John de Boer had only just become owner when Geha found itself in difficult waters. But the company stood firm and even managed to tap into another market with a second branch. "You have to come up with solutions that are acceptable to everyone and that people get excited about.
It was early 2012 when John de Boer was approached by a headhunter. A management position was vacant at several companies and he saw an ideal candidate in John. Not surprisingly, because during his career, which began in 1989, he had built up a fine CV. Among other things, he was a board member and co-shareholder at Muelink & Grol, a manufacturer of flue gas and ventilation systems, and machine factory Helpman. As the conversation progressed, however, the headhunter came to a different conclusion. Why not actually start for yourself? Or maybe you should become a co-shareholder or take over a company somewhere again. Although I'd love to place you, I think that's the best fit for you, he concluded. And yes, John couldn't deny that.
In the period that followed, he investigated the possibilities with some twenty companies in his network. The good feeling remained absent, until John walked into Geha in New Amsterdam. Geha is a family business founded in 1957 that focuses primarily on the development, production and worldwide delivery of fans for industrial cooling. Large fans of course, regularly with a diameter of just over seven meters, mainly intended for clients in the energy sector and the (petro)chemical industry. 'It made my heart beat faster,' says John looking back. 'I immediately had a click and felt at home. The lathes and milling machines, the welding machines, the smell of oil and metal and the mentality of the people. With my background in mechanical engineering, it was a feast of recognition. Geha is the type of machine shop that suits me, I knew.
The then owner had taken over the business in 1969 from his father, one of the founders. By now he was getting older and was about to retire. Only: there was no succession within the family. And so the owner was faced with an important choice. Do we hand the company over completely to an investment club or do we opt for a Management Buy In candidate, so that the character of a family business is preserved? 'The latter was chosen and I was seen as the most suitable takeover candidate,' says John. 'So the click turned out to be mutual. I didn't envision any major changes at the time. I wanted to continue the company in a way people were used to and, above all, enjoy my work. Geha is a successful company that since its establishment has developed into Europe's largest supplier of components for the cooling of industrial processes. After I became permanent owner in October 2012, I therefore told the staff: nothing will change until Geha's continuity is threatened.'
Decline in oil prices
Almost simultaneously with the acquisition process, the price of oil fell. A decline that continued uninterrupted in the following years. With clients in the oil and gas industry, this naturally had an impact on Geha's operations. 'When the oil price drops, logically, the returns from extractions also drop,' John clarifies. 'As a result, customer investments were of necessity scaled back significantly. 2016 and 2017 in particular were extremely difficult years for us. It was immediately the first lesson I learned. In the early days, I was convinced that I had to focus on the inside - I always talk about inside and outside - of the company. Simply because I expected to get more returns by optimizing some business processes. But when the market collapsed, it soon became clear to me that I had to go outside. The advantage was that, shortly before, I had been doing sales exclusively at Numac Technical Services, a large technical services provider, for about three and a half years. So I had enough baggage to make good sales calls.'
Full order book
For some time now, the market has been picking up solidly. In fact, Geha's order book is already filled for at least half of the year. With orders from old familiar customers, but also from various new clients that the company has managed to win in recent years. Such a full order book is nice, but it also means that much is asked of the company. 'The market demands very short delivery times, about six weeks on average,' John emphasizes. 'That may not sound so tight, but it certainly is in our case. Components such as the fan housing, the shutter valves and the bearing blocks are all developed and built in-house. Custom made, of course. Only the heat exchanger comes from an external party. At the same time, approval must also be given by the client. Parties such as NAM, Gasunie and Shell, for whom we often work, do not usually proceed overnight. Then six weeks is quite a tight period. That's why our workforce varies from 35 to 70 people, depending on the order pressure.'
John was born in Delfzijl, where he also grew up. After high school he did MTS Mechanical Engineering and then studied both General Operational Technology and Business Administration at the HTS in Groningen. In 1989 he began his working life as a production manager at Draka Comteq Telecom, then a manufacturer of optical fiber cables. 'After a while I started to get a bit bored and decided to study again alongside my work, this time Business Administration at the RUG,' smiles John. 'I graduated in 1997. Such a title is nice, but of course it doesn't make you a good entrepreneur. I am even of the opinion that ordinary common sense will get you the furthest. What matters most is that you come up with solutions that are acceptable to everyone and that people get excited about.'
Such a clever solution was also devised after Geha found itself in difficult waters due to the falling price of oil. 'At a time like that you realize that there has to be new perspective for a company that has been operating in the same niche market for almost 60 years,' John argues. 'One of the questions we then asked ourselves was whether we might be able to play a role in the filtration of wastewater. The longer we thought about it, the more enthusiastic everyone became. Eventually, under the name Plectrum, that resulted in the creation of a second branch which, without the addition of an external company, develops products in the field of filtration, separation and valve technology. One such product is the so-called Micro Drum Filter, a very fine mesh filter that can be used to filter solid particles from wastewater or any other liquid. From soft drink caps to bacteria. An enormous success. Not for nothing were we recently linked by the NOM to water purification company Paques that indicated it was interested in our product. Perhaps a nice cooperation will result from that.'
It doesn't stop there. Indeed, Geha is currently working with NOM to set up a third branch within the company. An innovative and sustainable concept to extract steam, hot water or electricity from flue gases. 'It is still very premature,' John explains. 'We do have a working prototype and there is plenty of interest from the market. But first we want to have certainty about the results, because it involves substantial investments. In any case, expectations are high.'
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