Frans Kools - Group HR Director | CHRO at Barentz International

Human Resources
12 January, 2023

Frans Kools is since February 2022 the Group HR Director | CHRO at Barentz International in Amsterdam. He previously spent ten years at Staples Solutions, where he was the Group HR Director for EMEA.

How do you create diverse teams?

You hope that organisations grow and, with growing, you have lots of opportunities to hire the right talent for the envisioned change. Then, in an organic way you can achieve diversity within your team and your organisation.

It’s always an accelerated growth, which gave me the lucky opportunity to add diversity; and we all understand the importance of having an inclusive and diverse team.

Having diverse teams means that you can create critical mass. With critical mass, innovations comes along and you are able to look from different perspectives at a situation or challenge.

It’s not a difficult discussion why it’s important - I think we all know why it is important, it’s more about how to get diverse teams organized as you simply don’t dismiss people to replace them for the sake of diversity.

Find your opportunities and ensure that the stakeholders in your organisation are on the same page, and make it happen.

What different challenges have you faced with recruitment before and after COVID?

Before COVID, we (@Staples) had like many our challenges in finding the right digital talent. What you did see those days in every organisation, every sector and every industry is that they were developing with an emphasis on digitalisation, but the number of people who had the right digital talent was not covering the need of the market. In Europe, you saw concentrations of digital talent in e.g. Amsterdam, London and also Berlin. So, it also depended on where your business was located.

Also the costs of labour influenced our recruitment strategy and forced us to recruit smarter. All in all enough reasons to open HUB’s to help us to hire the required talent at a cost we could afford. That is why we opened e.g. a HUB for Information Technology in Gdansk and a Creative Studio in Lisbon.

Covid changed hiring, because we have proven our capability to work hybrid and not necessarily be in the office five days a week. I think everyone will remember the managers that required you to keep the seat warm; some colleagues possibly need to be controlled, but most of us not. 

Yes, it can be needed to keep the seat warm when you work at a cash desk in a store to serve customers, but office positions normally don’t require that. The capability to work partly from home and partly in the office, has given us opportunities to hire now employees who’re living further away and were previously not interested to work for you due to the 5 days of commuting. Now they can work part of the week from home they’re interested, so with that your pool of candidates enlarged.

When you are capable as an organisation to manage your workforce based on output and not just on instruction and control, then COVID has brought you recruitment opportunities.

What does your current organisation, Barentz, do to drive its sustainability agenda?

Barentz is the Global Life Science and Specialty Performance Ingredients Distributor specialising in Human Nutrition, Pharmaceuticals, Personal Care, Performance Materials and Animal Nutrition, creating unique synergies across all fields of expertise.

At Barentz, we acknowledge our responsibility to contribute to a more sustainable world. We have developed a Global ESG organization to champion sustainability initiatives.

Our responsible sourcing policy seeks to ensure ethical practices in our supply chain, reduce environmental impact, and support workers and growing communities. These values include how we work with our suppliers across our supply chain.

In our role as distributor, we have always had a strong focus on long-term relationships with suppliers as well as with customers. An important part of our role in the supply chain is that we continuously monitor global developments that could pose a threat to these relationships. More importantly, we look at opportunities that could improve our partnerships.

So we develop strong partnerships, deliver ingredients and customized solutions for a more sustainable world. As the leading ingredient distributor at the very heart of life science, we know that ecosystem’s long-term prosperity is ultimately our own. That’s why at Barentz, we’re in the business of creating better solutions that enable sustained success for our customers and communities, our principles, people and ultimately the planet. And so, empowered by principles of knowledge, entrepreneurship, and partnership, we’re persistently conquering old challenges while unearthing entirely new opportunities. This continuous pursuit of better is what Barentz was founded on seven decades ago, and it’s what continues to be the key ingredients shaping our future success.

What changes have you seen in the employment market in the past five years?

The biggest change I experienced is the infrastructure needed to ensure a better work-life balance, which was already in progress but further forced to by COVID. What you see is that COVID really made a change enabling a new balance in work and personal life – which doesn’t necessarily mean that people were going to work less. I see that it has increased productivity; employees have been much more efficient, however not necessarily more effective. It reminds me to what happened when the iPad came on the market in 2010, and when we decided to provide one to each employee. The productivity increased tremendously as employees were using the iPad on the couch at night to answer their e-mail. The iPad was for me personally the first big gamechanger to better manage my work life balance.

I also see discussions popping up that people should be at work again for five days a week. We should not forget that about half of the workforce in Western Europe is not working in an office, but in e.g. a warehouse, production facility, store,  schools, hospitals, etc. and simply can not work remotely due to a nature of their job. For those people who do have the opportunity - and if you have it organised in a good way - it certainly will have a positive effect on the output. Hybrid working is by the way not just related to working from home, it’s also about managing your workforce based on output. It’s about freedom when and where to get the work done and not per se to work from 9 to 5. 

I think this is currently the biggest shift in the employment market in how we organise labour and why employees choose for one company versus the other.

You are currently shaping the HR function at Barentz to facilitate the accelerated growth, could you share an insight into this process?

Barentz has experienced an accelerated growth in the last two to three years, in this period we have been growing from appr. €800 million to appr. €2.5 billion.

Barentz currently employs 2.500+ employees in 90+ companies in 70+ countries and on 4 continents.  There are larger and smaller companies and different divisional concentrations per continent which impacts the way how to organise HR locally, regionally and globally.

The operational HR, so contracting and payrolling, has always been organised locally and I support this set up based on the size of the average company and the variety in local rules and regulation. 

What’s more important is that we’re aligned in the way we think, in terms of purpose and values and make sure that we hire new people who are a fit for purpose to strengthen our DNA.

We have a low natural attrition rate and attract those employees who’re driven by knowledge and entrepreneurship. We like our employees to develop their knowledge, think out of the box and constantly look for new formulated solutions for our principals and customers. We have a high percentage of employees that work for our companies for 10+ years. New companies are joining us through our M&A activities, because they feel comfortable with our family principles, because they trust our company to be a perfect fit for their future purpose. Through our partnerships we make more happen.

So, how will we build HR further? HR supports regionally the HR agenda for the respective region, which is different per region as one region is more established than the other. We facilitate all those different companies by a good philosophy on personal development, and make sure that people across the organisation will become able to better network, making use of the relations and knowledge we have within our organisation. We have therefore introduced the Barentz Academy, a new learning and development platform developed by Cornerstone, to support our philosophy on Performance Management, Succession Planning and Learning which will be - by the end of this year - implemented in all our 70+ countries. The Barentz Academy, where all the knowledge can be found stands for who Barentz is. This continuous pursuit knowledge is what Barentz was founded on seven decades ago, and it’s what continues to be the key ingredients shaping our future success. This is a good example of how we build HR.

How would you prioritise your work and social life and ensure that your wellbeing is still intact?

I believe HR is my second nature. Each day feels like a Saturday for me, as I love my job and want to be the best HR professional I can be. I love to be surrounded by people who are likeminded.

You can say I have two families; one I’m really married to and the other one I’m professionally married to. For me, my HR team is kind of like a family. My partner is an HR professional, and my eldest daughter is a recent HR graduate, so you can guess what the topics are when we’re having dinner.

What advice would you give to someone who is starting their career within HR?

Please start in HR-administration, in HR operations as a generalist. Most HR graduates want to start as an HR advisor or as a HR business partner; I can understand that they have that ambition, but it’s important to first make some miles in the HR back office, the HR operations which I see as a roundabout where all effects of the HR centres of expertise come together and become visible. A great place to learn and see what HR can do to an organization and what comes along with it. You see and can learn from the issues that are caused by maybe not good HR business partnering, wrong hires or not well thought restructuring. You learn best when you learn on mistakes. When you know how not to do something, you know how to do it right.

It also gives you the time to understand where you fit best. Give it time - on average, we work for 40-50 years, so don’t rush - look around, be open to learn and develop to become the best HR professional. You can have an opinion, but also make sure you listen to others and keep your eyes and ears open.

What interesting books or podcasts are you currently reading or listening to?

I want to share my most favourite one, which I believe I have read maybe ten times. It’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People from Stephen Covey. When you have studied HR, it should be on your list.

Now, I am listeing to an audiobook called Growing the Elephant by Chris Altizer. I met Chris during one of the think-thank sessions with David Ulrich in London where we discussed the future of the HR Business Partner model. Chris used to be the Senior Vice President, Human Resources for Pfizer. Today he’s giving lectures at Florida International University.  

He actually discusses the inclusion and diversity subject in different ways; you cannot change a culture that easily, as it takes time. He gives some great advice in his book. You have to take advantage of the opportunities; he shares some good examples of how it can work and how we can deal with it. I would say it’s one that I would advise everyone to read. To summarise what the book is about, I would call it the DNA transformation.

In your opinion, how will HR evolve in the next five years?

We are discussing constantly how HR is developing and what HR is going to look like, and how we organise it with business partners, centres of expertise and with operations.

Of course, the administration part is developing through digitalisation, but it is becoming more and more important how we acquire talent. I think it is important that we hire people that are really a fit for purpose. The attention on good talent acquisition, as well as the profession, is key. I would say that we were always looking to complement the hard part of HR and I do see there is a growing need for a better-balanced work life.

We need to be more creative about what the purpose of the organisation is and what kind of people will be needed. The need to make sure that your proposition is clear, your team is fit for purpose, and that you know what exactly is a good fit, and hire the right people that can add the value needed.

Make sure that you engage with the people in your organisation and you not only say what your values are, but that you breathe and live them. Ensure the programmes you provide are able to engage your staff and make them feel comfortable. That also means that you have to look at wellbeing. HR is going more and more in that direction.

Thank you to Frans for speaking to Alison Whiten, Associate Consultant in our HR recruitment team in the Netherlands. 

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment