Leon Sterk says he likes to tinker with boats. One day he made such a successful invention that he is now at the helm of Harkboot in Roden. Managing a growing company turns out not to be his dream, so he looks for a partner for that task. Still, as an entrepreneur, Sterk impressed the NOM, which recently provided Harkboot with funding.
His handshake is as firm as his work boots, and the black smudges on his fingers make it clear that he is not afraid to get his hands dirty. Robust industrial lamps hang above his desk, but the office today also contains neat rolling cabinets full of paperwork.
'In the beginning, I just went out when there was a job,' says Sterk. 'Since we became a team, there's a lot more involved, from job preparation to training and insurance.' As an entrepreneur, he's still finding his way through the changes that growth brings. 'It's great that our raking method is such a huge success, but running a business is a profession.'
It happens to more people with a good idea or passion. They enthusiastically set to work on something that comes their way and suddenly they are "in serious business. Strong has been tackling the challenges of entrepreneurship with verve since the rake method caught on at home and abroad.
'It all started with a customer's question when I was self-employed plowing boathouses and marinas. They asked if I could also control the proliferation of aquatic plants. Mowing turned out to be ineffective; then it just proliferates faster. That's why I came up with the rake method, to pull the plants out of the bottom with root and all.'
Fish-friendly and EU-proof
The technically savvy Sterk built a structure on a used boat and thus the rake boat was born. The concept proved a godsend for tackling "green soup": encroaching aquatic plants in open water that make things impervious and sometimes even threaten water quality. 'We remove aquatic plants with attention to oxygen levels so that fish stay alive,' Sterk explains.
'Because of this fish-friendly method, we quickly became popular with angling federations that want to keep their fishing spots free of dense aquatic vegetation, such as the Sportvisserij Groningen Drenthe with which we have worked for many years. We are now in demand throughout the country and even get requests from Belgium, Germany and France.'
The story gets even better, as Rake Boat gained momentum thanks to laws and regulations surrounding non-native aquatic plants. New EU directives to deal with invasive exotic species that threaten water quality mean that more and more water boards, provinces and municipalities are turning to the innovative raking method.
'We get flat calls,' says Sterk, who is also regularly asked to speak at symposia on exotic aquatic plant control. 'Suddenly you're talking to people from ecological institutes, the
Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority. After several years of field experience, it turns out that we can respond well to the new legislation with our raking method.'
Continue to develop
The first homemade rake boat is now part of a fleet of five. To develop the rake boats, Sterk sought cooperation with Conver, a manufacturer of mowing boats and amphibious machines. "I thought it would be smart to develop my design further with a reputable boat builder," he said.
I still like tinkering with boats, but the developments around Harkboot required a professional approach. We continue to develop ourselves.
SUDDENLY YOU'RE TALKING TO PEOPLE FROM ECOLOGICAL INSTITUTES, THE MINISTRY OF EZ AND THE FOOD AND COMMODITIES AUTHORITY. AFTER SEVERAL YEARS OF FIELD EXPERIENCE, IT TURNS OUT THAT WE CAN RESPOND WELL TO THE NEW LEGISLATION WITH OUR RAKING METHOD.
Every situation is different, so in the workshop we regularly fiddle with rake models to see what the effect is. By combining our fieldwork experience with technical knowledge and expertise, we work toward even better rake boats and results.'
To invest in the company's development and growth, Sterk knocked on NOM's door. 'The first time I visited the workshop in Roden, he still had homework to do,' says investment analyst Veronique Jeunhomme. 'There was no business plan, but this man's unique invention and hands-on mentality made an immediate impression.'
The conversation with NOM inspired Sterk to take a more grounded approach. He lit up at Flinc and utilized the "I am a Drenthe entrepreneur" grant program. Jeunhomme praises the way Sterk anticipates opportunities. He is a go-getter and has his affairs in order. The business plan also came: short, but substantively powerful and to the point.
NOM is convinced of both the growth opportunities of Harkboot and Sterk's entrepreneurship. Precisely because he is well aware of his strengths and weaknesses," says investment manager Klaas Kooistra. 'The trick is to gather people around you who take on other tasks, so that you can focus on what you are good at'.
The inventor of the rake boat is happy with all the critical questions NOM asked him. 'You get completely sawed through and that helps to get things clear. This kind of process is a good learning curve for our company. With NOM on board, we can strengthen the basis.
Not only thanks to their financial resources, but also because NOM is a name that inspires confidence among banks and other cooperation partners. We are happy with that. "The Harkboot team now consists of four permanent employees, a flexible worker and several self-employed people for a variety of raking, plowing and sweeping jobs in open water.
In addition, the company is working with a biologist to conduct a more thorough
research. 'We will monitor several areas after cleaning up and use the results to further refine our method,' says Sterk.
In the meantime, the storage and workshop in Roden is growing out of space. 'The fleet is expanding and with it the necessary trailers, hoists, machines, welding equipment and tools. The plans for expansion are already ready; we hope to start this winter.'