John Willems reflects on his first 100 days at ZON, the Netherlands

"We could supply clients with more products"

John Willems has been ZON's acting-director for just over 100 days now. He entered this role in less-than-ideal circumstances. Before he was appointed, this Dutch growers association's previous director and several board members had resigned. "The company's internal working didn't always correspond with members' perception. But many things are moving forward again. The puzzle is almost complete now. There are just a few pieces that have to be put in the right place."

Keeping at it
John had spent most of his working life in the plant breeding sector. He'd been an independent business consultant for just a year when Peter van Bree contacted him. That was on behalf of the ZON Board. "He explained the situation at ZON and invited me to an introductory meeting."

"The assignment, which they had ready, greatly appealed to me. Above all, the plans and initiatives already in place had to be carried out. The job was explicitly about continuing to build the association, not reorganize it. I don't think that would've suited me. But I liked the idea of pushing ahead," John explains.

"Something had to be done about involving the growers in the company's activities too. The good thing was that I came into this situation without any background knowledge. My approach was, 'I don't know much about it. You have experience. Let's sit down and talk about how we can tackle things.' I didn't have a set idea about how we should do things."

"Or why things have been done differently in the past. I mainly want to learn. I want to discover what our farmers and clients need. I think it helps that I speak the growers' language. And I don't mean that arrogantly. I also like to step outside my comfort zone. I like looking into new things. Even if I don't know everything about them," John continues.

"I have enormous support from within the organization. Mind you; there's a reason why I'm here. There was a members' meeting in September last year. There, several large growers entered a motion of no-confidence in the then management. But that team didn't sulk. They picked up the gauntlet and took responsibility. They're now fully active, both in the Board and various working groups. These include groups on how to deal with key account management. We also need to figure out how to unburden the older farmers."

"There's a group working on the association's governance too. I sense a huge drive among the employees and the management team as well. They want to go for it. That was a pleasant surprise, given all the publicity about ZON. It wasn't the easiest time to get to know people either. When I started here, almost everyone was working from home. Hopefully, people will be back at the office soon. Holding Team meetings is fine for exchanging information. But, for me, it's absolutely no substitute for personal contact," says Willems.

Good starting point
"ZON has an excellent base too. Our wide range is a real plus in the market in which we want to operate. Our geographical location is also a great advantage. We're close to the German border. The Fresh Park business park is also nearby. So, we're amid large fruit and vegetable companies."

"In other words, there are great sales opportunities. However, I've found that we need more growers and suppliers. That's so we can further increase our growers' returns. We now have 165 members, supplemented by external suppliers," John goes on to say.

"We're using a dual sales strategy to achieve that goal. Key account management is partially responsible for this. But auctions are a great day-trading tool, especially to reach the segments outside retail. I'm well aware that other organizations don't trade so much via the clock anymore. But I think that's precisely where a great opportunity lies for ZON. I see the auction as a client. It shouldn't be overloaded with products. It should be well managed."

"And people like auctions. You don't always read or hear about it. However, in recent years we've gained dozens of buyers every year. Many of these are from the German wholesale channel. We auction Spanish products in the winter. So we ensure that buyers don't disappear during that time. I'm sure that if we expand the range, we'll attract even more purchasing power. And I'm thinking first of all of regional products that we're big in. These include tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, asparagus, and leeks," says John.

More leaders needed
"This job has truly changed my perception. In my previous positions, I was mainly involved in marketing and sales. But we definitely need more leaders here. We'd love to add several more product groups. Then we can serve our clients even more broadly. We're talking to parties and other Dutch organizations. We want to see how we can cooperate. Sometimes things used to evolve in a certain way, but that doesn't mean it's always the best way. I think this cooperative's purpose should always be to serve the ZON growers."

Auctions usually make up almost half of ZON's revenue. "Last year, this share was a little lower. That was due to the corona crisis. The hospitality wholesalers did less business, but retail grew strongly. So, we grew well overall, both in euros and volume," Willems says. He's optimistic about this year's results too. "It looks like we'll continue to grow."

"Several retail segment clients have said they want to work more closely with our farmers. One also asked us to sort and package their Spanish product here. It obviously makes one proud when you receive a thank-you note. That was for the professional way in which we handled that. You change the way you deal with key account holders. So, you can be more transparent. That's about the challenges and problems you encounter. Then you can help each other better."

How temporary is this director's job? John laughs when asked this. "I get that question every day. But if you think about it, everything in life is temporary. I never had a well-defined career plan, even in my previous positions. I have a longer-term vision for this job. Above all, I want to work in an environment to which I can contribute something."

"I want to work with people who energize me. Then it's a pleasure to go to work every morning. And I'd have achieved something every evening. The governance working group is considering our future governance model. Once we've finalized that, we'll look at the future director's profile. We'll have to see whether my role ends there or continues," John concludes.

For more information:
ZON Holding B.V.
104 Venrayseweg
5928 RH, Venlo, NL

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