Business Families Centre

Interactive case study: De Kets Distillers

Three centuries of succession

de Kets Distillers

Mattias de Kets left his office pondering his plans for the future. His goal was to become the next Managing Director of De Kets Distillers, a firm that had been in his family for over three centuries. Mattias was now 31 years old, and though he had spent the last several years trying to prepare for a role, he still did not hold a position within the family firm.

The general rule had been that the family firm was passed onto the eldest male. It was during Ben de Kets’s leadership (Mattias’s father) that the board implemented a formal framework for succession with strict criteria for family involvement within the firm. As the eldest male, Mattias was the heir apparent. Ben had recently retired from his position as Managing Director. While Mattias had expressed interest in joining the family business, the board hired an external Managing Director to replace Ben. Although Mattias was the oldest of the next generation, he had not been given any guarantees and experienced difficulties in communicating with his father.

The next generation consisted of 7 family members. Besides Mattias, there were his younger brother Remy, 29, and his younger sister, Camilla, 26. Remy worked as an analyst at Douwe Egberts. He was dissatisfied with his current position, and had expressed an interest in working for the family business. Remy was an excellent team player and an informal leader who was not even aware of his qualities. Camilla had recently started working as a lawyer. She was the only one of the three siblings to have ever formally worked at De Kets, where she interned one summer.

Mattias was the only sibling to have spent time in a private school, living apart from his family from ages twelve to eighteen. As a result, he had not developed the close relationship with his parents that his brother and sister had. After high school Mattias spent a year working before pursuing a University degree. During his studies he founded a small internet company that he ran for five years. After graduating, Mattias sold his internet firm and started as an account manager at Verizon Netherlands.

The following year Mattias left Verizon and joined ABN AMRO Bank, which was setting up a Family Business Centre. In his new role he gained insights into family firms. Mattias received a high salary at the bank and excellent benefits. A year later ABN AMRO was acquired and Mattias’s department was disbanded. Mattias began to question his career path and approached his father. He left the bank for a lower salaried position in marketing at Westland, a family business producing cheese. The plan was that this position would help to prepare him for a leadership role within De Kets.

Mattias’s salary was half of that at the bank and he no longer had a company car, yet Ben felt that working at Westland would give Mattias the opportunity to gain experience in a family firm setting. After eight months at Westland, Mattias concluded that the work experience was more sales than marketing focused and left. Ben, though, felt Mattias still could have learned more from Westland.

Over the following year Mattias continued to have difficulty in his career. While he was entrepreneurial, passionate and creative, the family and the board noted that he was also at times impulsive and impatient. Frustrated, Mattias joined Bickery, a food distribution company, as a brand manager. His desire was to reach a senior level marketing position, before hopefully moving to De Kets.

While Mattias knew he was not yet ready for the Managing Director position, he did not feel the family recognized his capabilities and the knowledge he had gained at ABN AMRO. Mattias realized he had to make some critical career decisions in order to meet the criteria set by the board. He tried to determine what his options were. Mattias felt he had already sacrificed a lot of time towards obtaining a position in the company. These sunk costs weighed in with his decision because he still wanted to lead the family firm.

For the board this was a pure business matter; as long as there was no clear family member to lead the firm they would hire experienced outside managing directors. Mattias felt that coaching and communication with his father were key factors in the succession process, which he had yet to receive.

Mattias wondered if there was something else he could do to convince the family and the board about his seriousness. Or should he think about other possibilities outside the family firm. He had been successful at starting his own firm, should he pursue that avenue again? He wondered if his best option was to prove himself by building a successful career outside of the firm, being passionate about his work, and in turn hope that the supervisory board would make a decision in his favor. Yet Mattias felt that even the supervisory board had not given him any clarity. Maybe, after all, this was what they wanted him to find out for himself.