He once became an entrepreneur out of sheer wonder. These days, Jan Henk Wijma wouldn't have it any other way. Especially now that Purified Metal Company has become operational. 'It takes a lot of inventiveness to achieve the desired goal. And that is precisely what makes it so much fun.'
'Just a good idea is not enough,' says Jan Henk Wijma. 'Indeed, only then does it begin. After the idea for our company was born, it then took about ten years before we had a working plant.' Jan Henk is CEO of Purified Metal Company (PMC) of Farmsum, the first company in the world to clean and reuse contaminated steel scrap in a sustainable way. To that end, PMC has developed a patented and innovative process by which the contaminated steel can be recycled into a high-quality raw material for the steel industry. The emphasis in that recycling process is particularly on processing materials containing asbestos.
He enjoys entrepreneurship, he says. 'It is tremendously exciting and things always turn out differently than you thought beforehand. It takes a lot of inventiveness to achieve the desired goal. And that's exactly what makes it so much fun.' Yet after finishing high school, his ambition lay elsewhere. He wanted to become a naval officer. So Jan Henk applied for technical studies at the Royal Naval Institute, KIM for short. Once accepted and started, he decided to make it a step harder for himself and go sailing on submarines. 'A bit mystical, a lot of technology and a lot of responsibility at a young age,' he clarified his choice. 'Not for a moment did I regret it. I learned an awful lot there, also about myself. When you sail on a submarine you are in a kind of high-pressure pan, without the opportunity to close the door behind you at five o'clock. I learned that you can't do it by yourself and have to gather good people around you to get things accomplished. You learn, in short, to rely on each other, to work together and that you have to get your own act together.'
He took that baggage with him when he made the transition to business after 10 years in the Navy. He mainly worked for companies where, as Jan Henk himself describes it, something really had to happen. Companies where change processes and restructuring were involved, for example. And now he is CEO of PMC. Was entrepreneurship in there from a young age? 'I must say that by nature I am quite stubborn and opinionated,' smiles Jan Henk. 'In my view, important qualities to start for yourself. Nevertheless, I didn't become an entrepreneur with a preconceived plan, but actually out of sheer wonder.'
Surplus steel scrap
That amazement began in 2011 when he worked with Nathalie van de Poel and Bert Bult, his companions at PMC, at a renowned steel manufacturer. There, contaminated train scrap, intended to be used to produce steel, was offered that still contained a small amount of asbestos. Because the scrap could not be adequately cleaned, it was unsaleable and ended up in the landfill. Just like the many garden thousands of tons of other steel containing asbestos dumped underground in the Netherlands every year. 'So the material actually had to be put in the ground to leave it to future generations to do something with it,' Jan Henk stresses. 'We thought that was too bizarre to be true. So the idea was born to destroy the asbestos and other contaminants and start processing the steel scrap through an innovative and circular process.'
PMC was officially founded in 2014, immediately after Dordrecht-based Janssen Recycling Group joined the three initiators as a shareholder. But in order to build the plant and thus actually start up, funding was of course needed. An amount of 70 million euros, to be exact. 'That has been an enormous journey which, after four years and many cups of coffee, eventually ended successfully,' Jan Henk looks back. 'In such a process you need people and parties who believe in our plan for a circular solution for contaminated steel. We found these after a while, but nobody dared to take the first step. After NOM indicated that it would invest in PMC, other financiers soon followed, including NIBC Bank and the GROEIfonds of the Economic Board Groningen, and eventually the banks. In other words, NOM played a crucial role in getting the funding done.'
In September 2020, the recycling plant in Farmsum was opened by King Willem-Alexander. A successful day, which did not lack media attention. And that even though PMC was not yet producing at that time. Simply because the factory was not quite ready. That was a disappointment," says Jan Henk. 'During construction everything went almost flawlessly. For example, for the first year and a half we had no delays at all. But when we started commissioning, the technical problems also began. In total that caused a year's delay. That affected us a lot, especially financially. In the meantime, we have everything in place. Since August, for example, we have started what the plant is intended for: processing contaminated steel scrap into a clean and high-quality product, so-called Purified Metal Blocks. And that has succeeded. We didn't expect anything else, but you still have to prove it.'
PMC, of course, is more than just a new factory. It is also a new organization. That means hiring people and forming a team. That too proved easier said than done. 'Because of my experience on submarines, I thought I knew enough about that,' argues Jan Henk. 'But forming a completely new team in a completely new organization is a completely different story. After all, you have no existing culture and no existing procedures yet. It just took some time to figure out exactly which people fit the company. We now employ about 50 people who together form a stable team. In the coming years, we expect to continue to grow slowly. In any case, we have already laid a solid foundation for that.
Indeed, PMC seems to have caught the uptrend. But how to move forward? For example, what are the company's plans for the future? 'From the beginning, our plan has been that after the first plant is operational and running well, we will continue to build the next plants. We are convinced that there is room in Europe, as well as on other continents, for several PMC factories. Especially now that the circular economy and reducing CO2 emissions are moving higher and higher on the priority list of governments and companies. Three new factories in about five years? Yes, why not. The time is ripe for it. '
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