From the mail deliverer to the Binnenhof in The Hague, Rob Brakenhoff knows his way around
He was foreordained to work as a graphic designer, but his career took a completely different turn. It became instead a far from predictable career in aviation, healthcare, electronics and postal and parcel delivery. He is a strategic thinker and enthusiastic speaker. Rob Brakenhoff talks just as easily about the liberalisation of the postal market with a minister as he does with a part-time mail deliverer from Sandd. Rob was the last CEO of this company until it was taken over by PostNL. He has now joined Boer & Croon as an interim CEO/COO.
Rob Brakenhoff was trained as a reproduction photographer and graphic designer. But his diploma - and with it his future prospects - lost all value with the introduction of the scanner. "In retrospect, I am quite grateful about that," Rob says with the benefit of hindsight. After his time in the Dutch Navy, he took a few detours and ended up at Mailprofs, part of what was then PTT Post. After that, Rob was offered a chance in KLM's management development programme and subsequently worked there for five years. He then moved on to OCÉ to take up a commercial role. In 2006, an executive search agency snatched him up for a management position at Pantar in Amsterdam.
"Pantar is an organisation that provides employment services in the Amsterdam region. It offers new opportunities to people who are at a disadvantage on the labour market. Ten years earlier, Pantar had been privatised as a foundation and it could do with a new impulse, both in a commercial and a business sense. With a management team of five people from the business community who had complementary qualities, we were able to plug the leak and eventually merge the organisation, which was made up of four operational companies," Rob explains. "Once this process had been completed after 6 years, it was time for something different."
IN GOOD ORDER AND PREDICTABLE
Through the then executive search consultant Haico Spijkerboer, now a Partner at Boer & Croon, Rob was brought into contact with the Sandd Supervisory Board. Sandd was founded in 1999 by a group of ambitious investors hailing from the Trimoteur investment company. Back in 1999, the group had made a bold move during the liberalisation of the postal delivery services market. "Waking PostNL up from its sleep and taking on the competition head on," is how Rob recalls the story at the time of his appointment. "Get the operation in good order and make it predictable," was the brief. "And don't think that you will land somewhere that's all sorted out!" Rob was pledged.
Rob got straight to work as a COO. More volume was achieved through the acquisition of several companies, such as Selekt Mail and Van Straaten Post BV. From 2015, a catch-up also had to be made with regard to parcel deliveries. "We're completely crazy in the Netherlands! If we order something at 5 minutes before midnight, then we want to receive it on our doorstep the very next day. Therefore, if you only deliver mail two days a week, you have no business in this market."
"My task was simple: get that new business organised and develop a 24/7 enterprise. And create added value for the shareholders in any eventual sell-offs."
FIGHTING FOR EVERYTHING
The thing that Brakenhoff talks about with great passion is the solidarity that exists among the 16,000 employees of Sandd. "In a lot of organisations, you have to push hard to introduce changes. At Sandd, the enthusiasm was so great that we didn't need to convince the colleagues on the floor." However, Rob did experience resistance or opposition from the trade unions and in the political arena. "The trade unions did not want to accept that delivering the mail was a part-time job mainly for older people, who could still get to go around the neighbourhood this way. It was seen as a way of displacing people in the labour market. We were forced to employ these people on a full-time basis."
The market was liberalised, but politicians in The Hague had their own agenda. "They did not want PostNL, a 'jewel in the crown' of Dutch society, to be taken over by a foreign company or undercut by a Dutch company. Legislation always follows liberalisation and we had to fight for everything. The established order is by definition protected," said Rob, who was appointed CEO of the mail and parcels company in 2017. This may well have been a good thing for 'BV Netherlands', but it was difficult for the director of Sandd to accept.
THE BEST CHOICE
The acquisition process by PostNL began back in 2019. "That's quite complicated. We also received interest in a takeover from abroad. From parties who were offering to invest millions in us to boost competition. But what they actually sought to achieve was to lower the stock market value of PostNL by increasing the level of competitiveness. And then to take over this company for next to nothing. They were interested in parcels and not in the actual postal service. And that was ultimately not our intention."
The acquisition by PostNL was the best choice for both parties. "But emotionally, pretty intense," elaborates Brakenhoff, who has played the competition very keenly for years. Even a new caterer, who brought in orange crockery, had to pay the price. "He had to cart his goods back with him in that were in PostNL's house colours."
After the acquisition, Rob Brakenhoff spent another six months at the head office in The Hague advising on the integration of both companies. Smiling, he says: "Advising is not the same as being the CEO. All in all, it was a really fascinating and instructive period."
THE RIGHT MOMENT
After this adventure, the former CEO embarked on a new phase in his career. He uses his knowledge and experience as an advisor and coach for start-ups and he is also available for interim assignments. "Complex and urgent jobs, where there are a lot of political and public stakeholders. Throughout my career, I have experienced how important it is to listen to employees and to use their knowledge to solve problems. The LEAN method can be a successful method to motivate people and help them to enjoy their work. Entering into dialogue, instead of 'just do what you're told'. There are so many success stories."
The trained graphic designer looks back on some fine successes with the turn-around at Amsterdam's Pantar and the complex undertaking at Sandd. "One way to relax after work is to grab my camera. I've gone back to analogue photography, because that calls for a different kind of concentration. Looking for and choosing the right moment. And not just picking out the best from a selection of 30 digital photos. It's so satisfying when everything turns out just right in the picture."