Podcast Digital Leadership: Jeanine Holscher (Blokker)

22 April 2021

Newpeople has interviewed a number of digital leaders in a series of podcasts, in search of the true meaning of this. In every podcast, the unique story of a digital leader is at the forefront.

Jeanine Holscher – CEO at Blokker

“We are a start-up with 125 years of legacy”. As a traditional retail company, how does Blokker retain its innovative mindset and how do they distinguish themselves from pure players such as Bol.com? What type of leadership does this involve? And how does the online journey contribute to the experience in physical stores? Jeanine Holscher (CEO at Blokker) takes us through her personal story through her challenges as CEO, her own leadership style and how Blokker continues to innovate with 125 years of legacy.


Podcast

From the REM island in Amsterdam, Newpeople is on the hunt for digital leadership, my name is Hanneke Rinkes.

The digital world demands a different kind of leadership. We live in turbulent times and the coronavirus pandemic has only served to increase the pressure. Just waiting around is not an option. Why is digital leadership so different to leadership as we know it? Why give it a special name? Make no mistake, it is not because everything is going online now. If that were the case, every leader would be classified as a digital leader.

As a step in Newpeople’s journey to find digital leadership, I am talking to Jeanine Holscher, CEO of Blokker and COO of the Mirage Retail Group.

Hanneke: “Jeanine, great to have you here. We always start the podcast with a set of digital dilemmas. I will give you 10 dilemmas and you have to choose as quickly as possible.”

Jeanine: “Okay, sounds fun.”

Hanneke: “Let’s begin. Blokker or Big Bazar?”

Jeanine: “Blokker.”

Hanneke: “Blokker Connect or Bol.com?”

Jeanine: “Blokker Connect.”

Hanneke: “Digital transformation or starting out digitally?”

Jeanine: “Digital transformation.”

Hanneke: “Science or intuition?”

Jeanine: “Intuition.”

Hanneke: “Giving or receiving feedback?”

Jeanine: “Receiving feedback.”

Hanneke: “Online or offline?”

Jeanine: “Online.”

Hanneke: “Consultancy or retail?”

Jeanine: “Retail.”

Hanneke: “CEO or coach?”

Jeanine: “Both. But that’s not allowed right?”

Hanneke: “Yes, everything is allowed. Interim or permanent?”

Jeanine: “Interim.”

Hanneke: “City or village?”

Jeanine: “That’s the trickiest one. For now, village.”

Hanneke: “Let’s start with the question where you answered both CEO and coach. Last year in October, in the middle of the Corona crisis, you took on the challenge of becoming Blokker’s CEO, why did you agree to that?”

Jeanine: “The answer to that is actually very simple. I had been the CEO of Big Bazar for quite some time already and also a member of the board of directors of the Mirage Retail Group – the parent company of both Blokker and Big Bazar. Michiel Witteveen, our owner, had actually always been the CEO of blokker on an interim basis, and we thought it was a good moment for him to focus a bit more on the board of directors, so when that spot opened up, it was the logical choice for me to follow in his footsteps. Blokker is a very nice, big company facing a big challenge. You just asked me, Blokker or Big Bazar, I said Blokker not because I don’t like Big Bazar, but I’ve done that and Blokker is the next challenge.”

Hanneke: “And what is that challenge?”

Jeanine: “The challenge at Blokker is that we have a lot of shops, more than 450 of which 5 are franchises. In recent years, Blokker has received a lot of negative attention, it’s been in the news a lot when numbers were down and the challenge now is turning that around and making it a success story. In 2019, that started when Michiel Witteveen took over the Mirage Retail Group within Blokker and in 2020 that just went very well. That transformation to a profitable business is something we’re really going for. I also think that if we didn’t have to close, we would be close to making a profit. That is an incredible result and there is more to come. But I’m sure we’ll talk about that.”

Hanneke: “What is it about you that makes this a challenge suited to you?”

Jeanine: “I really like change. One of the questions you asked me was interim or permanent. The past 20 years I’ve worked interim, not because I necessarily see the divide between interim and permanent so clearly, actually, every permanent job should be seen as a job, with the result, making agreements with each other beforehand, the finiteness of it, I think that gives really good energy. Blokker energises me because it is something new for me and because a transformation is needed, a change is needed and that is something I thrive off. I really enjoy doing new things.”

Hanneke: “You also hesitated about CEO or coach, is that your leadership style? Coach? How would you describe your style?”

Jeanine: “About 6 years ago, I did a coaching training on being a more reflective and coaching leader. I would say I’m a bit of both, hence my doubt. I’m a CEO but I also really see myself as coach of a team. I believe in facilitating leadership, I work in a team of very professional people and the only thing that I have to do is make sure they can do their job well and that they can work together well. Retail comprises many different facets. It only works when all the individual parts work: purchasing, logistics, marketing, the shops, finance, everything just has to work together. That is my main job.”

Hanneke: “And what is success to you?”

Jeanine: “For me, success for Blokker right now is making a profit. In the media, it has already been said that the Mirage Retail Group is going to the stock market, we’re all working very hard on that right now. That means that now more than ever, we want to professionalise the company and really make a profit. So, we of course hope that we’ll be able to open soon because that will definitely help. Making a profit with closed shops is fairly difficult.”

Hanneke: “Returning to the team, so a coaching style, how do you handle feedback? Is that part of Blokker’s culture?”

Jeanine: “I’m quite open and transparent, what you see is what you get. Also very direct, I’m someone who is quick to say what my opinion is on something, but I also really like to hear what others think of me, so I think giving and receiving feedback is really about creating safe structures in which you can do that. I definitely see it as my job to offer that sense of safety. In the end, we’re all doing it to make Blokker better, that guides us, Blokker will only improve if we also improve ourselves.”

Hanneke: “Do you consciously ask your employees for feedback because you say you like getting feedback?”

Jeanine: “I’m conscious of the fact that as CEO, people have a tendency to tell me what they think I want to hear. I always say “do give me an honest answer and don’t just say something because it’s me you’re talking to.” Being conscious of your own blind spots is an important part of that.”

Hanneke: “And going back a bit, Blokker has existed for 150 years now, a great family company, I once visited and spoke to the lady working at the reception, she told me how much she loves the company and she spoke from the heart. It used to be a company with physical shops, transformed to, like you said, an omnichannel organisation. First it was Nextail, now it’s its own marketplace that external companies can also use as a platform to sell. Can you tell us, in short, about the changes you’ve undergone and the idea behind these changes?”

Jeanine: “Definitely. Blokker used to be a part of Blokker holding, a big conglomerate comprising a variety of shops. Nextail used to be a part of that. Nextail wasn’t owned by Blokker but by Blokker Holding and it serviced all those different shops like Intertoys and Blokker, but also Leen Bakker at the time. The decision was made to finish building the holding but also to sell a number of companies. This meant that in 2018, only two companies remained in Blokker Holding and these were Blokker and Big Bazar. At the end of 2018, the family still owned these but in the end they decided to sell. I had just started as interim CEO at Big Bazar. We started a sell trade, we offered our company to many different parties, we gave many presentations. Eventually, at the very end, Michiel Witteveen, who was the head of the board of directors at the time, said “I’ll buy it myself.” That was a very unique move. Then in April 2019, Mirage Retail Group was founded with Blokker and Big Bazar. In September we added Intertoys to that and also obtained a licence for Miniso in the Netherlands and we also recently acquired BCC in October. A group has now been created with 872 shops in the Netherlands, offline shops, we’ll talk about the digital aspects in a bit, with 1000 employees, so it’s suddenly a really big player. Blokker was also serviced by Nextail but that is before my time. Currently, the whole digital process has been incorporated into Blokker. Last year, we fully replatformed to a sales force, so there is a very professional website. We turned our whole e-commerce DC, which used to be in Gouda, into an omni channel DC in Geldermalsen. We did our offline activities there anyway so it’s been fully integrated now. That is all at the back, the step we’re taking now, is to also go to the front. Our expertise lies mainly in houseware, tableware and cooking. We have a fairly complete assortment of top brands as well as our own brands which we offer on our website. But we can’t cover the whole market. We would like to be as complete as possible in that, hence the marketplace where we have hundreds of sellers, as we refer to them. Through these sellers, customers can get their hands on that one special, retro cappuccino machine that we don’t have in our regular collection. Blokker is the platform for all your cooking, houseware and tableware needs. In our physical shops and also on our website, we have all other products, and you also see sellers there, but the focus is really on cooking, houseware and tableware.”

Hanneke: “And that transformation to an omni channel organisation, what kind of difficulties do you run into there?”

Jeanine: “It all sounds really simple, we’ve been talking about it for years. Omni channel is the most commonly used, generic term that you can think of. But really giving it depth and substance and making sure that it works on all fronts is one hell of a job. What we’re seeing now is that the last mile is starting to become particularly important. We particularly noticed that during the Corona crisis. Something that can’t have escaped anyone’s notice is that in december we set up Blokker Express in three days to cover that last mile. We did this using our own employees and using an app that we had already developed during the Corona crisis so it was almost ready but we made it go live very quickly. That was all a bit of a make-do situation but it worked extremely well. When PostNL couldn’t handle things anymore, we were ready with our own service and that brought us a lot of goodwill. Aside from that, we gained the insight that there is a lot of added value to be had for Blokker in that area. More than ever we’re a local shop. Our location strategy is aimed more and more at being locally available, so wherever there is an Albert Heijn or a Lidl, you’ll often also see a Blokker for your daily needs. So if you’ve just been to Albert Heijn but you also need a blender, you can come and get it in one of our shops. This means that we can provide a good neighbourhood service. So giving shape to that last mile and ensuring that we can deliver anything, anywhere at a high speed, that’s where potential for profit lies for us. You just mentioned that you’ve talked to a lot of pure players recently, I think what makes us so unique is that we’re really professionalising the online part, but there is still much work to be done. We also know that the offline journey starts online in 98% of cases. If you need a drying rack, the first thing you do is look online at what it costs or where you can get it and that’s where we have to be ready to jump in. We have that network of shops, can always be in proximity to you and deliver that drying rack to your door very quickly, and in that lies a lot of our strength we think.”

Hanneke: “And if you look at the different phases of digital maturity that Blokker has passed through, Nextail kind of started to build up digital capabilities in a silo.”

Jeanine: “And also in an accelerator actually.”

Hanneke: “And now, is it going to be integrated in the business, is it going to become an omni channel, indeed a generic term, but it does mean combining on and offline, what is the next step? We’re seeing that organisations are really looking to become customer-centric and data-driven, what does that mean for Blokker?”

Jeanine: “All the terms that you just mentioned, of course those are all terms we’re working on. We have an increasingly large BI team, we’re collecting more data and in October we launched a digital loyalty card which helps us gather a lot of data as well. We’re generating a lot of data and doing more and more with that. From a customer-centric perspective, we’re also working a lot on NPS, what influences our NPS? It’s really a journey we’re making together and that should start coming together now. So where are we? I think in some regards we’re very far and in others, there is still a lot to learn. We’re definitely doing that, we have great people on board, we’ve also had to say goodbye to a lot of people over the past year, but we also gained new talent. I think right now we have a very good team ready to go and do that. It’s exciting and I think if Corona has taught us anything, it’s the need to act quickly. We’re also seeing how important online is becoming and we’re already anticipating that but Corona has caused an increase of pace.”

Hanneke: “You’re a hardened retailer yourself, what kind of qualities do you need to change a traditional retail organisation into an integral omni channel enterprise? I don’t mean that in terms of technology but more from a human perspective?”

Jeanine: “That is an excellent question. I think traditionally retail has a tendency towards silos, with a traditionally large purchasing power. In some formulas marketing is very important, but we’re also seeing for example that supply chain and IT now have very different roles which can also be solved by working together. That might sound obvious but what we’re saying is that from the customer proposition until the last mile at the customer’s door, that’s one story that you really have to do together. You need each other to make that a success. I really see that as my role. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to work at and look in on companies in the areas of logistics, purchasing, marketing and IT, so I’m lucky to have that kind of overview and understand the whole process well and can help to accelerate it or to connect people with each other, however difficult that may be. Of course we’re doing everything, including Blokker Express, from behind our screens. I find that awful just like most people, I’m definitely not at my best behind a screen, so I long to be able to have big sessions with each other at the office, because there’s a very different kind of energy there. It is so incredibly important to think from a customer perspective and really examine that closely. It sounds very obvious but it definitely isn’t, especially not in retail which also has complicated things like return flows, for example, someone buys it online using a seller but then returns it at a Blokker shop. How can we combine that? How do we make sure that customer gets their money back and has a nice experience with us? Those are all puzzles we’re currently trying to solve.”

Hanneke: “Yes, I can imagine that. That’s something we’re seeing in a lot of organisations, a kind of fear, and a legacy.”

Jeanine: “Definitely, a lot of different systems not talking to each other.”

Hanneke: “Exactly, those silos often stay in place and it’s up to a leader to break through them to get everyone on board.”

Jeanine: “So my big task is teamwork. Well that’s something I happen to really like so that works out well. Working together is very important, so again, that’s why I hope we can do that in person again soon. Of course there are also a lot of advantages to working online, the one-on-one calls I really like but things like sitting down together, brainstorming and standing in front of a big board, I really miss.”

Hanneke: “I can imagine. I would like to return to the choice you made between Blokker Connect and Bol.com. Of course you chose for Blokker Connect, your own marketplace. I can imagine that it’s difficult to stay afloat with your own marketplace when you’re in competition with all these pure players like Bol.com.”

Jeanine: “We’re a pure player that happens to have shops, at least that’s how I see it. We have the rare combination of a website but also the shops. What I also really like is that at the pure players’ party, the shopping awards, we received the logistics prize because of Blokker Express. That’s really nice, being a 125 year old company and then winning a prize when you’re surrounded by companies like Bol.com. We sometimes say jokingly, “we’re a start-up with a 125 year legacy”, and this proved that. We won the prize with Blokker Express. The jury awarded us the prize because we managed to set up this service so quickly, with our own team. We delivered over 10,000 packages with these 4000 people. I myself also did it.”

Hanneke: “You went to the doors yourself?”

Jeanine: “Yes, one day I brought both my son and my daughter because then I could drive and navigate and they could ring the doorbell. There were customers that had ordered a fryer about three hours before, around Christmas time. Then suddenly you were at the door with a fryer and the customers said, “what, already?” That’s what really made us decide to professionalise so the last mile is an important point in our strategy for the coming year, to do that well, because that’s what sets us apart from the pure players.”

Hanneke: “I can imagine that that’s really good for the general energy in the office right?”

Jeanine: “It really helps. We asked those 4000 employees to participate on a volunteer basis. Everyone wanted to take part. I don’t think there is anyone who said “I’d rather not.” There were also many people from our head office who helped out because it was booming. And it’s so nice for everyone that you win a prize with that, especially at something that is usually the pure player party. I think that helped create a lot of goodwill. Also for all those people working with us, there’s been so much negative publicity surrounding Blokker, and how great is it to be back in the news in a positive light now. Being able to hear something nice at a birthday party for once. I also think, and I’ve said that to employees, that when the customers are back in the shops, they’ll say to us, “it was so nice that you were there at Christmas and that you helped us.” Right now it’s already April again and December has been and gone and of course we had thought that we would be open again in January, but we’re continuing to communicate with our customers, despite being closed. A couple of weeks ago we launched coffee cups, so Blokker is bringing qualitatively excellent coffee to the market at a low price. we do that very sustainably, using aluminium cups that you can hand in to us again. We ensure those cups are recycled and with that money we support the Hunger Project, which means the project is nicely circular. This week we’re introducing the soda water maker, which does the same as a well-known top brand, but we believe we can also supply these kinds of products at a Blokker price, so that we can get customers what they want at a good price. That’s the kind of thing we’re working on and that gives us a lot of energy.”

Hanneke: “When you rang customers’ doorbells, did you ever say you were the CEO of Blokker?”

Jeanine: “No, I have never said that. That seems very annoying to me. I enjoyed the reactions more than enough as it was, all the gratitude. For us, the most important thing is staying relevant to our customers, that’s what it’s all about.”

Hanneke: “Nice. At some point I asked you, as a dilemma, consultancy or retail? You immediately said retail, but you started your career as a consultant and only entered the retail sector later. Why did you make that choice at the time and what made that a good choice? Because that it was.”

Jeanine: “You’re right, after Nyenrode I started my career at the Boston Consulting Group. I learned a lot there but I’ve realised I enjoy being in the business myself a lot more and what I like so much about retail, like we just discussed, is that there are so many buttons to play with and it’s so nice when they all start to work together, it’s something I enjoy every day. Starting out in consultancy has helped me greatly though because unpacking problems into little pieces, analytically looking at every challenge that crosses your path, that really helps. The way you learn to think is really good, but the culture of work, work, work, yes I think I probably work harder right now, but it was very one dimensional which suits me less.”

Hanneke: “Do you think others shaped the choice you made then? Is there anyone who crossed your path that you were particularly inspired by?”

Jeanine: “I think your career definitely gets shaped by people you encounter in life. After my studies I went to work in Italy because during an internship I came across someone who put me on that path and offered me an opportunity there, so my whole career has been getting opportunities, and seizing them every time. When I thought consultancy is very interesting but hmm and I was doing it in Milan and Paris which sounds great but could also be very lonely, I was very young and actually really wanted to go back to Amsterdam. Then there was someone who said I know a nice company, go and talk there, which turned into a job and that’s how things go. When I started at Big Bazar and met Michiel Witteveen who ended up buying Mirage for example. He is a big inspiration to me, his incredibly entrepreneurial way of managing this company, it’s a shrill contrast to consultancy, but very interesting to see nonetheless, entrepreneurship, making decisions quickly, not doing deep analyses but being able to trust your intuition is a great adventure.”

Hanneke: “And that’s why in the dilemma between science and intuition you immediately said intuition?”

Jeanine: “Even though I come from a family of scientists. Intuition is not something I have been raised with, but it is something that I have learned to trust over the years. Also in the coaching training that we talked about, after that training I went and did something that isn’t scientific but still very interesting, namely organisational setups, increasingly applied, where you’re confronted with something that you can’t really prove with science but that does offer a lot of insight. As I get older, I’m finding intuition increasingly important. Of course I really like data, I’m data-driven and find it incredibly interesting to see the predicting qualities of data from a data perspective, especially in an e-commerce setting, but intuition, especially in leadership, is incredibly important.”

Hanneke: “The future for you, because you just said looking back at my career, but you’re still very much in the middle of it, what’s next Jeanine?”

Jeanine: “I don’t really think about that much yet. I started at Blokker in October, like I said we just announced we’re going to the stock market, so that’s what the focus will be on the coming years, after that, we’ll see. First I just want to make a profit, first, in the ultra short-term I just want the shops to open, not just for me but for all the shopkeepers, all the small enterprises, family companies. I’m in the lobby group with the government and those awful stories, a lot is being asked of people. Our employees also crave it. That’s the ultra short-term and then we’ll make 2021 a great year I hope, when we’re allowed to open again. Then, onto making a profit, onto going to the stock market and then we’ll see. I’m not really a planner, I seize the chances I get and I’ll see what crosses my path.”

Hanneke: “I think this phase of Blokker, hearing you talk, is very well-suited to you. That transformation, the acceleration, the moving forward.”

Jeanine: “Yes, and not only what I’m doing at Blokker, because I have a double role. I’m CEO at Blokker but I’m also on the board of directors. We made the conscious decision to do that, we just didn’t want a really big holding so my colleagues in the board of directors also all have double roles. It’s very nice to see how Intertoys is doing.”

Hanneke: “Is a double role difficult, is there sometimes conflict?”

Jeanine: “No, usually there’s no conflict, because we make sure of that, there’s good governance, but I also look over at Intertoys and at the acquisition of BCC and there you see the value we can have for each other. We’re really working together. Intertoys is a company that has been bankrupt and that we bought afterwards, after it restarted, when the previous owner somewhat neglected it. They ended up making a profit last year. It’s really nice seeing all these companies do well. I think we need to start really making use of the fact that we have both shops and a good online presence.”

Hanneke: “We talked about leadership for a bit, now a lot is being written about female leadership, about digital leadership. Given the development of our economy and of our society at the moment, what’s the most important in your opinion? What kind of leadership do we need right now?”

Jeanine: “What I’m really noticing now with Corona, and I think it has to do with the fact that we work so much behind a screen, is that leadership is becoming more and more personal. A couple of years ago we were working on results and content a lot, but now I’m noticing, funnily enough, that behind the screen you’re always talking about content, but you’re also taking time and noticing how people are doing on a personal level. The context within which someone is working has become all the more important. You’re concerned with someone’s home life, can this person function in that? What does that bring? I think it’s also really about being personal and being allowed to be who you are. For me personally, that’s also an important theme, I find it important that you can just be yourself, you shouldn’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not whilst at work, you should really be the same person. Sometimes people feel obligated not to do that which is a real shame. I also think that is an important part of leadership now. And vulnerability, not being afraid to speak up if you’re not feeling it right now, or if you don’t know, or if you don’t know the answer to a question, that’s not something to be ashamed of. It doesn’t have to be acting cool all the time, just be yourself.”

Hanneke: “Is that part of the culture at Blokker, being able to show vulnerability?”

Jeanine: “I remember Blokker Express almost being launched and me saying “guys, this is so special, it’s almost making me cry.” I have a team consisting of just men and they looked at me kind of strangely. It became a kind of joke, “oh are you close to crying again?” But I also noticed a colleague who said “to use Jeanine’s words, I started to tear up.” I think that’s beautiful, you should be able to do it with a smile and a tear. But yes, there is.”

Hanneke: “Funny, I’ve also had that here when I said, “I’m so proud, I could cry with pride.” It’s nice when you can just say that and people feel it. What’s the advice you would give to our listeners?”

Jeanine: “Stay true to yourself. That is the most important thing. If in your job you feel like you can’t do that, you’re not in the right place. That might sound like a cliché, but that is definitely what I’m noticing, being able to create a context for yourself in which you can be who you are. Of course you don’t always have to be happy with yourself, you have to keep challenging yourself, but personality wise you should always be able to be yourself. If you’re a very extroverted person, and you’re surrounded by people who find that strange, then it’s simply not the right environment. I still see people around me who try to adapt to that and that is such a shame. Self-reflection is something I find really important, which is why I’m saying it, it’s not the case that if you’re yourself you never have to improve, of course you have to, but the most important thing is staying true to yourself.”

Hanneke: “A nice way to finish off I think. Thank you so much for your fantastic, open story Jeanine.”

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