Together with local TV station RTV Noord, Founded in Groningen organized the first edition of Founder Talks, where two remarkable entrepreneurs share their equally remarkable story, combined with an in-depth interview and questions from the audience.
During this edition at the Groninger Forum last Tuesday, RTV Noord journalist Bart Breij interviewed Evert de Niet, the man who brought innovation to the funeral sector, and Albert Buring, co-founder of international award winning ad agency 212 Fahrenheit.
Evert de Niet: Only dead fish go with the flow
As manager of Algemeen Belang, a funeral services and insurance company, Evert de Niet brought innovation to a sector you would not normally associate with creativity and innovation. After finishing the Academy of Arts, he chose certainty over the the life of artist and became the manager of a funeral company, but he never stopped being creative. “We have a saying where I grew up”, Evert says. “Only dead fish go with the flow.”
“When I started out, the company culture was pretty conservative”, Evert continues. “And it wasn’t run like a business at all. I wanted to listen to the the needs and wants of customers and never be in a position where I would have to say: sorry, but no, we can’t do that. Or give them a watered down, mediocre version of what they want.”
Drones and a soccer stadium
Evert’s company made headlines last year when they offered a funeral service for hardcore fans of local soccer team FC Groningen. A coffin in green and white, flower arrangements with the team logo, and the most remarkable: the funeral service held right there in the soccer stadium.
But that’s not the full extent of Evert’s innovation and imagination. “I’m currently working with someone on a new way to scatter ashes, using a drone. At first glance, it may sound crazy, and there’s still a lot of things we need to figure out, like making sure the ashes don’t accidentally scatter during takeoff. But if it works, we’ll definitely consider it”, Evert explains. “There are a lot of innovation fads and hypes, but you need to be crazy enough to at least try things, otherwise there’s no innovation at all.”
DELA takeover and building the most sustainable crematorium in the Netherlands
Recently, Algemeen Belang was taken over by competitor DELA. When asked why by Bart, Evert answers: “Because we still had that choice. In this industry, the value of a company is measured by future potential. You can have a bad year and still be doing really well, but you can also calculate when things won’t look so good in the future. So it’s either making that choice now and still be able to grow, or wait and let that choice be made for you when you’re not in a good bargaining position.”
“I won’t say it was an easy thing to do though”, Evert continues. “We had to let go of some people, which was really emotional for me, but we gave them 3 years to look for a new job, so we were as generous as we could be.”
Evert is currently working on creating the most sustainable crematorium in the Netherlands. “We’re not just talking about solar panels and things like that, but the entire process behind it: locally built wooden caskets, right down to making sure the catering is local and sustainable. And the biggest polluter is actually the people driving to the funeral service, and usually to a different location afterwards. We also want to minimize the distance traveled.”
When asked by someone in the audience if there is a limit to innovation, Evert’s answer is resolute: “There isn’t. If you think there is, you have to quit, because your head isn’t in the game.”
Albert Buring: Don’t compromise
Last year, it was raining prestigious awards for ad and design agency 212 Fahrenheit. Founders Albert Buring and Paul Mulder won the Silver European Design Award and the very prestigious Red Dot Design award for their project “Stories to Never Forget” a bookcase to keep the Jewish history in Appingedam alive.
Albert and Paul met at the Minerva Academy of Arts in Groningen. “Together with someone else, we had a design studio called Studio Pak for about 10 years before we started 212 Fahrenheit 5 years ago,” Albert explains. “Winning those international awards so incredibly awesome and it has also really raised the bar for us.”
If you live in Groningen, you’ve almost certainly seen one of their recent exploits. Since the Let’s Gro festival last November, one building on the Grote Markt curiously stands out in terms of color. The pink building known as Grote Markt number 33 is the result of a promotional stunt by 212 Fahrenheit and Studio Plakband, to focus attention on the construction of the new east side of the square and the building itself is the last one standing, soon to be demolished to make way for a new one.
“We were really surprised the city government actually gave us the green light”, Albert says. Not everyone liked the color though. After a show of hands in the audience, about 50% percent liked it. “How do you deal with that?” Bart asks. “I really don’t mind or care what people think”, Albert casually answers. “I don’t want people to like it, I want it to make them think, have an opinion. The goal was to get people talking and get them to vote for the new building, which they certainly did, so mission accomplished.
The holy trinity of budget, freedom and friendliness
Another award winning project of theirs was Music Monster, a big machine with dials, knobs and wheels that makes music. “Funny story”, Albert says. “We were initially asked to design a website for a music school that was looking to get more students, but it’s really important to look for the question behind the question. So we asked them what they really wanted to accomplish and they said they wanted kids to get involved with music. So instead of a website, we made a machine, and it really got kids interested in music and made them sign up.”
When asked for some solid advice, Albert answers: find people you can work with who can help you build the idea you have. Paul and I are not good at building things, but that doesn’t stop us, because we hire and work with people who can. And also: don’t compromise and show some balls. We work with clients based on three things: we get the freedom to do what we want, they have the budget and they have to be friendly and easy to work with. That has always worked for us.”