In our "Directors Sparkle interviews" series, Jo Hendrikx, Danny Vandevyver and Chris Wouters talk to GUBERNA directors. Each interview links content to one or more research themes of GUBERNA's Centres of Expertise: 'Resilience', 'Board Dynamics', 'Innovation', 'Sustainable Value creation' and 'Diversity & Inclusion’.
Jo Hendrikx invited Mark Adriaenssens. Mark is a pioneer when it comes to sustainability and is happy to testify about three different, interconnected initiatives that he is actively involved in: Out of Use, Watt4Ever and non-profit organisation Circular.brussels. He is chairman of the board in each of these. Both Mark and his son Yannick are members of Guberna and are currently taking the training courses
Mark Adriaenssens (65), father of three children and grandfather of eight grandchildren took his first steps in recycling in 1998: "We set up dismantling lines to recycle refrigerators and televisions. After that we gradually moved from just recycling to a greater focus on reuse. We noticed that it contained a lot of nice and reusable IT material."
"What could be better than recycling? Reusing stuff by extending the lifespan!"
Today, his company Out of Use, an SME with about 30 employees, specialises not only in recycling and reusing laptops, desktops, printers, PCs, and similar items. The company also actively pursues the reuse of electric vehicle batteries and, more recently, solar panels. "We take care of the batteries in collaboration with three other parties in the Watt4ever joint venture."
You either chair or lead three organisations: Out of Use, watt4ever and non-profit organisation Circular.brussels. Where do you see differences and similarities in terms of management?
"For me, there are actually almost no differences. The three companies are committed to sustainability, CSR and materials of the future. The non-profit organisation also needs to be run like a business and make a profit or else it cannot continue to exist. In all three, all proceeds are always reinvested to achieve further growth."
How did you figure out at the time that you actually wanted to do something with sustainability?
"In 1998, Van Gansewinkel (now part of Renewi) placed a newspaper ad to recycle refrigerators and recover CFCs (ozone-depleting gases). They were looking for someone to start this up in Belgium too, and that led to AppaRec. Ten years later, 120 people were working there and we had already processed hundreds of thousands of refrigerators and televisions, still with cathode ray tubes back then. I liked that idea and Recupel did not yet exist at that time.”
How do you look at sustainable value creation for shareholders and stakeholders with Out of Use?
"Out of Use is an environmental company that first of all tries to take things off customers’ hands, where possible. This may be collecting the material, packaging it in a way that we can maximise reuse and then aiming to maximise value creation by reusing things as much as possible. Only when reuse is not an option, we turn to recycling. Then we try to extract as many secondary raw materials as we can."
"It is always about value maximisation, not only in euros but also in CSR."
How do you look at strategy in your governance practice, what is on the agenda at Out of Use?
"I am a practical type of person, not a theorist. But, of course, it is clear that the board of directors must primarily steer. Because of the many growth opportunities and chances to increase our impact, we decided to organise our family business more solidly with a board of directors. Because if we want our ship to sail in the right direction, we really need people who are knowledgeable about that and who know what it takes to get bigger and better, including in terms of impact. Of course, those people must also bring experience in the areas where we ourselves lack it. Besides that theoretical knowledge, their network is also important. We are now looking for the right people who will help us increase our impact. We got this far by taking it carefully, step by step and growing organically. But now we would like to start with M&A. However, mergers and acquisitions are a completely different business and that is where our extended governing body will have to guide us."
How is the family part arranged within your companies?
"We have obviously ensured succession and family continuity. My son Dennis has an executive position at Circular.brussels and my son Yannick is COO at Out of use. We have organised that continuity to the next generation through a family partnership guided by the 'Futura filiorum': the future for the children. That actually says it all.
That’s also why I am glad that we are now going to bring in external directors to ensure that this continues to be done properly. Yes, we admit that we too still have a lot to learn. And maybe we should also admit in time that others are better suited."
"In terms of ESG reporting, we also want other companies to help increase their sustainability and simultaneously getting their sustainability reporting right"
And what can you tell us about Circular.brussels?
"Circular.brussels is a non-profit organisation that we founded and was derived from Out of Use. Our way of trying to close the digital divide in Brussels. Because many of our recycled laptops or other devices end up at Circular.brussels, which can sell them easily through its contacts with schools, poverty organisations or centres for social welfare (OCMWs). About 15 people now work there. The number fluctuates, as many students also attend as part of their Erasmus course.
Customers can choose to donate all or part of their proceeds to Natuurpunt or another cause of their choice. Through Natuurpunt, we then plant a corresponding number of trees in Belgium for the value we have created for the customer and which they have donated. For instance, we have now planted more than a hundred thousand square metres of forest with our customers. At the tree planting, employees of the companies can put the shovel in the ground together with their children or grandchildren. Always fun.
We also give work to social enterprises or social institutions. For example, we were allowed to dismantle 200,000 set-top boxes, known as TV decoders, for a major telecom customer. We take the hard drives out, ‘data-wipe’ them and then put them back on the market. As a result, we create additional value for the telecom operator and for the social enterprises that help us with the dismantling. For example, they first have to cut the plugs off the cables. Because both fractions should be recycled separately.
We recently launched a circular web shop, BackInUse.be. For example, if we prepared laptops from a major bank for reuse, when they are no longer used at the company, the own staff can purchase the devices at a great discount. Everyone benefits and any proceeds can be donated again to Natuurpunt.
It is also part of our philosophy to keep everything local, where possible. Raw materials are mined all over the world, but not within Europe... it is our goal to keep those (raw) materials within Europe and reuse them.”
And then there’s Watt4Ever? What do they do?
"Out Of Use goes to collect all batteries from all electric vehicles across Belgium and Luxembourg for disassembly at our Beringen site. A battery pack consists of a number of modules. These have to be taken out individually for testing. Watt4Ever will then reassemble the reusable modules to form Circular Battery Energy Storage Systems.
Our partnership was initiated at the request of FebelAuto, the federation of Belgian end-of-life vehicles, which has a take-back obligation, and is in charge of the recovery of end-of-life vehicles. At the same time, a take-back system had to be created for the batteries of electric vehicles. Febelauto already has 52 brands under contract.
Watt4ever ensures that new packs are put together for resale. The company does all the R&D and development of the devices. We are talking about power systems from 100 kilowatts to 1.6 megawatts. That is a very large container full of batteries.
Of course, at Out Of Use, we are not limited to just batteries and IT. If we can add extra legs to that in terms of recycling or the environmental aspect we are definitely going to do that. But then, of course, we have to raise the management to a higher level to keep the overview and provide adequate steering."
What is currently on the agenda?
"Until now, only the shareholders were on Watt4ever's board of directors. We recently launched a vacancy within GUBERNA for an additional external director. For that, we received a staggering 32 applications, which is indeed a nice compliment! We originally had only one external director in mind, but the candidates were so strong that we ended up keeping two. Choice overload!”
But for a small company with few resources, all of this isn’t obvious to do, is it?
"Besides working hard, we also have to be up to date all the time. There are many organisations that do have a piece of the puzzle to contribute. For example, GUBERNA when it comes to governance. And Agoria has a good overview of the European legislation that is coming our way, for example the Green Deal, the Critical Materials Act and the Battery Directive. This stipulates that within a few years, every new battery must have at least 30% 'recycled content'. So that creates a huge momentum to keep those secondary raw materials here as much as possible."
Is there anything you ever doubt about when you look at these different businesses you are now active in?
"My biggest doubt is whether I, or we in the family, have enough skills ourselves to accomplish further growth. Being an engineer myself, I started with a small company and as we grew, I had to evolve to an increasingly higher level myself. I should also not be afraid to let go of what is 'hands on' so we can take a more managerial approach to everything. We need to delegate to other people who can do it much better than us. In that aspect, of course, GUBERNA is fantastic because lifelong learning is always promoted there. It is very important for us to retrain ourselves in the areas where we fall short and to be able to seek help from external directors.
"The chairman monitors the agenda and ensures that we are on the same page to steer the 'ship' in the right direction. Not growth for growth's sake, but for continuity's sake. That is much more important than growth."
What competences do you think a good director needs?
"Business insight and authenticity? And if I may indulge in some plagiarism: the ‘nose in, fingers out’ I recently heard at a GUBERNA event is also a good recommendation, I think. Because the day-to-day has to be done by the CEO and their management team. Only the steering is a task of the board of directors.”
As an SME, how do you see everything that is coming at you in terms of environmental regulations and sustainability reporting?
"We have been reporting for a long time but obviously not yet in the ESG format. Customers get a CO2 certificate from us that shows the concrete amount of emissions avoided by recycling or reusing their appliances. Then we make this concrete-but-difficult-to-grasp figure tangible by showing how many square metres of forest is required to capture the same amount of CO2 in one year. It is now up to my son Yannick, as COO, to ensure that this is converted into the right ESG format, to make sure that our customers can simply plug our report into their own energy reporting in the future. You could think of ESG reporting as a big puzzle, for which Out Of Use can provide one piece.”
GUBERNA has many members. Do you have any other message to them?
"There are, I think, about a thousand possible parameters that can be added to an ESG report. Some of them are about sustainable IT. This could be about purchasing, what happens to the old IT equipment, extending its life in or out of the company... ? Take a look around your company and do an environmental audit. Surely, if you start with small steps, you can eventually take big steps towards greater sustainability. And don't forget that through our company, you can sell or offer your own discarded laptops to your own staff. That too completes the circle."
Perhaps GUBERNA could make an appeal to deliver as many old materials to you as possible?
"Yes , indeed. Since our main asset is taking matters off our customers’ hands, that means we may come and empty your basement ourselves if we have to. We also do data centre dismantling. We can also set up a container at a customer's premises and collect it when full or the customer can bring it to us. We make it as easy as possible for customers with a whole range of options, always respecting data security, material and environment. All those options are listed on the OutOfUse.be website."