Witteveen+Bos: 75 years of entrepreneurship and trust

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Witteveen+Bos turns 75 this year. It’s an anniversary we will celebrate throughout the year. A book is being published to mark the 75th anniversary. Many current and former employees are helping to shape this book, among other things by sharing their Witteveen+Bos stories. Below is a foretaste of the book, where several employees and former directors have their say.

'Starting a business in Belgium is not the most obvious thing to do', notes Sofie DePauw, PMC leader of Coasts, Rivers and Cities in Antwerp. 'Our situation is evolving. We employ good people, and we’ve succeeded in winning very large projects like Oosterweel. We have to make our name, so we modified our strategy accordingly at the time. Doubts about our design skills led us to connect with landscape architects. That helped us to  achieve the desired cooperation with the Flemish government architects.'

Sofie DePauw has been working for Witteveen+Bos Belgium since 2011. The way she describes the development of Witteveen+Bos in Belgium has a certain likeness to the way our founders Goosen Bos and Willem Witteveen made their own start: bursting with confidence, energetic and with an ambitious agenda, they launched Witteveen+Bos in 1946. Their aspiration, said Goosen Bos, was that: 'We work to help people live safely.' He was already emphasising just where our ultimate responsibility lies: 'our responsibility to society, of which we are a part.'

An A4 sheet

No Witteveen+Bos colleague would be surprised by the statement that our internal and external collaborative relationships are based on trust. That much was already apparent from the fact that Bos and Witteveen began their collaboration 75 years ago without having concluded a legally-binding agreement at the outset. The A4 sheet on which they stated that they would 'deal with any problems that may arise in all honesty and in the conviction that each will act in good faith' sufficed as the basis for their many years of cooperation.

Entrepreneurship that moves with the times

The evolution of Witteveen+Bos is a reflection of the changing societal challenges. Entrepreneurship that moves with the times. In the early years just after the Second World War, the work consisted mainly of repairing and expanding the infrastructure. The booming Dutch economy in the 1960s led to further industrialisation, urban growth and growing mobility.

The 1970s saw an increased spotlight cast on the environment. One important reason was the report by the Club of Rome, drawing the world's attention to the finite nature of raw materials and energy, so that mankind needed to use them sparingly and sensibly. Ed Koster, who joined the company in 1967, gave shape and substance to this reflection: new insights had to be applied to meet the new challenges, other disciplines were needed alongside civil engineering, and an integrated approach had to be taken.

PMC structure

In readiness for new challenges, Witteveen+Bos began operating with a new structure in 1980, when it introduced the matrix organisation. The partners Wim Slijkhuis, Jan Coppes and Jaap van der Graaf, with the support and approval of the other partners, began exploring the best organisational structure for Witteveen+Bos in 1986. 'We began to reason from the outside in,' recalls Jaap van der Graaf, who became Chairman of the partnership in 1988 and later Director of the limited liability company. 'We concluded that we were working for the market, for society, and we had to capitalise on this quickly and intelligently. That’s how we arrived at the PMC structure.'

Former Director Harry Webers: 'Witteveen+Bos is an organism, almost literally, with its cellular structure. The PMCs are small, autonomous, independently-operating cells which grow when the market is good, merge when necessary, and split up if they become too big. That’s the basis of the Witteveen+Bos growth model. The PMC structure is a team effort, often in cooperation with a whole range of partners. The wonderful thing about that structure and its organic aspect, is that it creates and leaves plenty of scope for people: space to undertake, to do crazy things, space to deviate. That engenders plenty of flexibility, but also creativity. If you give people space, and you do that by trusting them, you bring out the best in them. That gives Witteveen+Bos enormous strength.'

From partnership to a limited company: the share participation scheme

Witteveen+Bos has always been a privately-owned company. In 1972 the structure of Witteveen+Bos changed from a public limited company to a partnership, where each partner had their own ‘shop’, each with a group of employees. The partnership changed to a limited liability company (BV in Dutch) in 1992.

Witteveen+Bos adopted a more business-like organisational structure in the 1980s, moving towards a normal company with a board, staff departments and work units, as the partnership structure became increasingly tight. The partners felt there should be a better reflection of the importance of the employees to the company, and that they should be able to share in the ownership of Witteveen+Bos.

Jaap van der Graaf: 'The idea was that employees could buy shares, not simply receive them, and that shocked some. It wasn’t a gift, rather it was a bit of entrepreneurship. Some people weren’t quite ready for it, but there were also many who reacted enthusiastically. It was a very turbulent process that ultimately led to the transition from partnership to private limited company on 1 January 1992. As a partnership we sold the company to the BV, where the partners themselves were again the owners. It was indeed a new company, and all orders had to be transferred to it, while all the clients were approached and fortunately went along with it. We had the confidence of the market.' Some of the shares were sold to the participants on 1 July 1992, establishing the share participation system. Senior partners retained most of the shares, alongside a growing number of partners and participants. Recent years have seen the addition of a premium partners category.

Corporate culture

Many Witteveen+Bos employees say that what distinguishes their company is its corporate culture. It’s a culture which is recognised and experienced widely, while at the same time being intangible and difficult to describe. Many colleagues refer to it as a ‘family feeling’ or ‘family business’. 'Witteveen+Bos is an organisation you really have to get to know,' says Matthew Marshall, PMC Leader Area Development: 'You have to seek out people yourself; you need to want to work together and to get the best from yourself and your colleagues. Intrinsic motivation is where it starts. You are just as important as the organisation. Then you’ll feel right at home at Witteveen+Bos. You can grow yourself, grow together and succeed together.'

An important factor in preserving and passing on that corporate culture is the ‘home-grown principle’. New colleagues usually join the company early in their careers, often fresh out of college or university – often as project engineers – and will then progress to new roles and positions. Matthew Marshall: 'I have many conversations with new colleagues and the discussion eventually turns to ‘What do you want?’ and ‘What are your aspirations?’ It’s not the system which is the determinant, it’s what we do. Having the right conversation is still relevant. In particular it helps young colleagues to find their place. I can absolutely enjoy watching young colleagues develop, watching them grow.'

And anyone who emerges as a valuable colleague through one or more development paths, also has the opportunity to become a partner, a premium partner or a senior partner in the share participation programme. This instils Witteveen+Bos in you at an early stage, and you hand it on to new generations.