Kim Tchai on Leadership

lIse Wouters does not hide her admiration for Kim Tchai. Kim’s sweep through her family business in 2017 marked the start of an energetic revolution. Today, everyone at Tchai International is more self-aware, self-reliant and responsible for both their own growth process and that of the company. Plenty of fodder for Ilse’s curiosity.

Text Froukje Peters
Image Eddie Mol

Ilse Wouters, born in 1976, based in Eindhoven. Role: theatre maker, trainer, entrepreneur and owner of the Ilse Wouters Academy. Education: Theatre training at the University of the Arts in Arnhem.

Kim Tchai, born in 1979, the 3rd generation in the family-owned company Tchai International, which she took over in 2017 and reshaped with a policy of self-direction. Tchai International translates big A-brands to the shop floor. In 2019, Kim became the first woman to win the award for Best Entrepreneur in Rotterdam.


My grandfather founded our family business in 1961. Back then, we mainly created displays. Later on, we started helping the big A-brands transform what they stand for into, for example, a product presentation, a wall unit, a shop-in-shop or a complete shop. We carry out everything from design, concepting, engineering and development to production and installation. Especially in this digital age, the look and experience of the physical shop is more important than ever. On that front, we can see that a transition is underway.

There was also a transition within Tchai International. My father succeeded my grandfather and both of them led the company with a directive, masculine energy. When I took over the company in 2017, I wanted my feminine energy to blow through it like a breath of fresh air. I expected a lot of staff to leave, perhaps especially the older employees, but surprisingly that was not the case. People did have to get used to the new approach; suddenly feelings were also being talked about in the workplace. In particular, some younger people seemed to be more in need of direction, wanting a clear goal to base their careers on, while others were able to just run with the new principle of self-direction.

Brazilian entrepreneur Ricardo Semler’s book inspired me to put Tchai’s employees in their roles as entrepreneurs themselves. Instead of giving them orders from a manager, we give them more responsibility. In doing so, their personal development is central.


We attended Human Element Training within the company, so we all became aware of what we are good at, what ingrained patterns are inside of us and what fears are holding us back. When people are at ease with who they are, when they feel comfortable in their team and really enjoy their work, the company also thrives. You notice this in sales growth and, more importantly, in the returns. That’s why I put a lot of money back into the company to make it an even more pleasant place to work, so that employees feel as comfortable as possible with us.

We also have an internal coach who helps everyone connect with themselves and with the different teams. In fact, we don’t work in departments, but in teams, each of which has its own colour. For example, my right-hand man Vera and I are Team Purple.


Our teams are divided into a range of disciplines. Every year, we create team plans and goals. We draw up an annual plan that includes our budget, costs and how much revenue we want to make. Each team presents its annual plan to Team Purple.

In the beginning, it was difficult to hand things over, but I soon realised that several roads lead to Rome. Then I asked myself: ‘Will anyone die if we choose a path other than mine?’ If not, then let’s just try it. We think mainly along project lines and involve the people we think will deliver the best results.

Deeper layer

There’s a genuine story behind everything we do. A brand wants to connect with its target audience, so we create a physical place where that brand can come alive. It has to be sincere, otherwise it won’t work. So that starts with the people of Tchai. If they are authentic, the customer feels the same. In the end, of course, you just have to deliver. It all has to be right. But the deeper layer beneath everything we do is palpable. The connection to that layer beneath the surface and our way of telling our story comes from our Chinese culture. Nothing happens by chance.

Our first question to a client – and also to our own people – is always: ‘Who are you? Where do you come from? What makes you special? It’s from that personal layer that you want to connect with your customer, with your target audience and your colleagues.

Tchai Tchi

The Chinese believe very much in Chi as a life force and this also gives a spiritual charge to our business. In taking over Tchai, I embraced our Chinese roots. It felt like we were a start-up, but that we already had this huge history. We were going to revisit everything. I asked our customers why they had been with us for so long. They felt that energy, our own Chi. That’s why we gave it its own name, the Tchai Tchi. We believe that if we put our collective energy into a particular project, we can fly together.

So we see ourselves as a kind of bird, the Fenghuang: a Chinese phoenix that symbolises summer, warmth and harvest. All of our teams make up a part of this bird.

Definition of good leadership

It’s important to make yourself almost completely redundant. Even when I’m out travelling for six months, the business just keeps running. People are grateful for the responsibility they are given and excel as a result. That becomes the DNA of the company: the feeling of family. We’re giving it our all and going for it together. I’m not going to sit on top of that like a shark. That doesn’t suit me. It’s a natural flow of give and take. It’s all about creativity, responsibility and self-reliance. You have to make people trust you. People often ask me: ‘But what if it goes wrong?’ We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I first just believe that it will go well.


As a woman, I zigzag through the world of entrepreneurs. The gender balance is not yet optimal, although it is so important. Female entrepreneurs can often bring in that little bit extra. They can connect more easily, put more feelers out there and show empathy. Employees are more likely to feel seen as a result, which is very valuable. Women also tend to have less of an ego. Egos can make or break you, but they only go so deep. The real magic only starts only when you move past your ego. But it’s tricky: should more women stand up on their own, or should we give them a place more often? On way or the other, the balance of male and female energy within a company is crucial. I enjoy working with women. Because I work in a ‘manufacturing industry’, I mostly encounter men. But fortunately, I’m starting to see more and more female creators and techies. The most important thing is for the right man or woman to be in the right place.

I was greatly surprised when I became the first woman to win the award for Best Entrepreneur in Rotterdam. Not to mention in 2019! That was nice and it made me proud, also because it recognised a new way of establishing an organisation. It inspired people. Our teams were also extra proud to be working with us.

Gut feeling

My advice is to always be yourself within your company. People feel it when you take on a role. If you stay true to yourself and are yourself within your role, you will inspire people. That’s why my team would walk through fire for me.

Following my instincts, my female intuition, plays an important role here. I still sometimes allow myself to be led by something that will bring in commercial success but that doesn’t actually feel right. That inevitably ends poorly.

Making yourself expendable within your company can also help a lot. As an entrepreneur, it gives you room to flourish while allowing your people to grow. It’s interesting to explore what fears you run into then and see how that works out for you. Seeking out the discomfort within yourself is very informative.


At the moment, I’m finding inspiration everywhere, when I travel but also close to home. I have to get out and not just sit inside the walls of my beautiful company. I should write everything down a bit more along the way though, be a bit more structured. Now I’m mostly tackling what just sticks in my head automatically.

I want to make the world a little nicer. By helping people flourish, by making the retail world more aesthetically pleasing, but also through sustainability. The latter is quite a struggle in a market where everything changes so quickly and so often.

I enjoy the fact that Tchai is such a sound product, but I might also want to develop and market a product myself in the future. Will I continue to present other brands based on service or will I develop myself in a different way? If I keep my options open and follow my instincts along the way, I’ll get there.

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