Richard den Hollander
You wanted to be a DJ most of all.
“As a teenager I had my own drive-in disco, but my parents did not consider it to be a profession. I did like to fly, so I applied to the Royal Military Academy. I wasn’t considered up to scratch in eye-, foot-, hand coordination so I was thrown out during the second round of testing. The corporate world wasn’t on the radar growing up. My father was a teacher and deputy head of the school, my mother studied psychology and took care of the family. I only just graduated high school, without any high marks to show for it and chose to study economics in Amsterdam. After one year I switched to business administration in Rotterdam. As a student I was average, getting Cs and Ds. No, where I ended up as someone in my twenties was not what I had dreamed of as a teenager. I considered my path to be a journey, of discovery."
Did you miss that, having a clear goal?
“No. I do try to encourage my four children to find out what they want in school, college and in their careers. I ask them what their dreams are and how I can contribute to them. Max, our fifteen year old son, wants to discover more about other countries and the corporate world, so I helped him find an internship in Norway and an English course in Bournemouth, in the UK. Stéphanie, who is seventeen, wants to help people and has affinity with international relations. I want to look into whether she is able to come work for Unicef, or the United Nations."
Those Cs and Ds in high school and college, would you go about them differently if you had gotten a do-over?
“No. Besides, I was able to compensate them through extracurricular activities and summer jobs. During my studies I wanted to take part in the Erasmus Program. Berkeley was at the top of my list, but I wasn’t on theirs due to my bad grades. I was welcome to come to Louvain-la-Neuve, in Belgium. It’s where I met my wife, so maybe it was for the best that I wasn’t accepted at Berkeley. Besides, I learned to speak French there, fluently. Which is how I was able to land my first job, at Kellogg’s in Paris. I hadn’t finished my degree, but I was raring to put my marketing skills to good use in a job. I found that particular career path attractive, I was successful, staying abroad, making money - why would I return to Rotterdam to finish writing my thesis? Luckily my father said to me back then: Richard, you will first get your diploma. Luckily I was able to write my thesis at Kellogg’s and graduate after all."
What were your reasons for switching to united biscuits after that?
“I really connected with the people at United Biscuits and I was lucky to land my first job in business development there. United Biscuits was very focused on Great Britain and wanted to expand to Europe, but it wasn’t involved in South America yet either. I received the big bucks to conquer South America. Because I was immediately confronted with all functional disciplines - I had to find a distributor, set up contracts, develop commercial campaigns, handle pricing and negotiations - I learned a great deal in three years. I was 24, flew from London to Buenos Aires in first class seats and stayed in the most opulent hotels. It was an extremely thrilling, glamourous time. After three years United Biscuits asked me to set up marketing in Hungary. Hungary was a fabulous country. Communism was in its dying day, so I was able to truly do some pioneering there. Television commercials didn’t exist there, nor did commercial campaigns, so we had to make up everything as we went along. If I wanted to become a commercial director, United Biscuits told me to gain sales experience in the Netherlands. I had seen it all there after a year. It wasn’t challenging and I grew less than I wanted. I was growing impatient."
When did you make the transistion to PepsiCo?
“That was back in 1999. PepsiCo called me to find out whether I was interested in running the juice business in the Benelux. The Netherlands wasn’t a very big deal, but Belgium was. Once again I could build my own organization from scratch, from a relatively small scale and with a lot of freedom. After a year and a half I became commercial director in Belgium and I led a medium sized team of seventy people. Because of its relatively small size, I was able to build a relationship with them, something I value a great deal. When I look back it was an important step in my career. I switched from a functional role to a general commercial role, which meant that next to sales, I also got marketing, finance, HR and the workers committee under my wing, as well as a direct line to the boss in Europe.”
But you were eager to become a General Manager?
“Until 2006 I was commercial director in Belgium. I was pretty opportune in thinking: I did a good job here, so now I will carry final responsibility for the Netherlands as a whole. My boss begged to differ. He felt that it was time for me to run a big organization first, rather than carrying final responsibility for the medium sized one I was running. I found that a tough nut to crack. My very own PepsiCo, that knew me inside and out felt I needed to make a sidestep as sales director of the Netherlands, yet I was also on the phone to headhunters offering me to become general manager elsewhere. Despite my doubts I followed through, knowing I would become general manager afterwards. Two and a half years later the time had come.”
Has it been good for you in the end, being forced to make the sidestep?
“It may have been the best career choice I ever made. Initially I saw it as taking a step back, being a sales director, but in the end in turned out to be the step I needed to make towards becoming general manager. Without it I would not have been ready for my current position. I was impatient, but in hindsight it was actually a smart move. Everyone is always looking up, instead of to their side. I think it is both useful and valuable to do so, in terms of acquiring knowledge and know how.”
Are there people at PepsiCo who have inspired you?
“Zein Aballa, the manager of Tropicana Europe at the time, was my sparring partner back then and Mike White, the former manager of PepsiCo Europe was able to strike a chord with me as well, in his Leadership development program, during my time in Belgium. We share the philosophy that people are at their best and most effective when they are feeling good, we exchanged a lot of thoughts on that. Eugene Willemse also taught me a lot about business savviness. I also talk a lot to people who have had a similar career, or have been in similar situations. I share a lot with Eugène Scholten, who now works at Bakkersland. We both worked at United Biscuits and have always continued talking afterwards, for instance about building teams, running organizations and the challenges we face as leaders. Eugène and Joost Manassen drew my attention to the Foundation for Natural Leadership, a foundation that was set up by Antony Burgmans, Herman Wijffels and Robert-Jan van Ogtrop, which believes that future leadership will be closer to nature and sustainability. Eugène was very enthusiastic about a trail he made with this organization and last year I accompanied them to South Africa myself."
What happens on such a trail?
“Who are you, what is it you truly find important, where are you headed, what gives you energy, what were and are your biggest challenges? Those kinds of questions are answered by everyone individually and together with the group, during the seven days you are walking the trail. Nature, the walks in silence, simple life and time to yourself are a big part of it, as you are right in the middle of nature, sleeping in caves and the great outdoors and living off basic nutrition (muesli, rice, nuts, dried fruits). There are very few people that take the time needed to ponder these things-always being so busy- so just some time off is a gift in itself. Several times a day we share our thoughts, feelings and experiences (or what goes on in our head, heart& soul) with the group, which is when we basically share our life stories, both personally and career wise. I believe it is hugely inspiring and I wanted to share the experience with my people. So last April we took PepsiCo Nederland’s management team on a similar trail in Ireland, in June we took the Top 40 of the company to a trail on the Dutch isle of Vlieland."
What has South Africa brought you?
“Career wise it brought me the realization once again that focusing on people, on what really drives them, is very important. Business, performance - they are all relevant, but what is really important is the person delivering the performance. Moreover, I saw how important family is, as well as finding a good work-life balance. In South Africa I carried a backpack with food and clothes for a week. Everything I took from it - a shirt, a pair of socks - had a photo with a sweet message from one of my kids attached to it. It’s simple, but it meant the world to me, because it kept reminding me of what is really important in life, much more important than profits or growth attained for your company will ever be."
What is your strength, as General Manager?
“My strength lies in getting teams and people to be the best they can be, motivating and helping them develop themselves, as well as others. My motto ‘high performance with a human touch’ implies performance will come into being all of its own accord. I dare allocate responsibility to others, to offer them the opportunity to take risks. I provide the means to my people, when they have a great idea. ‘Maak de Smaak’ (‘favor your own flavor’) is a telling example. It was a junior brand manager who launched the idea to have consumers come up with their own flavor of crisps. He had already written up a complete activation plan. As leadership team we gave him four million euros. In 2010 ‘Maak de Smaak’ was our most successful marketing campaign since the flippo (another campaign in the nineties)."
What is your best advice for young starters?
“Choose positions in which you are able to have an impact. You can be part of a crowd, ór you can decide to pick a position in which you stand out, in which you actually matter. Explore your options as soon as possible, in as many fields as you can. At United Biscuits I was able to visit several disciplines in very swift succession and that was an incredible learning experience. Don’t end up in your comfort zone early on in your career. Keep developing and aim higher. Push your boundaries, or raise the bar."
2014 – present
CEO/Managing Director, Tristar Group Europe
2013 – 2014
VP General Manager Benelux, PepsiCo
2009 – 2012
VP General Manager Netherlands, PepsiCo
2006 – 2008
Sales Director, PepsiCo NL
2002 – 2006
Commercial Director, PepsiCo Belgium
1997 – 1999
National Account Group Manager, United Biscuits