“Today is good; tomorrow must be better” – Interview with Ewald Draaijer, SK FireSafety CEO

Ewald Draaijer, PDG de SK FireSafety

Securing human life and assets in the precious first minutes of an incident before firefighters arrive is vital to survival. It’s also a solid business with solid fundamentals, recurring revenues and a robust outlook. With the support of Apax Partners since 2014, SK FireSafety has been growing and playing a significant role in consolidating this market successfully in the Benelux and Sweden and now plans to become a major player in Europe. CEO Ewald Draaijer explains his modus operandi.

Why did you accept the position as CEO of SK Fire Safety in 2011?

It goes back to 1997-98 when I attended an executive education program at the INSEAD business school while I was working for AkzoNobel[1]managing some 40 sites active in printing inks globally. I met a fellow executive who was heading Bencis Capital Partners and we stayed in touch.

When AkzoNobel decided to divest itself of printing in 2011, we did a management buyout of the division with the support of Bencis. In six years, we turned what started as a 160-million-Euro company into a 2.4-Billion-Euro company. It became so big it needed a larger management matrix, and that wasn’t my style. So I left in 2007 and worked on several companies in the Bencis portfolio.

In 2011 Bencis asked me to become CEO of SK FireSafety to grow the company. Nine years later, I’m still here…because it’s fun. We are on a growth path. We have a lot of freedom, and an entrepreneurial spirit with strong financial management. That’s a good combination!

 

What does SK FireSafety offer its customers?

Basically, we offer our customers everything they need to survive the first 15 minutes of an incident – that crucial time before the responders arrive: dedicated products, systems, and solutions designed, installed, and maintained in a very reliable way in the most cost-efficient manner.

This is in two divisions: First Intervention Solutions – portable fire-fighting products for all types of users; and High Value Asset Protection – for larger installations such as buildings, plants, infrastructure, data centres, health care centres, utilities and telecoms, etc. That’s a big-cap client base including companies such as Schiphol, Exxon Mobil, BASF, etc.

The reliability of our safety systems is what’s important to our customers – it’s not about price, but about quality, reliability and brand names. Some of our brands have been active in the fire safety market for nearly 100 years.

 

What is so unique about the company? 

In a competitive environment, you tend to have either really big or relatively small companies. We’re in the middle: we have the flexibility of a small company but the knowledge and know-how of a larger company. We share that knowledge throughout the company using a flat management style. We’re easy to work with. We have an egalitarian management style and are averse to the matrix style of management!

 

The company has had revenue growth of 8% and profitability growth of 18% each year from 2016 to 2019. What has been driving this?

We give people the freedom they need to do their jobs. We make a point of celebrating success: every year we invite 50-60 employees for a get-together that combines a bit of work, a bit of sports, a nice dinner. It’s a good atmosphere and that’s important.

Every month the CFO and I visit each of the main companies and business units. We conduct performance reviews and we ask, “What’s next?” Because there’s always a “next.” Together we figure out what that is because people have to be ready for that “next step.” This is not just about performance…it’s about attitude.

 

Where do you see the company going from here over the next few years?

Fire safety won’t change much, so we’re focusing on strengthening our position as a Northern European leader. Since 2011 we’ve made 25 acquisitions and we believe we can do another 12 or more acquisitions in the next three years, particularly in asset protection in Benelux and in Scandinavia. We’re also looking at Austria, Switzerland, and Germany because they’re a good cultural fit. But we also have our eye on France and Italy.

Strategically, we sold our aerospace business in January 2019 and are now focusing on acquisitions that will strengthen our fire protection position. There are a lot of synergies to be achieved. We just bought a defibrillator company, which is very complimentary to and shares synergies with our First Fifteen Minutes concept.

 

What do you look for when recruiting employees?

Attitude. Energy. Transparency. International outlook. Ability to manage people and get the best out of them. The belief that “Today is good; tomorrow must be better.”

 

What did an investor such as Apax Partners bring to the table? And what experience working with Apax Partners will you remember most?

Apax Partners gave us freedom. And room to grow and be creative, and the strategic support to take the actions we need to.

Our monthly meetings have always been open and transparent; we’ve always been able to discuss what’s working and what isn’t. That says a lot about Apax Partners.

2014 was a particularly memorable moment: the oil price shock. Demand from emerging economies like Indian and China tanked; oil prices plunged from $112/barrel in June to $48/barrel by January 2015. At the time, 30% of our profits came from oil and gas (today it’s more like 3%). I was very open and transparent about the bleak outlook. Apax didn’t back out.

We decided to weather the storm together: we found 3.7-million Euros in savings. We made it a success side-by-side. They didn’t send in a bunch of outside consultants or “experts”, and we did what we needed to do: Manage the company.

So the best memory is having this support in tough times. Not just financial support but psychological support as well. And you can’t put a price tag on that.

 

[1] A Dutch international company specializing in paints and performance coatings

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