Roel Hellemons: ‘Our collaboration is making this region take off’

Bart van Bavel enjoys telling stories and loves hearing them. His curiosity leads him to hard-hitting stories with a heart-warming undertone. This time, he is talking to Roel Hellemons, Chief Executive Officer – Eindhoven Airport NV. They discuss profitability without growth and Eindhoven’s ‘flying’ mobility.

Text: Ine van de Laar 
Image: Linda Berretty

Roel learned to drink coffee – and truly appreciate it – in Australia, where he lived with his family for six years. While work was the primary motivation, he also enjoyed the lifestyle in which coffee plays an integral part. “At 5 o’clock in the morning, I would get up and join a group for sports. We finished with a good cup of coffee in a coffee shop. The latest hotspot for good coffee – that was the talk of the day.”

After returning from Australia, Roel worked at Schiphol Airport for a while. “An interim phase,” says Roel, “I had always wanted to work at Eindhoven Airport. I’m from Brabant and am a fan of Eindhoven’s dynamics. When I heard that Joost Meijs, the former director, was leaving, I was one of the first to raise my hand. After several talks, I was invited to call myself the new CEO, although on the inside I call myself the chairman of our team. Everything we do here is a team effort.” While Bart, as an accomplished barista, made an espresso for Roel using freshly roasted beans from Sprout Coffee Roasters, the two gentlemen quickly got down to business.

Bart: I’m curious about what you mean by everything being a team effort. I’m working more and more towards putting employees at the helm. Giving them freedom, responsibility, but above all ownership to achieve both their personal aims as well as our mutual business goals. This is to ensure that they understand that they are the driving force of Fifth, because that is what they are. Is that what you also aspire to achieve?

Roel: Absolutely. With 75 employees, we are a relatively small airport. Together with COO Mirjam van den Bogaard, I’m officially in charge, but we have a management team of six people. I’m the chairman of this team. I don’t dictate anything. Instead, I help facilitate the needs of the team so that we can come up with solutions or new ideas together. We make decisions together. This means that a lot of ideas here at the airport are not my own. By working intensively with characters and profiles that complement and enhance each other, you can achieve the most amazing things. In our team, we all want the same thing: to be there for the region and to connect people with the rest of the world. We strive to be an easy-going and human airport. ‘Easy on your way’ is our slogan. We can only succeed in that together.

‘We want to show that we are there, but that things will also be tough.’

Pursuing that slogan must not have been easy this summer. Queues, staff shortages – how do you deal with that when it goes against your motto?

Staffing is a challenge and you instantly notice it at airports, such as at security control. In contrast, what makes Eindhoven Airport unique is that we have one partner for each discipline, such as security or cleaning. This means that the lines of communication with the select group of partners are short. This encourages communication and collective involvement in ‘The Eindhoven Airport family’. Together, we know that salaries are important, but freedom for the personnel – for example, contributing to the schedule – is just as crucial. It’s up to us to continue promoting Eindhoven Airport’s image as an attractive working environment.

We’re lucky that it’s just cool to work at an airport. The dynamics, the nationalities, the excitement; there is a great culture here that people want to be part of. It’s not only at the airport itself, the people in the office also feel it. It’s partly for this reason that we are mostly evening out the shortages this autumn.

I’m constantly working to instil Fifth’s DNA in every team member. I think this is important, because Fifth stands for something: craftsmanship and customer focus. Surprising customers with the best possible service. That is working out nicely, yet with a large, young and international team, it remains a difficult task. How do you manage it?

Something surprising happened during covid, when the office staff also had to put on yellow vests and assist in the arrivals hall to check for face masks, and other things. Over the past few months, office workers were also jumping in, for instance as hosts at the entrance. The long queues were getting people frustrated more quickly. We want to show that we are there, even when things get tough. Despite our efforts, some people did miss their flights. We all felt bad about that. After that, we decided as a team to keep it up at the airport. Mirjam and I, too. It’s very informative and forges a bond with the visitors. Contact with passengers allows you to learn what could be improved, and we can then adjust the processes accordingly. These kinds of initiatives reinforce the feeling that we are working together to give the region something to be proud of. That coming together, it’s important to me.

I heard in a podcast of 24 uur in bedrijf that your ambition is to achieve ‘profitability without quantitative growth’. What are you striving for with that and is doing it ‘together’ also essential here?

Our growth ambitions are not geared towards growth in revenue, but in other aspects. This includes sustainability, involvement in the region and our image as an important player for the Brainport region. But most importantly, growth in every aspect of quality. We are investing in expanding one terminal, but the focus is on adding value for visitors and this area. We are an important player in promoting mobility in the Brainport region. We want residents to feel like this is ‘their airport’; something to be proud of. To achieve this, we should not only act as a leader in sustainability, but also as a good neighbour. We take nuisances seriously and have frank discussions with local residents. We operate transparently and are happy to allow the public to take a look behind the scenes. For instance, primary schools will most likely be visiting us in the future. To integrate Eindhoven’s DNA more into our own, we are working together with PSV, Muziekgebouw Eindhoven, the Van Abbemuseum and, for instance, Glow. Going places together is embedded in the culture of this region. That culture is what keeps us flying forward.

Sustainability plays a role in every sector, but it is a bit more of a factor for you all. How do you plan to navigate that?

Sustainability is one of the main pillars in our aim to achieve profitability without growth. We want to position ourselves as the frontrunner in this area. That is why we are working together with TU/e Eindhoven, MBOs, companies and start-ups within Brainport. If innovation in this field has to come from somewhere, then it will come from this smart region. For instance, we want to collaborate in a test environment with Carbyon, a start-up based at the High Tech Campus. This company is developing a machine that extracts CO2 from the air and turns it into jet fuel. By 2030 we should have made a lot of progress, and net zero by 2050. We are looking to accelerate that timeline and, you guessed it, we are also doing that together.

I think we can safely say that ‘together’ is a key word for you. Coffee brings people together. How important is coffee to you and Eindhoven Airport?

Like our airport, coffee is a way of connecting. In Australia, I became acutely aware of that fact. Coffee just has to be good, something to talk about or even discuss. I start the day with a thermos full of coffee made from beans ground at home, which I then take with me in the car. I truly enjoy that. At the airport, you won’t find just one trained barista, but several. Coffee is part of a lifestyle. I think vitality is extremely important and I like to serve as an example here. I’m always busy with work, even when I’m at home. Yet I am still able to really unwind – with my family and with intense sports.

I get on my bike or run virtually every day. I take time out for that. I intentionally try to strike a balance between work and leisure and want to pass that awareness on to others. You can drive each other crazy 24 hours a day. I’m aware of my role in that. I respect my colleagues’ evenings and don’t send e-mails after work hours. We then catch up the next morning, over a steaming cup of hot coffee.

‘To make the region proud of us, we need to conduct ourselves as a good neighbour.’

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