How do you deal with navigating through a maze of red tape? And what if you had to start a new company just before reaching the retirement age? Entrepreneur and farmer Maurits Tepper and Martinus craft beer brewer Albert-Jan Swierstra discussed changing course in rough weather.
The two entrepreneurs shared their stories during the first edition of Founder Talks for this year, with plenty of time for questions from RTV Noord journalist Bart Breij and the audience.
Ancient cows and packaging for NASA
Tepper owns Reijnen Sealing, a successful packaging companies with clients from all over the world, including NASA. Together with his wife, he’s also one the most forward thinking farmers in the Netherlands, with fully circular agriculture and preserving the ancient Groningen breed of Blaarkop cows.
Tepper took over Reijnen Sealing in 2011. Despite the Great Recession, the company grew from just a handful of employees to about 30 today. “I got some funny looks when I decided to buy a large property for a new office a few years back, but we’re all glad now that we have room to build another office on the property”, Tepper says.
And yet, Tepper wasn’t interested in growing his company even further. “Being successful is great, but I don’t like the trappings and pretense that comes with it”, he says. “My time on this earth is too short for that and it’s not worth all the stress. My wife and I decided to buy a farm and I’m no longer involved in the operational aspect of my company.”
Circular farming and red tape
Three years ago, Tepper bought 5 Blaarkop calves for their farm called Eytemaheert. Today, they have around 150 cows grazing on 300 acres of land. “My grandpa used to own this particular local breed, that can be traced back to before medieval times. They’re very tough, but rare, and I wanted to breed them back to their original state in the most sustainable way possible, on a sole diet of unfertilized local grass and no preventive antibiotics.”
Circular agriculture and preserving an ancient local breed. It may sound like something politicians would embrace, but the opposite is unfortunately true. “There are so many rules, regulations and fees, which apply to all farmers. So if you focus on sustainability and rare breeds, it’s impossible to run a profitable farm. It’s insane that farmers are forced to switch to overbred cattle to make any money and natural, local breeds are disappearing.
Tepper decided to do something about it. It took him the better part of a year, hundreds of daily phone calls, working all the way up to the State Secretary of Agriculture. Didn’t that drive him completely nuts? “No. This is important and for me it was just a matter of going out and doing it.”
The Dutch agricultural sector is conservative. New and sustainable methods of farming are not easily embraced. This is also part of Tepper’s crusade: “A lot of farmers find it hard to believe that my cows are thriving on nothing more than local grass and that we don’t use fertilizer. That’s why we’re working with the Wageningen University to develop and test new ways of farming, so we can show and prove sustainable agriculture is the way to go.”
From zoo photographer to brewer
Albert-Jan Swierstra changed course more than once. He started out as a photographer at the zoo, bought and ran a printing company and, a few years before being eligible for retirement, he started a new business with his son: the Martinus Brewery.
If you’ve ever had your picture taken as a kid at the zoo in Emmen, there’s a good chance Swierstra was the one holding the camera. “My photography business grew along with the park. At one point, I had 30 people on the payroll, until they kicked me out because I was directly competing with the giftshop.”
Swierstra bought a bankrupt printing company. “I didn’t really know anything about the printing business”, Swierstra adds with a smile. “I had to buy a new printer that cost about half a million at the time. Early on, I pretty much ran the business based on what my employees told me to do. But when you’re starting to get the hang of things and have your own ideas, well, that caused some friction. It took a while before they saw me as a capable boss.”
Recession, ever increasing digitalization, running a profitable company became more and more difficult. “Printing presses are a very costly investment. Printers in countries like Poland were able to use EU funding for new presses and were a lot cheaper. You can’t compete with that and you’re forced to cut your prices too. The profits slowly but surely started evaporating.”
So then, in his early sixties, Swierstra needed to change course again. Did he know anything about brewing beers? “I didn’t, but my brother brew beers as a hobby. He also worked at an addiction center, so I guess you could say he was familiar with the both pros and cons of beer”, Swierstra laughs.
“The basic principle is easy. Toss bread in water, add yeast and you pretty much get beer. Good brewing however… My son turned out to have a real knack for it, so we decided to sell the printing presses, bought kettles and turned the building into a brewery.”
Computer beer and competition
Martinus added a restaurant to the brewery and also hosts live music. A couple of years ago, Martinus teamed up with IBM and used supercomputer Watson to craft the ultimate Groningen beer, which was aptly named Nuchter (Sober).
But in recent years, the craft beer market exploded and there are now 300 craft brewers in the Netherlands. Can he stay ahead of the competition? “You really need local goodwill. They’re not going to drink our beer in Amsterdam if it’s not that different from other craft beers. It has to be really exclusive if you want people to drink it outside of Groningen.”
“Bars and restaurants are very important for us. I’d say about two thirds of our beer are sold to them. The remaining third is sold in our brewery and restaurant. But the brewery is a place where we can combine our passions for beer, food and music, which is absolutely fantastic.”