadership. Based on that, we hired people who could bring others on board. That worked out well. We now have employees who are truly bold enough to be enterprising. We call them entreployees.”

The ‘snap factor’

It’s something that Patricia deals with every day, the ‘snap factor’. Tech to Market has technical companies and institutions as clients. There, technically oriented people in complex organisations work on complex products, often on an international scale. “They are usually good at focusing on the product, but less so on the market, the organisation and the people,” says Patricia. “They bring us in for marketing support, but the marketing element is often never the real challenge. It’s far more about understanding innovative products and complex organisations, and getting people on board. That snap factor is not always easy to attain and that’s what makes us successful. It’s important to succeed as a marketer in a region like Brainport.”

Manage the problem

One notable difference between Brabantia and Tech to Market is the ratio of women to men in the company. We encourage more women to join management and the organisation,” says Tijn. “But unfortunately, we only have men in management positions so far. This also has to do with the fact that 73 percent of women work part-time.” Patricia recognises the clear need for women to work part-time. But quite honestly, there isn’t much she can do about it. I think everyone needs to pursue their own concept of happiness. What that means is up to each individual to define as they see fit. What I’d say to women is this: the way and the extent to which you want to work, just make it happen. I often hear the question: how do you do it all, your job, your house, your family… But it’s not difficult. Make sure your house stays clean, get a babysitter and get your partner involved. It’s also what I tell my employees: You are the best project manager in the world. Manage the problem’.”

Fear of missing out

Tijn feels at ease in Brabantia’s product-oriented environment. Patricia enjoys Tech to Market’s focus on service, but also the focus on products with customers. I like physical products,” says Tijn. What I like less about a consultancy organisation is that you are never really in the driver’s seat yourself.” Patricia understands Tijn’s point. I try to constantly encourage my staff. It’s also a kind of product development. When they leave Tech to Market, it is often with mutual gratitude for the steps they have achieved. That gives me a sense of immense satisfaction. Likewise, working on a real product is also rewarding. Tijn proves that with Brabantia. There’s a chance I’ll do that again one day. That also has a lot to do with my fomo, my fear of missing out. Choosing one thing means not choosing another. That’s the flip side of making choices.

‘At Brabantia, we use the NASA principle. Do you have a need, and do you accept that need? Then we offer the solution. That’s modern marketing.

Adapting your playground

Patricia and Tijn have been standing strong at the helm for some time now. Patricia has been running Tech to Market for 13 years, Tijn for 11. The ship is moving along on a steady course. So what’s the shelf life for both of these CEOs? Patricia: The combination of leadership and a more content-driven role has given me peace of mind and energy. That means I can continue on for years to come. And as CEO, I’m able to adapt my playground. Larger accounts, a more international outlook, collaborating with other organisations, these are all knobs I can turn. But nothing lasts forever. Maybe one day something new will cross my path. Something I definitely don’t want to miss out on.”

Tijn regularly reflects on the added value he has to offer Brabantia as CEO. He spent six months in Barcelona with his family, where he was busy with this question. Brabantia has entered its next phase. We are also integrating a number of companies we have acquired. So there’s still plenty to do and develop. It gives me energy knowing I have more fires to stoke in the years ahead.”

Patricia Beks on Tijn van Elderen:

I’ve always thought that it was oppressive being in an organisation where you have limited freedom to do things spontaneously. That’s why I think it’s so great to see how Tijn has been here for 23 years, and yet continues to develop. He embraces and initiates so many new things and they never seem to feel constraining for him, more like a glove that fits. What I also like to hear is that Tijn is introverted like me. It allows you to make informed choices and to be a good listener. That ought to be a more general trend in the entrepreneurial world.”

Tijn van Elderen on Patricia Beks:

If I can take a psychological angle here – on the friendliness scale, I rate Patricia right of centre, leaning towards friendliness. She comes across as very balanced. She likes to help people, which also shows, but that is mainly because in doing so she also knows she is helping herself. I appreciate that immensely. I think Patricia is incredibly adept at making choices. There are very few people who are bold enough to do that like she does. It’s the only way to achieve anything in life. Patricia is well aware of that.”

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