Eelco Blok: ‘Greenwashing is Unacceptable’

Eelco Blok: ‘Greenwashing is Unacceptable’
He is now in 29th place in the Top 100 Non-Executive Directors: Former KPN CEO Eelco Blok has found his calling as a non-executive director. According to Blok, non-execs play a crucial role in the most important current theme: ‘You can only speak of a meaningful sustainability policy once you have set out an aggressive timeline. Non-executive directors have to convince the Board that this is the best strategy.’ 

Eelco Blok is making a name for himself as a non-executive director. Since his departure as CEO of telecommunications company KPN in 2018, Blok has been predominantly active in non-executive roles, among others at ‘lighting service provider’ Signify and large international telecom companies Telstra and OTE. Although Blok is a highly sought after non-executive director, he by no means says ‘yes’ to every position he is offered. Because he is convinced of one thing: ‘A role must suit me. I must feel I can bring added value’, he states in conversation with Charles Honée, partner at Allen & Overy law firm. Blok's new career as a member of various supervisory boards has left him wanting more. He feels the time is now right for a Chairmanship. ‘The dynamics between Chairman and CEO are crucial when it comes to the workings of a company.’

It is a good year for Eelco Blok. He welcomed three new grandchildren this year, and he enjoys them, but not on fixed grandpa days. Blok is still far too busy for that with his non-executive roles and consultancy roles. Besides the little spare time he has, the former KPN CEO enjoys spending on the water. Blok is a fanatical competitive sailor. He also enjoys sailing with his wife. 

CEO Eelco Blok has become non-executive director Eelco Blok. When I look at you, I see a relaxed man. Is that fair to say? Are you enjoying it?
‘Yes, I take a great deal of pleasure from all the things I am doing these days. All my non-executive director roles are incredibly enjoyable. Despite year end traditionally being a busy time with many meetings and consultations. So there is not a great deal of relaxation at the moment. That being said, the boat is in winter storage, so there is plenty of time for serious business.’

Let us take a look at your current portfolio of non-executive director roles. It contains a significant international component with two overseas telecom companies: Australian Telstra and Greek OTE. How did those two companies end up on your radar?
‘I was approached by an executive headhunter for Telstra, the number 1 telecom company in Australia. I was already familiar with Telstra CEO Andy Penn from my KPN days. We always clicked. We started talking about the role and fairly soon I felt I could provide added value on that Board, particularly because of my experience at KPN. There were all kinds of similarities. Like KPN, Telstra is a frontrunner in virtually every area. Besides, the group was busy with a change-programme and I was familiar with that too from my time as CEO of KPN. It seemed like an appealing organization to me. This company's aspirations were completely in line with how I think a telecom company should approach change.’

Was it not nerve-racking for CEO Penn to have the former CEO of another major telecom company on his Supervisory Board?
‘No, I do not get that feeling. In fact, he was and is very open to my input. Telstra wanted to broaden the diversity of the Supervisory Board, to give it a little more international scope . That is why they had already recruited two foreigners. I was the third. I also knew the other two well, so that was nice.’

And OTE, what is your role there?
‘I was indirectly approached by Deutsche Telekom on behalf of OTE. They have a majority stake in OTE and were looking for a new independent non-executive, someone to represent the interests of the minority shareholders . That seemed like an execptionally exciting challenge to me, especially because of the dynamics between the smaller shareholders and the biggest shareholder. In three years, I have succeeded in building a good relationship with the smaller shareholders and finding common ground with the majority shareholder. I think things are going better now, partly due to my input, and that I provide added value at OTE.’

How did you succeed in doing that?
‘That was primarily because of my background, because of the experience I gained as CEO and in other board positions. Thanks to my experience, I understand the importance of boardroom dynamics and the importance of a good relationship between the Board of Directors and the Supervisory Board – especially the relationship between Chairman and CEO.’

I will come back to that shortly. First a little more about your portfolio. What added value do you provide as a non-executive director at Fairphone, a modest Dutch telecom business that produces an ‘ethical’ smartphone?
‘Fairphone is a wonderful initiative, but of a completely different order from Telstra or OTE. They are making significant progress and are now a scale-up with a sustainability-based business model that has also proven itself. The company has demonstrated impressive growth in the past two years. I am advising on the next growth spurt and utilizing my network on their behalf. For example, Fairphone is now experiencing supply problems with the chips for their new smartphone, the Fairphone 4. A bitter pill to swallow. I am trying to help by pulling a few strings through my network.’

Why were you attracted to Signify?
‘Signify is an extremely interesting company, particularly because of the great transformation taking place there. From traditional lighting to LED and from products to services. A very interesting transition with a strong focus on sustainability. I am happy to contribute to that.’

Sustainability is one of the main topics of 2021. How do you think a non-executive director should approach that topic?
‘I think it is very important for CEOs and Boards of Directors to take responsibility in this respect. The bigger the company, the greater the responsibility. That is my opinion. Taking responsibility means taking visible and relevant action. Not words, but deeds. I find window dressing or greenwashing unacceptable. It has to be more than just sweet talk. As a non-executive director, I demand it be taken seriously. I think you can only speak of a meaningful sustainability policy once you have set out an aggressive timeline. A company must want to go beyond the government's climate demands. If you are genuinely ambitious, you should be more aggressive. And I think Supervisory Boards have a crucial role in convincing Management that this is the best strategy in the long term.
The good news is that this topic is now far more prominently on all board agendas than it was four years ago. Sustainability was already an important theme to me as CEO of KPN. I am also proud of the fact we were ahead of the game at the time. We were already CO2-neutral in 2015. Of course, that was partly due to the purchase of certificates, but we showed decisiveness. We were one of the first to invest in offshore wind farms. Sustainability has only become a more important theme since then.’

You are also a member of the Supervisory Board of VolkerWessels, which was delisted in 2020. Does that make for completely different dynamics?
‘Not really. I do not immediately see major differences between unlisted and listed. The key difference is probably that it is just a little easier for a non-exec to play a role in a company in the current setting. I am a little closer to the business, the lines are a little shorter, it is a little easier to get information. A listed company has more to do with regulations and formalities. It is all a little stricter, things are somewhat less formal for unlisted companies.’

You have been a non-executive director both in the Netherlands and abroad for a while now. You are therefore in a good position to compare them. What do you notice in terms of regulations? Can the Netherlands still learn something from abroad?
‘Dutch companies will not like this, but I think that we in the Netherlands should follow Australia's example in respect of consumer protection. That is far better organized there, the rules are more stringent, supervision is organized better. We should move more in that direction in Europe. And we need not be concerned about that: Companies that get it right are not affected by regulations at all. Companies that want to improve are not affected either. Only companies where it is not going well and that are not willing to take steps experience problems. But how bad would that be really? It is only to the consumer's benefit.’

How do you actually select your non-executive director positions?
‘A non-executive role must suit me. I must feel I can be of added value. That is a recurring theme. I think you should only take on a non-executive position if you have something substantial to offer. Ideally, you should always first look at where the company stands, where it wants to go, and whether you can add something substantial as a non-exec. If added value is lacking, you have no business getting involved with a company. A non-executive role may then be quite interesting or honorable, but would give me little satisfaction.’

Do you advocate for some kind of industry expertise?
‘Let me speak for myself: When I am approached about something, I only consider positions at companies in the telecom sector, or sectors that are very closely related. Because that is where my expertise lies and where I can be of added value. I am abreast of all the ins and outs in this sector, I know what is going on. Developments are taking place so rapidly, you soon fall behind if you are not active in a sector for a while.’

You just mentioned boardroom dynamics. What is an important insight you have gained as a non-executive director in that respect?
‘What I find exceptionally important is the role of the Chair of the Supervisory Board. The dynamics between Chairman and CEO is of critical importance for the functioning of both the Board of Directors and the Board of Supervisors, it is crucial when it comes to the workings of a company. I already knew that from my time at KPN, but that view has only become stronger through my work as a non-exec. Good dynamics between the Chairman and CEO is paramount.’

Do you aspire to the position of Chairman yourself?
‘Certainly, absolutely. I think I have now accumulated enough baggage to become Chairman somewhere. You really need experience to understand how important the role of the Chairman is and how to fulfil that. I feel I now have enough mileage for that.’

This article was published in Management Scope 01 2022.

This article was last changed on 15-12-2021