‘In Ethiopia, a boss is a boss, who prefers to do as little as possible’
When other managers hear we virtually have no employee turnover, they all wonder how on earth we do that.
Hans and his wife Alita, both Dutch by origin, always dreamt about working in a developing country and truly contributing to society. However, they didn’t want to follow the ‘traditional’ path where “money is injected in an economy and we wait and see”, but take a more corporate, commercial approach. Not only did they want to run a company, one of their ambitions was to provide work for the local community.
They left for Ethiopia in 2010, where Hans has been General Manager of Ethiopian Steel Profiling and Building Company (ESPBC), managing 85 local employees. Next to that, he’s a true family man, having four children (two daughters of 8 and 5 2-year old twins – a boy and girl). Last year February, 32-year old Hans started his International Action Learning MBA at Business School Netherlands.
“We didn’t really know what to expect when we arrived here,’ says Hans. Our experience working abroad was very limited and the previous manager of ESPBC had already returned to the Netherlands. We were literally thrown into the deep-end and told to swim. However, getting used to things and settling in didn’t really take too much effort: this has felt like home from day one and still does.”
This doesn’t mean that Hans and Alita didn’t experience a rather steep learning curve over the years.
“It is funny how you only realise later how steep it actually was. I remember thinking, six months down the line that I now understood the local culture and how the company worked. I recall thinking a year later that I actually didn’t know beforehand, but that “now I really get it” and again the year after, etc. These days I will just tell you “I still don’t really understand everything,” jokes Hans.
When and why did you decide to do an MBA?
“The company has grown enormously over the last couple of years and some pretty great results were achieved. After our first five-year term had ended, we were sure we didn’t want to return to the Netherlands just yet. However, my wife and I were also convinced about adding an extra ‘dimension’ to our second term – regardless how long it will be. An MBA seemed like a logical step.”
You say logical – In what sense?
“Well, the more years go by, the harder returning to the Netherlands or any other western country will be. I have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge the first five years, and I now feel it’s time to add an MBA to that bundle of knowledge. In essence, I hope it will increase my chances of finding a good job in a western country one day.”
What has the MBA brought you these past 1,5 years?
“For me, everything is falling into place right now. The first five years I have tried to organise and manage everything based on common sense, always considering what I thought was best for the company. Although my experience in fields like HR, Finance and Sales was limited, I had to deal with all aspects and did, to the best of my ability. When I started the MBA, all pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Everything I had dealt with over the previous years, were now given a theoretical framework.”
Until recently you, as the General Manager, were the only ‘foreigner’ at ESPBC. How did you experience that?
“That took quite a bit of getting used to. Hierarchy is extremely important in Ethiopia: a boss is the boss, who prefers to sit with his legs on his desk and does as little as possible. That concept is something we as Dutch people are completely unfamiliar with – at least: I’m not. In the first few years my wife was partly involved in the company by taking several administrative roles, and we both took the same position from day one: the role we were used to. We position ourselves next to our employees and move this company forward – together. If need be, I will get on the truck myself or help loading it. For Ethiopians, that’s something they have never seen before.”
One of your ambitions was to provide work for the local community – did you?
“Currently, ESPBC employs 85 locals. However, with the expansion plans we recently launched, we hope to employ 150-200 people by 2020. Please note our remarkable employee turnover: it’s close to nill. Having to have a few employees let go due to theft or fraud, we virtually have no employee turnover. When other managers hear that, they all want to know how on earth we do that.
What is the key to success?
“I personally think our authenticity and that of our company has a lot to do with it. To me, it’s very important that our people see that we’re not, here first and foremost, for personal gain, nor that our people think we see them merely as ‘production tools’. It’s vital to show, not only in words, but in deeds too, that they matter.”
“Through having them share in the company’s growth and profit. When you do that on a continuous basis, you keep triggering people in a positive way, stimulating them to keep putting in the effort. That sense of “we’re in this together” unfortunately is not something you come across often in local companies. For Alita and I, the Bible is an important guiding line in running this company too. Maintaining these principles with our people also yields professional ‘profit’.”
How do you balance your time between work, family and your MBA?
“Time definitely is the biggest challenge I have been facing and struggling with over the past 1,5 years. Especially, given the fact that we live on the compound – the distance between our house and the office is exactly 20 meters – so work and time off often overlap. An average Ethiopian working week is 44 hours, and while in the first years I easily put in 50-60 hours per week, I now take things a bit slower and ‘only’ work 45 hours per week. And even though we both fully support the fact that I am doing this MBA simply because we believe it’s good for our future and that of our family, it does currently take up all my time. Nevertheless I am still sort of on schedule, and I personally am very pleased that I am. I definitely intend to keep it that way! In all fairness: I will be glad once it’s all behind us and I have my MBA diploma.”
How important is having the knowledge that the MBA provides you for the development of a country like Ethiopia?
“I firmly believe that a country should develop as a whole, and cannot be carried or implemented only by MBA students. If one million Ethiopians would graduate with their MBA degree right now, it wouldn’t mean that this country would immediately start to develop. It’s important that all aspects and layers of this country’s economy and corporates experience the same growth and development. However, that the MBA’s knowledge can contribute to that is a clear-cut fact: injecting valuable knowledge is extremely important.”
What is the country’s biggest challenge at present?
“The mutual lack of confidence people has in one another. Virtually nobody fully trusts another person, a feeling that unfortunately is deeply rooted in Ethiopian culture, even in marriages. Everybody seems to think, or are afraid that somebody else is making money behind their backs. Even when you have a fully transparent, honest working environment and policies, the lack of confidence remains an issue.”
If you were to leave this country in a few years, what is it you hope to have achieved?
“Even if we were to leave today, we would be able to look back satisfied. ESPBC is a well- established and profitable company that offers many possibilities and opportunities. However, as I mentioned earlier, I truly hope that we will employ at least 150 people by 2020 and that the company will run as smoothly, without our presence. Not only financially, but also in its ideological focus, having a positive impact on the local community. For instance, a young woman joined our company five years ago and since then has gone through an amazing development – helped by the tools we as a company offer here. Being able to make that kind of difference is, for me, the ultimate satisfaction.”
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