As a host in his father's funeral home, Michael Bouwens discovered the power of personal service at the age of 16. His next side job - driving around business men and women - led him to his own company, a facility service provider with currently 200 employees and an annual turnover of €10 million. Bouwens&’s success has everything to do with the fact that its clients are not just customers, but equal partners. And the same goes for its employees.
In 2003, straight from your dorm room, you founded Bouwens Chauffeursdiensten (Chauffeur Services), now bouwens&. At the end of 2021, your company merged with the Belgian-Luxembourg branch of the multinational Armonia. Did you ever think you would come this far?
I’ve never been about big-bigger-biggest. Good-better-best - that’s in my DNA. My father, uncle, and grandfather - all undertakers who practiced their profession with love - always sought to provide the best possible personal experience.
That's what makes me tick, too. During the two years I spent as a student chauffeur, I noticed that establishing a warm bond with my customers came to me naturally, which made me realize that I understood what service this is all about. I didn’t see myself working at a bank or an insurance company, or holding another corporate job; I wanted to achieve something on my own. So I bought a computer, a landline phone, and a fax machine - I was 25 but my plans were serious.
I traveled to all the student cities by train to put up posters: student chauffeurs wanted! Candidates came from all over the country to my little room in Amsterdam. They had to make a test drive: from the Olympic Stadium to the Arena, and back via a different route. Of the 100 applicants, I selected the 30 neatest and most representative ones, and gave them a kind of manual in which I had recorded my philosophy.
What was the core of that philosophy at the time?
Being in service of others. A chauffeur is no more or less than a host in - and outside - the car. I only wanted to hire students who felt the same way. My first website also radiated that my business was more about personal service than about driving someone from A to B.
My company grew very organically. Pretty soon, the same corporates that didn’t appeal to me personally asked me to arrange executive chauffeurs for them. So off I went to those big companies to talk things over - and often I was astounded at the flawed way I was welcomed. Why did that lady behind the desk have no idea who was waiting for me somewhere upstairs? And why was she wearing her regular clothes instead of an outfit that did justice to that prestigious company? I didn't feel welcome at all. Surely, I could improve things…
That’s why I started offering reception and security services in 2008. I changed my company’s name to 'Bouwens Group,' with the slogan 'Together to success'. After all, you do it together: as a facility service provider, you move along with your clients. Eventually, that idea led to a second name change in 2015: bouwens&. We are equal partners with a sincere desire to strengthen each other's success. The successes that our clients and our employees experience is synonymous with the success of our company, and vice versa. We feel deeply connected to both those we work for and those who work for us.
To what extent did the COVID-19 years test that connection?
When the offices had to close, we experienced how strong the bond with most of our clients is. They share our mindset. Take our earliest clients: they didn't just write us off. They asked us to think along with them, fully aware of the fact that they wanted to continue on an equal footing with us after the health crisis. A one-hour call was enough to reach reasonable agreements that both parties could live with.
Unfortunately, it turned out that we also had clients who, from one day to the next, no longer wanted to pay their invoices. We helped a dozen receptionists find other jobs within the company, but we also had to say goodbye to some of them. That was tough, yes. Many of our employees have been with us for years. Until recently, we had a 75-year-old executive chauffeur on staff! That's valuable, especially in a job market where personnel is hard come by. Clients who don’t get that, aren’t our type of clients. We didn’t want to continue doing business with them. That may sound extreme, but without equality, I don’t want their money. There must be a connection that goes beyond the business relationship of client-supplier.
That deep connection was also crucial during the exploratory talks with Armonia, before COVID-19 hit the world. You only wanted to close the deal once you were sure that they were driven not only financially, but also qualitatively.
That's right, and in the past I rejected mergers for that very reason. With Armonia, it's all good. That feeling is confirmed time and again, for example, now that we are mapping out Receptel’s future. For years, this Belgian market leader in hospitality and reception services was not given much attention; it was a thriving unit of a large employment agency. We believe that there is still much to be gained in terms of personal service. The organization is now being strengthened, and we are investing in new technologies and training. Being the biggest is one thing, but being the best? That's something else.