After 18 years at KPN, René van de Ven became sales director at Sustainder in February 2017. Three years later, he was appointed CEO. It is up to him to put the young company even more emphatically on the map internationally as well. 'We are sometimes called the Tesla of public lighting.'
Keep focus! It's the first lesson René van de Ven learned as CEO. 'As a new company, it is tempting to jump on every opportunity you see,' he says. 'With the danger that you deviate from your original plan or even lose sight of it altogether. I myself have a bit of that drudgery in me. I have an enthusiastic nature. Nothing wrong with that, but you have to teach it. I really had to learn that.'
After spending three years there as Sales Director, René has been CEO of Sustainder since March of last year. 'Just a beautiful, proud Dutch company,' he emphasizes. And yes, there is every reason to be proud. For example, the 100th Dutch municipality was recently welcomed as a client. Add to that the 150 German municipalities already won and the math is easy. Since its founding in 2017, Sustainder has managed to acquire a new municipality almost every week. This advance will continue for some time, René expects. 'We see that the concept and our ideas are starting to catch on more and more, both at home and abroad.'
Patented cassette system
Sustainder makes and delivers intelligent public lighting and smart-city solutions. Or more specifically, the company wants to transform the public lighting network into a sustainable and future-proof infrastructure. 'An infrastructure, with the "lamppost" as the central hub, that is modular and smart,' René adds. 'Of course, it starts with light. But to give substance to a smart city, more will be required of public space in the coming years. For example, there will be more and more questions about air quality, mobility and noise detection, for example. For these, too, we offer solutions that last for years. For example, our LED fixtures are equipped with a patented cassette system that makes it easy to add functionalities. Think cameras, sound sensors and air quality sensors. So you can extract a lot of data from the public space and, based on that, add functionalities and adjust them to the local demand of the moment. Just by changing a cassette.'
Sustainder was formed in 2017 from a combination of Philips/Industria's former luminaire factory in Emmen and Dazzletek, a Breda-based company that makes smart control systems for public lighting. Although the office is in Breda, the products are made at Technologies Added in Emmen. Technologies Added was set up simultaneously with the founding of Sustainder as a collective smart factory at the former Philips location. 'A number of Philips' activities could thus be continued, thus preserving employment for the region,' explains René. 'That's also why NOM took a minority stake in Sustainder at the time. And they still fulfill an active role within the company as a shareholder.'
René is a huge numbers guy, he says. Always has been. So after high school, the choice was quickly made. He went to study Business Economics at the Avans Hogeschool in Den Bosch. 'At the same time, I was also interested in the story behind the numbers. In the commercial story, to be precise. For that reason I added Commercial Economics.' The importance of this combination of figures and commerce became clear when René started working for a consultancy club after his studies. After a successful first assignment, new follow-up assignments failed to materialize. 'Simply because they had forgotten to pay attention to commerce,' he smiles. 'Well, if you don't bring in new clients, you're obviously not going to make it. It is the lifeblood of your business. From that moment I knew for sure: whatever I am going to do in the rest of my life, there will always have to be a big commercial aspect to it.'
In 1997, he joined KPN. Rene worked there for 18 years. Starting as account manager, he climbed to sales manager and in the last period to sales director. A time that, in his own words, was decisive for the further course of his career. 'In the first years I sat down with the end customer myself. Later, I had to transfer my knowledge to various sales teams. As sales director, it is not you, but your people who have to get the deal. I learned then that as a manager you have to create conditions. In other words, you have to make sure that the people you manage are comfortable in their own skin and are given sufficient responsibility. I enjoyed doing that immensely. But at a certain point I noticed that I was really only reviewing and making business cases. I thought: wait a minute, I've really drifted away from what I find interesting. In short, I missed the direct contact with customers.
After KPN, René spent a short time as an independent entrepreneur in a company that dealt with everything related to the Internet of Things. There was no shortage of customers, nor of hardware. 'Only we could not provide the connectivity because the necessary networks were not available,' he looks back.' Then, of course, it stops.' Soon after, Sustainder came his way. Whether René was interested in setting up sales in the Netherlands for the newly founded company. Yes, he was interested. Especially after extensive discussions with the then CEO and the shareholders. 'I was immediately convinced of the enormous potential of Sustainder. Everything showed that we could conquer the world with our products. I wanted to contribute to that.'
And so at the beginning of 2017, René was appointed sales director of the Netherlands. Of course, that took some getting used to at first. Because suddenly municipalities and provinces were the main customers. 'Compared to business services, decision processes there are considerably slower,' he says. 'Nevertheless, we quickly gained a foothold. After all, within municipalities and provinces, the smart city is a hot topic. Sustainder is uniquely capable of giving substance to this. Simply because we look beyond lighting alone. With our cassette system, we offer answers to virtually all their current and future questions. This is where we really lead the way. It is not for nothing that we are sometimes called the Tesla of public lighting.
As sales director, he made such an impression that after three years, René was asked to become CEO. A surprise? Not really, he felt it coming a bit, he says. 'More and more people were sparring with me about how we could enter the next phase and how we should roll out the concept worldwide. So I knew they had confidence in me. So far, that confidence has by no means been betrayed; quite the contrary. Because despite the fact that the corona crisis had quite an impact, Sustainder also managed to grow substantially last year. In addition to product development, the focus in the coming period will be on international growth,' emphasizes René. Especially because we see that more and more countries and organizations are starting to attract us. For example, we recently received our first order from Spain. In addition, we will soon start in Austria and in the Scandinavian countries. New opportunities are constantly presenting themselves. Isn't that fantastic!