Interview CEO & Founder Frank van Gool

"We never would have predicted this kind of growth."

Twenty years is not a very advanced age for a company. Yet the year 2000, when OTTO Work Force was founded, seems like a time from another era. The Prime Minister of the Netherlands was Wim Kok, no one had heard of Google, and the euro was not yet in circulation. CEO Frank van Gool recalls the early days of OTTO, after March 8, 2000.

"With the first four employees to arrive in the Netherlands, we started operations at the kitchen table at the Roekenbosch holiday cottage resort in Blitterswijck. There, I had a desktop computer on which - in Excel - I issued invoices. Those were the days of the first company car, which we rented for a thousand guilders a month to drive employees around. Every month we travelled four thousand kilometres in that car.... It was hardly the best deal for Wejebe car rental."

In the years that followed, OTTO quickly achieved further strategic goals. The company's first real headquarters at the end of 2000 was in Venlo. The first staff members were hired... when the new office was established, where the organization had already grown by the end of 2002... the first provision of temporary employees in business class.... was an exponential, revolutionary growth from two hundred provided temporary employees to twenty thousand plus in-house staff.

Frank: "We didn't anticipate this kind of growth. We assumed that it would be a success if we became a regional player with four or five hundred foreign workers. However, we are now an important player in the Dutch and European labour market. We did it with class! A job agency handling up to about two hundred foreign workers can, so to speak, basically be run in its own notebook. With more employees the issue becomes much more complicated. Above eight hundred employees served, organization becomes even more difficult. The next milestones are two and five thousand employees served."

Support for stockpiling Netherlands
The rapid progress continues for twenty years, until mid-March 2020, when OTTO faces a new challenge. The coronavirus crisis erupted in all its intensity. Frank, along with the Antivirus Prevention Team, is in constant contact with his staff and shared employees. The service center now has twice as much work. The phone lines operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week; two thousand phone calls are handled each day: topics of conversation include reports of illness, concerns; questions also arise.

Frank: "Every decision at that time was important. Thousands of the employees we made available worked in distribution centers and supported people hoarding supplies for times of pandemic. During this time, we realized how important it was for our clients to be able to continue working and operating in the marketplace. Our decisions also had a big impact on our employees: we had to prevent them from getting infected. My friend's father ended up in the hospital infected with coronavirus. Karolina's newborn twins also became infected. Everything happened in a short period of time and left its mark on us. It was a time of hard work, fortunately supported by the wonderful OTTO team.”

"In April, we conducted a recurring customer satisfaction survey. Were we worried if we handled the challenges well? We received an average score of 8.0 out of thirteen thousand respondents in 2019. In March, and thus the month of the outbreak, the average score rose to 8.5. And so it has remained. People clearly appreciated how we communicated and how we operated, they appreciated that we put the safety of our employees first."

Frank van Gool:

“Our office was the dining table in holiday cottage no. 18 at the Blitterswijck holiday cottage resort, where all the employees also lived.”

Message from Roemer
While the coronavirus crisis is unmatched by any other during the company's 20-year history, it was not the only crisis we faced. According to Frank van Gool, crises are opportunities to learn and innovate.

"In 2004, the topic of possibly opening the borders to foreign workers came up in the political debate. I received word from Hubert Bruls (of the Christian Democrat CDA party) that the borders will be opened. What was my surprise when, while watching the parliamentary debate, I suddenly heard the CDA say something completely different. I reached out and heard: "We changed our minds at the policy group meeting. I realized that I had too little sense of how to make political decisions. I didn't want something like that to happen again. I then set up an advisory committee with René van der Linden, Hans Wiegel, Ruud Vreeman and Frank de Grave under the chairmanship of Dries van de Beek. I learned a lot about politics and tried to be well informed. Since then, we have had good contact with virtually every political party. This was also evident this year. The first working visit by Emile Roemer of the Foreign Worker Protection Team took place here. He said: I've heard a lot about OTTO that you guys are cool to work with, especially when it comes to housing employees. After that first visit, we had contact at least six more times. After the final report was published, I received a message from him that read: thank you for your contributions in recent months. It was a nice compliment to what we do."

The epidemic crisis has resulted in some innovations. An example is the distance sensor developed by the OTTO Innovation Lab. How do you keep one and a half meter of distance between workers in a distribution center? The sensor is worn on the wrist or neck. If two people get too close to each other, the sensors start vibrating.

Frank: "Technology should make our lives easier, support people. Another great example of our innovation lab's work is Best Match: algorithms allow us to estimate whether new people posted to a company will perform well there. Why does one employee in an order picking position perform better at Albert Heijn than at Jumbo when the work is essentially the same? It may have to do with the culture of the organization. With the Best Match tool, we know in advance where a particular order picker will perform best. 

Protection of foreign workers

Foreign workers are especially vulnerable in times of crisis. No wonder the media invents horror stories. As usual, Frank van Gool thinks in terms of challenges, not problems.

"During the pandemic, we noticed that some foreign workers served by our competitors found themselves trapped without warning. This was a serious problem: suddenly, after finishing a day's work, they could end up on the street and homeless. We have created a team to provide accommodation for such people and, of course, if possible, to help them find work. We don't want people to take bad memories and experiences with them when they leave the Netherlands.”

How foreign workers rate the duration of their stay and work in the Netherlands is highly dependent on the issue of the organization of their accommodation. Initially, OTTO handled the matter itself. Frank: "But we realized that it's not nice for employees to have their employer also rent them an apartment. Since 2011, we have therefore outsourced accommodation arrangements to external companies whenever possible. However, we continued to support the employees on this issue. Around 2017, development in this area stopped: we couldn't go further than single-family homes and employee hotels. Change was not happening fast enough and on a large enough scale. Thanks to our agreement with the Japanese, we were able to set up our own accommodation organization: KaFra Housing. It not only works for OTTO, but also supports other companies."

KaFra has organized ten residential locations so far. The quality of the accommodations is good and the organization places a high priority on supporting residents. Frank: "The administrators of these places are referred to in KaFra Housing as welfare officers. Every effort is made to make employees feel welcome in the accommodations."

"The public also feels the weight of this challenge. The most important thing is to build as much as you can. I am pleased with Roemer's report; however, we must now be careful that it does not become covered with dust. We need to think about organizing wisely. It makes no sense to create a whole new certification system. Look at what solutions you already have in place and rebuild them into a form of permission to provide a temporary employee. Standards National Association (SNA) certification is one component of this effort. It should be expanded in collaboration with unions. The other elements are a bond, a certificate issued under the Compliance Inspection Act (Bibob) and a certificate of professional competence. Secondly, be very firm about companies using temporary workers that work with job agencies that are not licensed to provide workers. The threat of a fine of about eight thousand euros per person will make the potential profit from such activities less interesting. Even if the risk of inspection was low."

"The Netherlands is in dire need of economic migrants. I've been saying for a few years now that we need to start heavily spreading our charm to attract them to our country. This can only be successful if we cure the problems of the temporary work industry when we deal with landlords charging unfair rents. The strength of a chain is determined by its weakest link. The sector will always be seen precisely through its prism."

Phone number on business card
Frank van Gool is known for being one of the few CEOs to include his cell phone number on his business card.

Frank: "And I always will. I do not see myself as positioned somewhere above others. I view my actions as service. If people have a problem, they can call or send a message. Fortunately, because we have a well-organized work structure, the phone doesn't ring constantly. While I certainly receive phone calls and messages on a regular basis, I also receive them from people who say how pleased they are to be working for OTTO, but also from people who are disappointed about something, such as not having their contract renewed. Then I make sure that we check to make sure everything went well and that we give feedback to that person. I'm here for our people, even in this difficult time."

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