Career advice from Jeroen Mustert

Published on: 20 Jul 2021

It should be the crowning glory of his impressive career: being CEO of HG, further professionalizing the company and achieving national and international growth. But the first year was tough. “I was that guy who was standing alone in the desert shouting. I’m not afraid of that, but the desert is more interesting when there are other people around.” These days, though, foundation is rock solid and Jeroen Mustert has set his sights on conquering Europe with HG.

He’d seen it all in his career. The only thing missing was “being the real number 1 at a company,” says Jeroen with a smile. In late 2018, HG tapped him to become CEO after six years at Wessanen. It was an interesting proposition, not least because there was no next step at Wessanen. The fact that HG is private equity-owned was a second ‘bonus’; he’d never experienced that before, either. In the end, Jeroen asked himself the question that he asks himself with every new opportunity. “Can I make it an even bigger and better success?” Once he’d answered yes, it was an easy choice to make. Jeroen became the new CEO of HG.

It was the icing on the cake of an impressive career. In addition to Wessanen, Jeroen had previously worked for Unilever, Kraft, RJ Reynolds, Coca-Cola and Reckitt Benckiser – a carefully mapped out career where his eyes were always focused on the goal. “First, the goal was to become General Manager of an FMCG player before I was 40. Once I’d done that, I formulated a new goal. I always knew exactly where I was going, even if I had to take a turn now and then to get there. Every step was an extension of the career path I had mapped out for myself.”

Breaking through the ceiling
And then he became CEO of HG. His mission was clear: to make the brand grow faster by further professionalizing and digitalizing it, and gaining ground in the Netherlands and Europe within the foreseeable future. “Over the past 25 years, HG has built a rock-solid brand with a unique proposition. At the same time, last year, the organization was clearly hitting its ceiling. In order to break through, the organization, the team and the strategy had to be recalibrated. For example, we were in need of a professional account management and category management strategy. There was also no real marketing and brand vision. On top of that, there was also no commercial go-to market strategy for the international markets, which meant that expansion abroad just wasn’t happening.” Jeroen did what any CEO should do, he built a strategy that would allow HG to grow significantly both domestically and internationally, and adjusted the organization and team accordingly.

It turned out to be a winning move. With an entirely new team – including a new Sales Director for the Benelux and one for the international markets, new Sales Directors in Germany, Belgium, the UK and France, a new Marketing Director and an entirely new Trade Marketing department – HG raced to the next level at lightning speed. The company posted 2% growth in the first half of 2019, followed by 7% in the second. Currently, HG is posting 12% growth, and Jeroen thinks he’ll end the year with as much as 20%. It’s a promising prognosis. “The foundation is there, now it’s time to build on it. Next year, we want to grow between 10% and 20% in all countries. In five years’ time, we should have at least doubled in size – through organic growth but also through acquisitions and intensive digitalization. That will put us well on the way to our goal, to be the undisputed market leader in our field in Europe – and perhaps even beyond.”

I like how high Michael Jordan sets the bar

Resume Jeroen Mustert

2019 – now

2013 – 2019
General Manager, Wessanen Benelux & Germany, Wessanen

2011 – 2012
General Manager, Reckitt Benckiser the Netherlands

2006 – 2011
General Manager, Reckitt Benckiser Thailand, Philippines and Indochina

2003 – 2006
Global Trade Marketing Director, Reckitt Benckiser HQ

2001 – 2003
Marketing Director, Coca-Cola Company Nordics

1997 – 2001
Marketing, Coca-Cola Company Middle East

Culture born of leadership
In addition to professionalization in commerce, finance, HR and operations, Jeroen is also driving a culture change. He’s building a winning, fast-moving culture where entrepreneurship, teamwork, ownership and a focus on results play a key role. Jeroen is convinced that a strong company culture translates into good business results. “Reckitt Benckiser was the most important learning experience in that respect. Back then, there was no such thing as a thought-out culture strategy. At Reckitt Benckiser, I learned that culture is essentially a top-down concept, that’s set and spread by the top layer of the organization. It’s the result of a particular leadership style. The CEO at Reckitt Benckiser had a very clear vision of how the company should be run and was simply looking for people who were a good fit. In terms of personality, those people were not necessarily on the same wavelength, but when it came to the vision of where the company should go and how to get there, they were completely on the same page. Everyone who came in had to fit into that vision and culture, and that’s how you make progress. I take the same approach to my business operations. We’re currently working on a leadership program where we clearly define who we are, where we want to go and with what organizational dynamics we want to get there. Then it’s up to management and the layer below to organically filter that down to the rest of the company. How we lead and how we act defines the corporate culture of the organization.”

Investment company with long-term vision
What makes HG different from the companies he’s worked at in the past? “The fact that HG allows you to make a real impact and that there are so many opportunities,” Jeroen says. “Whether it’s a takeover, a new product, a new channel or another opportunity, if an interesting chance arises, they’re happy to seize it at HG. It’s one of the advantages of working for an entrepreneurial company owned by investors. At HG, you don’t have to seek approval from endless layers of management and a group of shareholders, which means it takes ages to make a decision. If I have an idea, I just need approval from two people – that’s it. It’s often handled in a few minutes. Belgian company Cobepa is not a hardcore PE business, they’re an investment firm with an intentionally long-term vision. That allows me to take on a job and finish it, without a ticking time bomb going off after three years. That’s a wonderful way to work.”

Every year around Christmas, he looks back on the year that is coming to an end and asks himself three questions: Did I succeed? Did I learn? And Did I have fun? “If I can answer each of those three questions with a resounding yes, I know I’m still in the right place. Your career is driven by you, and what you are looking for in life. For me, those three principles are the most important.”

Michael Jordan’s last dance (and Jeroen’s, as well)
Looking back, does he regret anything? Jeroen doesn’t. His sons do – they still blame him for turning down a job as Global Marketing Director for the Michael Jordan brand at Nike in the US. Because, again, it was a marketing job, so less likely to have a steep learning curve. But he still enjoyed watching the universally praised Netflix series, The Last Dance. And with a touch of recognition, too. “I like how high Michael Jordan sets the bar. His ability to look for a challenge in everything to always take things a step further or get better, I recognize that in myself. And if there’s no challenge, just make one up. I love it.”

Yet slowly but surely, the end is coming. Because one thing is certain, this will be his last job. His wife is rapidly building her career at Alpro Danone. After this, it’s time for her to lead the way in growth. For Jeroen that means it’s time to finally pick up golf again. It’s one of his greatest passions and something he hasn’t been able to pursue in recent years. As in everything, he’s looking for a challenge. “Becoming the oldest winner of the British Open, that would be something for me. Or the new Tiger Woods.” After all, Jeroen has never heard of a low bar.

Five career tips from Jeroen Mustert, CEO at HG

Tip 1: Don’t deviate (too much) from your intended career path
I often come across CVs of people who have gotten off their path at some point. Returning to your original path after such a “misstep” is pretty damn difficult. Adjusting your career path from time to time is fine but don’t make too many concessions.

Tip 2: Being a little selfish is a good thing
Continuing in that vein, no one knows you as well as you know yourself, so you know best what you want and don’t. Don’t let yourself to be pushed into a role that other people want you to be in. Take care of yourself, and don’t compromise too much. That sounds selfish, and it is, but in this case, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Tip 3: From an established corporate to entrepreneurial SME is a wonderful path
It helped me tremendously to start out in a large, established corporate environment – it’s the perfect place to learn the intricacies of the business. The theory, that is. From there, it’s an easy, logical step to SME, where you can apply all the knowledge you’ve gained in practice – and where there’s usually more room for entrepreneurship, and you can almost by definition make a greater impact.

Tip 4: Find a mentor anytime, anywhere
Few things are as valuable as having people around you who are really good at something. In my career, I always looked for people that I looked up to, who I tried to mirror, and who had a lot to teach me. When you’ve found someone like that, ask them if you can have a conversation with them from time to time, and if they can guide you in certain areas, albeit in the background.

Tip 5: You can go along way with talent and vision, but never without hard work
If my father taught me anything, it’s that you have to work hard to achieve your goals. I try to pass that on to my two sons, as well. Talent and intelligence definitely help, but without hard work, you won’t get there.

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