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There’s a certain privilege inherent in the building industry. As many builders will tell you, it’s a gift to be able to shape the world around them and to create spaces in which people will live, work and play.
So it’s no surprise that certain builders want to share that experience as they improve their craft. Take the Ten Brinke Group, a family construction company that’s operated in western Europe for more than 120 years.
“I believe we should bring young people into the business early, upskill them, let them know Ten Brinke and get to know them at the same time,” says CEO and President Albert ten Brinke.
That idea changed the way the Ten Brinke Group worked – no small feat for a company of its vintage – and enhanced its team of about 1,300 employees. Today, ten Brinke estimates 90 percent of the company’s management are decades-long Ten Brinke Group mainstays.
Meanwhile, the Ten Brinke Academy was created to train and support young newcomers to reach the company’s high standards.
The approach was a success. Since joining the company in 1994, ten Brinke has grown Ten Brinke Group from a $US33 million to a $US1.4 billion business.
“It became 40 times bigger without any acquisitions,” he says. “We grew ourselves with our own people.”
Incredibly, ten Brinke has no relation to the family that created the business back in 1902.
“No relation at all,” he says. “They actually checked back a few hundred years, and couldn’t find any link.”
Paths crossed in 1993 when ten Brinke, then a player in the Dutch construction industry, had a fortuitous encounter with a namesake in Munich airport.
“They told me I was already on the list for my flight,” he recalls. “I said that couldn’t be, I’d only just arrived. It turned out they were talking about Hans ten Brinke, one of the three owners of the business at that time.”
The two spoke, and it soon became apparent that ten Brinke was a great fit for the Ten Brinke Group.
“I was 20 years younger than them, and although I’m Dutch, I’d done a lot of work in Germany,” he says. “That was appealing to them, plus the fact I had the same name.”
In 1996, ten Brinke bought his first shares in the company. Fifteen years later, he would buy out the original ten Brinkes, placing Ten Brinke Group on a very small list of companies owned by two separate families of the same name.
“It’ll be in my family for the next hundred years, perhaps,” he says.
The original ten Brinkes’ hunch about his experience has been vindicated by the remarkable growth ten Brinke has achieved through projects in Spain, Greece, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal. Ten Brinke Group has realized everything from supermarkets to housing estates to warehouses. But despite the growth, ten Brinke insists the business will never get too big.
“You have to have a very flat organization,” he says. “When a company gets too big, when there are too many layers, the director no longer knows what’s happening on-site anymore.”
Instead, Ten Brinke Group’s operations are divided into branches when they reach a certain size.
“We haven’t bought any companies, but we’ve split into several,” he says. “When one gets too big, we split it again into another branch.”
Each new company is built around new staff but founded by Ten Brinke Group veterans.
“This way of working gives those directors a lot of freedom. They can make their own decisions,” he says. “We don’t give them orders. We give them goals that they can reach themselves.”
As the one at the top, the biggest challenge ten Brinke faces is trusting his people.
“You have to trust them, and you have to get to know them because they’re not all the same,” he says. “Some may be stronger on the technical front, others in commercial.”
The structure has also left Ten Brinke Group more agile in a volatile market, where construction costs are going up as sale prices fall.
“We will not specialize in any one area,” ten Brinke says. “We were one of the biggest retail developers in Germany, but once I saw that market couldn’t grow any bigger, we slowed down and redirected our energies into residential. Two totally different ways of building, so it wasn’t easy, but it had to be done.”
Suddenly, ten Brinke’s prediction of another hundred years seems that much more viable.
“Now, we do residential, retail, logistics, hospitals, hotels,” he explains. “The whole spectrum of what can be built, we can do because we have that knowledge with the company. We can always react to changes in the market. If you can’t do that, and something happens, you’re gone.”