Bas van der Veldt (AFAS): 'There are Scores of Companies With a Toxic Culture'

Bas van der Veldt (AFAS): 'There are Scores of Companies With a Toxic Culture'
Manage as little as possible, undertake as much as possible: that is the motto of AFAS. The company wants to inspire better business. CEO Bas van der Veldt explains the company's philosophy steeped in ’love’. 'We want to be the opposite of companies where people become unhappy because of bad leadership, a toxic culture and unethical behavior.'

The first impression visitors get of the new office of ERP software company AFAS in Leusden, completed in 2021, is a state-of-the-art office with some unconventional, playful touches. The clubhouse, as they call it themselves, is ultramodern, with expanses of glass and steel. The dome of the theater for business events and professional theater productions catches the eye: it resembles an oversized space probe. A grassy mound next to the building seems puzzling. It transpires to be the soil that was removed with the excavating of the underground parking. The question arose: Why dispose of it in the first place? It would be a waste, it can be applied usefully – and that is how the hill with the observation post came to be.

Also unconventional are the many works of art in and around the building. Take Lorenzo Quinn's sculptures, such as the one at the entrance to the building: an enormous man and woman's hand together holding a transparent globe. You can get lost in the building for hours - 44,000 square meters, 80 percent of which is dedicated to sports, recreation, meeting and inspiration. You can stop and admire the unparalleled imagined photographs by Julius Rooymans resembling paintings by old masters, with modern people in old attire. Do we see CEO Bas van der Veldt and CFO Arnold Mars there? Could just be. Then past the meters-high action photos of Johan Cruijff, a preview of the theatrical spectacle playing in the theater. Or listen to Jan Vayne, who comes to play the piano here in the company restaurant a number of times a week. And then there is the series by photographer Jan Banning, with portraits of ’bureaucrats’: gloomy-looking people, especially that Indian woman with piles of yellowed paperwork behind her on a cabinet on the verge of collapsing under the weight. A photo that clearly shows the purpose of AFAS, says Bas van der Veldt.

AFAS inspires better business, is your slogan. What does that mean?
'We take our company slogan very seriously. We want to inspire employees to do better business. Employees should enjoy working with us. Our facilities contribute to that - lunch is prepared by a chef and employees can set their own hours - but it goes beyond these kinds of fringe benefits. The work itself must also be inspiring. The solidarity within our family business (AFAS was founded by the fathers of Van der Veldt and Mars, ed.) is stimulated in many ways. For example, there is the monthly Culture Café, in which we share good news and employees tell their stories. Sometimes personal, often business. For example, we recently had a sales manager who had been approached by a headhunter. He read the rejection email he had sent back: that he was enjoying himself at AFAS and that the headhunter could have known that if he had researched his customer database better. And that AFAS has a good CRM system, should there be any interest. The family atmosphere is nourished by stories like these.'

AFAS is not a democracy, you once said. How can that be reconciled with the corporate philosophy and that family feeling?
'Responsibility lies low in the organization, and employees have huge decision-making discretion. Management is responsible for the strategy and the broad outlines, but within that there is plenty of room for employees' own input. Control of each other's work is minimal. I remember how a new employee asked how many people had to give their approval before he could send an e-mail to a customer - and that he was amazed that he did not have to ask anyone's permission at all. Of course, things then do sometimes go wrong. Employees are never just thrown in at the deep end, they get coaching, can take training and courses. But to err is and remains human. And so what? You learn from your mistakes. If that means sending a customer a bottle of whiskey, just do it.’

Managing as little as possible, doing as much as possible and doing better and better is your motto. What is to be understood by that?
'That is indeed what we want, and I myself play an active role in this by paying a huge amount of attention to my colleagues. Anyone who is sick can expect a WhatsApp or a phone call from me. I take that for granted. But in many companies it is not. I have even once been told by an employee with a sick wife that we were heard from more than his wife's employer.
On weekdays, I am rarely to be found in my own office. I do not have a secretary scheduling unnecessary appointments and I take the time to walk around the company to engage in conversation with people. To show genuine interest. To ask, ’What are you doing? What keeps you busy?’ And especially, ’If you were in charge today, what would you change immediately in this company?’ Not only do people then feel seen and heard, it also provides the company with good suggestions.’

If all goes well, that keeps you informed. But do people always dare to speak out?
'Of course not. That is why the employees are also allowed to give Arnold and me a report grade anonymously every year. As soon as I score lower than a seven, I quit. Last time, by the way, I had an 8.3.' Laughs, ’Arnold, unfortunately, scored little higher than me.
There are many more ways to show people that they matter and that they are allowed to be themselves. For example, the Bananasplit-like welcoming of a new employee, watched by hidden cameras. I then ask the person if he wants to do a particular job when he has every right to refuse. Like the man who was told he could become the 1000th employee of AFAS. He would even get a bus with his name on it. But then he would have to receive customers every day and show them around the building and he would no longer get around to his actual work. Does he want to do it regardless? During our Culture Café, such a video is then shown and stopped just before the new employee answers. Will he or will he not do it, I ask. The answer - actually always no – does not really matter. What matters most is that employees are told once again that they do not have to take everything from ‘the boss.’'

Do you not violate the psychological security of a person with such an unexpected action?
'Of course we do not make unethical suggestions and we only broadcast such a thing with the consent of the person concerned. That way we ensure that such a video contributes to the all-important feeling of psychological safety of our employees. Damage is exactly what we do not want to do.'

Back to that inspiration to do better business. Is that limited to inspiring our own employees?
'No, we want to be a model company for everyone and show that it really is possible: to be a profitable company, a positive place to work and relax, with as little bureaucratic fuss and bother as possible. With inspired employees. After all, there are already so many toxic companies, where people are made unhappy by poor leadership, culture and unethical behavior. We are another extreme – a company steeped in love. For the whole world actually, especially for people less fortunate than us in the Netherlands.
As Spiderman character Uncle Ben said: with great power comes great responsibility. We donate through our own foundation to all kinds of charities. From a business point of view it does not yield anything, unless it is that the employees who participate in charitable projects feel just that little bit more involved in AFAS. We do it from the heart, because we want to do good.'

What about customers? What about their inspiration?
'We especially want to be a source of inspiration for customers. With software and services so that they can reduce their bureaucratic worries, but also by positioning ourselves as a catalyst for success in other ways. By bringing other organizations to the office, for example, and immersing people from outside in AFAS' culture. I myself regularly give interviews and am involved in podcasts and presentations that are always about better ways of living and doing business.
Customers, like critical employees, keep us on our toes. They can air their opinions about AFAS and suggest improvements in many ways, including through feedback sessions in the theater and through online wish lists. If it turns out that many customers have certain wishes, these are generally realized. In any case, a solution to their problem is sought. Customers do not always understand the technological possibilities, but they know very well where they encounter difficulties. Then we can  try to find a solution. Half of all AFAS' new products and services are developed in response to customer wishes.'

So, do innovations happen fast enough? A disruptor probably listens less to customers.
'AFAS is not a radical innovator. We are a smart follower rather than a company that will disrupt entire sectors. We are not looking for a new pot of gold. As an unlisted family company, we can afford a long-term strategy based on doing one percent better every week and still be around in 30 years. So far, that has delivered 10 to 16 percent growth per year.
We deliberately left out bitcoins and blockchain technology. We do like to apply artificial intelligence; we are also experimenting with novelties like ChatGPT. We are definitely going to integrate that into our products. I think it is fantastic. I myself am already working with it to write polite rejection emails to private equity firms that want to drop by.'

What else does your leadership style provide?
'Since I do not follow the news, avoid appointments that are not strictly necessary, and if at all possible, receive people here instead of visiting them, I keep time for my actual work. In my mind, that means not only management by walking around and involvement in dialogue with customers, but also meddling in adjustments to the design of the software. I do not program myself, but I am a real nerd.
I am sometimes considered somewhat peculiar for being so closely involved in the day-to-day operations of the company, for actively seeking contact with customers and even getting involved in online discussions with customers, and for being strongly engaged in product innovations. But I take it for granted that a director acts as a ’cooperating foreman’ and does not work from an ivory tower but understands the business, knows his own people and knows what is going on with customers. I myself started at AFAS as a product manager when I was 19 years old, and all of our board members first did other work within the company. So I do not understand why there are companies with people at the top who come from completely different sectors. A director of a construction company could never, in my opinion, be a great leader of a supermarket chain.'

This article is published in Management Scope 03 2023.

This article was last changed on 07-03-2023