Inside story

How do you decide to become self-employed?

The story of Gert-Jan Maasdam, owner director of Blue North partners.

I was driving to Leeuwarden, to meet with Gert-Jan Maasdam, who had recently decided to go his own way in water management, when I heard a news report about Unicef on the radio. It was shocking: worldwide, one in three children suffer from extreme water scarcity. This totals 740 million children, mainly living in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Dehydration is the most acute danger for these children.

I got to know Gert-Jan Maasdam (1965) as a successful businessman who excels in business development and innovation. He had and has a keen eye for the connection between product and market. Gert-Jan considers it his mission to solve water scarcity on a commercial basis in times of climate change. After years of success, he came to a crossroad when working for his most recent employer, Wavin. He made a bold decision of becoming self-employed. I was curious to see how he was doing, so I drove to Leeuwarden, to one of the companies for which he is a consultant.

We decided to meet at Hydraloop, a fascinating company of technicians and salespeople working on water recycling on a global scale. The company is located in a magnificent building of wooden, undulating sun slats, in the Frisian capital. With its almost liquid appearance, it is the figurehead of the Water Campus Leeuwarden, hub of Dutch water technology.

Here, Hydraloop has developed a unique system that can save up to 45 percent on domestic water consumption by recycling shower water in a clean way. Gert-Jan has a global network. He helps Hydraloop accelerate growth in key export markets. It doesn’t happen by itself, he tells me: ‘Everyone is talking about action that needs to be taken, it can’t wait. But then? Here is a machine that really pushes boundaries. However, when cuts have to be made in the design and furnishing of a new building because of sharply increased construction costs, investing in sustainable solutions is not so obvious anymore.

Gert-Jan is a slim fifty-something with a narrow face and penetrating look. Originally, he is a business economist, not a techie, nor an engineer. I’ve always known him as an inquisitive mind though, looking for new technological solutions to structural problems. Can it be done smarter? Can it be more competitive?

He tells me that, early in his career, he had worked with French people for several years. He learned that it is not always a good idea to be direct. The French actually feel most comfortable when communicating in their own language. They are compulsive about building relationships. Step by step, a relationship is being assessed to see if it’s worth to be continued or not. But once the summit is reached, very beautiful things are possible. Always keeping the hierarchical relationships in mind. The boss is the boss.

He found out about this when he and his partners promised a major French customer just a tiny bit more than they could deliver. Oh well, Gert-Jan thought, I’ll just iron out the issue, but he got an unpleasant surprise. ‘The import manager was not amused by my confident tone. I learned the meaning of empathy on the spot. I learned to look at the world through the other person’s eyes instead of using my own reality as a guide to success. It really served me later in collaborations with other cultures like Brazilians, Indians and Mexicans.’

For quite a long time, Gert-Jan worked for Wavin, a company that originated from provincial governments and, as an independent firm, is dedicated to innovation and improvement in the construction and infrastructure industries. Specifically, it involves things such as rainwater drainage in streets and rainwater storage. Gert-Jan was leading Wavin’s digital innovation.

He says that he can make people believe in the value of a common mission. As an example, he mentions ‘the crazy idea’ of recycling plastic waste for road construction, combined with water storage. All road runoff is filtered, flows to a cavity under the road and slowly sinks into the soil as really clean water. In collaboration with VolkerWessels, they turned the wild idea into a functioning product.

Okay, I tell him, now we’ve seen the sunny side of your story. I know, however, that there have been some rough times too. I’d like to hear about that.

Gert-Jan is open: ‘If you seriously want to contribute to fighting climate issues as a company, the short term and long term need to be connected and balanced. Innovation is a learning process of trial and error in order to make breakthroughs in the market. At Wavin, the short term gradually became more important than the long term. Along the way, tomorrow’s result started to get in the way of the day after tomorrow’s mission. I felt that I was getting less and less room for what I felt the company and the world needed. It resulted in me having to leave.’

It was a blow. Now, he sees his departure as a deliverance. Not at the time. Gert-Jan: ‘It’s very painful if a company tells you that they can do without you.’

I was in touch with Gert-Jan on a regular basis back in those days. What to do? Should he opt for the comfort of another permanent job at a nice company where he could have an impact? Or was he going to build his own company without having to compromise on the balance between today and tomorrow? He hadn’t known that independence for over twenty years. He had always been known as Mr Wavin, not as Gert-Jan Maasdam.

He tells me about the moment of truth. One morning, he read in the newspaper the sad story of a French mayor who had to halt construction of new housing in his small town of 6,500 inhabitants. It had barely rained in the area for three years, all water reservoirs were empty. The future of the town was in danger. He started collecting his shower water in a tub so he could flush the toilet.

Gert-Jan made a brave choice. He chose to start his own company, Blue North partners, with a social mission: water-related innovations have to go faster. Gert-Jan, with his commercial expertise and intuition, wants to contribute to this, so that a sustainable future becomes possible for the French mayor, the children of Unicef and many many others in the world. I’d say: welcome to the land of the free minds.

Gert-Jan agrees: ‘I get energy from the awareness that I’m Gert-Jan Maasdam with a story, a mission.’ He had to overcome trepidation still. Was he going to get people on board? Would he still be welcome at Hydraloop now that he was no longer knocking on the door on behalf of Wavin? In search of the answer, he had conversations in all parts of world, with small pioneers as well as large multinationals in the water industry, for several months. It was confrontational. All of a sudden, in his personal capacity, he had to claim a spot in the busy lives of people who sometimes had no idea who he was. But he managed to come to the table and almost every meeting resulted in a follow-up.

It was at this stage that Gert-Jan called me and told me he and his wife had gone back-packing. It was clear that he was discovering his own form. He said: ‘I was camping in the Barolo wine region, South of Turin, in a vineyard under a walnut tree, with two bikes and a tent.  And that’s still the way I do it. When I go to Denmark, where I have the innovative water industry on my radar, I sleep on a farm.’

I found it a striking story, however small it might be. It showed me the essence of the difference between doing and being, between pretending and being yourself. Gert-Jan was  a golden boy, you could tell from afar. Commercial success was all over him. But he had lost himself at Wavin. He had lost his energy and creativity. When you go camping under a tree in a vineyard, you do take that freedom to be yourself. A world opens up that you had never seen before.

Gert-Jan: ‘I understand what you’re getting at: just go out into the world. And don’t pretend to be bigger than you are. When I have a meeting in Denmark with top management of pump manufacturer Grundfos, I sleep in a tree house in a lady’s garden at night. Life and work become incredibly more fun this way. Now, I meet a lot of nice people that I would never have met on business trips before. It gives me the ultimate feeling of freedom, of making your own choices. For example, I’m working with a brave scale-up in Belgium now, IPEE, that has been pioneering for ten years to make toilet flushing more efficient in a sanitary world that is conservative. Seven Kinepolis cinemas are now running on that company’s technology. Their water savings are more than fifty percent, recovering the sustainable investment in one year. The worldwide breakthrough is still to come. I’m happy to help, I’m all-in.’

Gert-Jan Maasdam is no longer stuck to business conventions that used to define his work field. He tells me that he met a professor at Delft University and that together they are now trying to help farmers in all parts of the world, with satellite data, to produce more crops with less water. And to make cities greener. Gert-Jan tells me: ‘It’s adventurous, really groundbreaking. What I am currently undertaking with that Delft professor would have been cut short at Wavin right away: sorry, but that’s beyond our scope.’

‘Freedom is the main difference between now and one or two years ago. Total freedom. That what I was dreading, losing the comfort of a permanent position and being on my own, has turned out to be a deliverance.’

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