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The Van Oord Family Business: From Wickerwork to Global Player

Pieter van Oord
Copyright Cornelis Kamminga

Published Jan 4, 2024 6:13 PM by Cornelis Kamminga

 

Govert van Oord (1840-1912) was a wickerworker, like his father Jan. In the Dutch Biesbosch, willow branches were sawn and bundled into cradles. Other companies wove sinkers from those cradles for the foundation of Dutch dikes. “I can do that myself," the young Govert must have thought.

Exactly how it happened is unclear, but we do know that he started the family business in the timber trade, selling wood to larger contractors. Not long after, he took the first steps in the contracting business himself. The decision to start a business came because he was told to work on a Sunday. Out of religious conviction, Govert refused, after which he was fired and founded the family business.

155 years later, Pieter van Oord (62), the outgoing top executive of Royal Van Oord, is happy to talk about the family history and current developments. He himself has been at the helm of the company since 2008. In April 2024, he will step down as the company’s CEO and become the new CEO of airport operator Schiphol Group. The company Van Oord will appoint Govert van Oord, Pieter’s cousin and current managing director of the Dredging and Infra division, as the new CEO of the family business.   

" Van Oord is a third, fourth, fifth and sixth generation family business.  A number of ‘third generation family members’ are still alive. I myself am fourth generation, which we call a cousins generation. The fifth generation is the generation of second cousins. We now have more than 110 family shareholders. We have a total family consisting of more than 250 people,” says Pieter van Oord.

Van Oord continues: “It is not automatic that you join the company as a family member. I myself come from a family of eight children, I have five brothers and two sisters, and none of my siblings work in the company. So the choice of who will work in the company within the family is a choice first of all by the family member himself and then there is a strict selection process attached to that.”

“Most family members do not work for the company but are committed, are close shareholders and feel very connected to this company,” he adds. “For most members, the company is also a piece of their identity: ‘Who are we? Where did we come from?’ Thinking about that, I am often reminded of a poem by Hendrik Marsman and that phrase ‘the eternal struggle against the water.’ This company is connected to that eternal struggle against the water, for more than 150 years.”

Business economist

Pieter van Oord says he has a somewhat unusual background. In terms of education, he is a business economist and not an engineer. For the first six years of his working life, he worked at Van Ommeren, then in tank storage and transport. After six years, he was asked by the family if he wanted to join the company.

"It’s always good, and that’s also a rule we have in this family," Van Oord says, "that after their education, family members should first work outside the company for several years in an environment where their last name doesn’t matter.”

The family values

The core values within Van Oord are “We Create“, “We Care“, “We Work Together“ and “We Succeed.“ Pieter notes that the word “we” appears in all of them, and not by accident. “Above all, we have a ‘We Culture’, we don’t have an ‘I culture’. We strongly believe that our success is always in partnerships between people,” he says.  

Van Oord’s values include caring for the environment and contributing to society. Its fastest growing business now is offshore wind, which will be instrumental for Northwestern Europe to transition to clean energy. Its core dredging and infrastructure business will also be essential for adapting to a changing climate.

“The other day a newspaper reported that the Netherlands could cope with a sea level rise of up to 3 meters, but it did not say: ‘thanks to the Dutch dredgers’. We are going to play a crucial role in climate adaptation,” he says. “That sea level rise is coming, all scientists agree. That means that in many places in the world coasts will have to be defended and we play an important role in that.“

In general, Dutch family businesses have three characteristics: long-term vision, conservative financing and great commitment to staff. Van Oord recognizes that and adds the ability to deal well with all stakeholders. "We are not a listed company, where the shareholder is the most important. With us, there are several stakeholders and we try to keep them satisfied in a balanced way. If clients, worldwide, are asked to characterize us in three keywords, they would find that we are strongly solution-oriented, that we always get the job done, no matter how difficult it is, and that Van Oord is a pleasant company to work with,” he says.

The Dutch maritime manufacturing industry

Van Oord believes it is important to maintain the cluster of maritime companies in the Netherlands.

Van Oord’s family holding company, Merweoord, is one of the three shareholders of IHC and now also one of the three shareholders of IQIP. Van Oord orders its cranes from Huisman and currently a second set of four water injection dredgers has been ordered from Kooiman. The recent dredging rigs were delivered by IHC. All Dutch companies, so the family is very much involved in the Dutch maritime manufacturing industry.

"We also have to be realistic that building a big ship in the Netherlands is no longer economic. The added value for the Netherlands has to be in knowledge-intensive products,” he says. “When I look at this decade we have to conclude that in terms of large-scale shipbuilding we are no longer competing with countries like China.”

“We are now building a very large wind installation ship, the Boreas, the largest investment in the history of this company, a ship costing hundreds of millions of Euros. We are now building that ship in China because no shipyard in Europe at all was interested in building the ship,” he continues. “Only in Romania is there reasonable capacity. Our new cable layer Calypso which is the category of medium-sized ships, was built there and finished in Norway. So Europe, yes, the Netherlands, yes, but that doesn’t automatically mean we have to build everything here.”

Outlook

Van Oord’s dredging business has seen a recovery in the last two years, and the future outlook is good.. “If you look at the world of offshore energy, the short-term is worrisome due to some low-margin, high-risk contracts,“ concludes Pieter van Oord, “but in the long-term, very optimistic . . . very optimistic.“

Cornelis (Cees) Kamminga is a maritime reporter and photographer based in Delft.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.