From gas to green and from robot bartender to giant food market with breweries. Together with local TV station RTV Noord, Founded in Groningen organized the third edition of Founder Talks, where two remarkable entrepreneurs share their equally remarkable stories, combined with an in-depth interview and questions from the audience.
For this edition, RTV Noord journalist Bart Breij interviewed Stefan Holthausen, the man behind the new hydrogen powered shuttle bus and Patrick Beijk, hospitality innovator, the owner of Mr. Mofongo’s, The Dog’s Bollocks and the man behind Merckt.
From family company to market leader
When Holthausen was founded in 1945, it was instantly the most sustainable gas supplier in the Netherlands. “That was because my grandfather had little more than freight bicycle for his gas deliveries when he started the company”, Stefan says jokingly. Now, some 70 years later, the company employs 60 people.
When his father got sick and unable to continue working, Stefan was still in his early twenties. “When my brother and I took over the company, it was just the three of us”, he explains. “We still employed our dad, because he wasn’t able to save up for retirement. Over the next couple of years, we changed our course drastically. Instead of letting our customers come to us like we had always done, we actively recruited our customers.”
“In 2001, we were the first gas supplier in the Netherlands to use lightweight, plastic canisters”, Stefan explains. “Most companies at the time thought they were unsafe, while they’re actually a lot safer than their heavy, metal counterparts. Things just took off from there and in 2007, we bought 7 of our competitors and suddenly gained an extra 3.500 customers.”
That same year also marked a turning point. “Growing that fast also caused a lot of headaches, because you’re suddenly a manager, employing a lot of people, having to move to a bigger office and needing a loan from the bank”, Stefan continues. “I didn’t know about any of that stuff and I never went to college, so the bank suggested to get some coaching, which really helped me to learn the ropes.”
Stefan also had somewhat of an epiphany after seeing Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: “I suddenly realized I was part of the problem. I was successful in an industry that was responsible for pollution and our dependence on fossil fuels. We needed to change, but it was really difficult to convince my employees of that, because it’s about their jobs, their livelihood. Why change when you have a good thing going?”
An astonished salesman and disappointed burglars
Slowly but surely, Holthausen switched to using liquid nitrogen. “My brother and I wanted to buy a liquid nitrogen powered large truck and visited a Volvo dealership. The astonished salesman there looked at us as if we were idiots and told us that there was no such thing and that trucks ran on diesel. We said okay, got a truck and converted it ourselves”, Stefan jokingly explains.
The two brothers already had a bunch of those trucks when one day, the police called. “They said we were robbed by a gang of diesel thieves in the middle of the night. So I started laughing and told them that our trucks didn’t need diesel. The police officer replied that that would explain the empty jerrycans the robbers left behind. I guess that’s a hilarious benefit of being the first company using liquid nitrogen!”
In the coming years, Holthausen will be responsible for refitting all the busses in Groningen to run on liquid nitrogen, as well as the first train. But refitting alone is not enough. “It’s a chicken and egg situation”, Stefan explains. “You also need the entire infrastructure around it, which is why we also plan to have 90 N2 stations by 2030.”
Liquid nitrogen is not as conventional an alternative as its electric counterpart. Someone from the audience asks what the main bottleneck is. In other words, why don’t we embrace N2, instead of electric? “Because there’s not enough lobbying”, Stefan explains. “People don’t really know about it. They know about Tesla and Elon Musk, but not that much about the potential of liquid nitrogen.”
Speaking of Tesla, Stefan explains that by refitting Tesla cars, you can easily double the effective range you can drive. “Which is kind of what we already did! We got our hands on a second hand Tesla, hacked it, refitted the car and doubled the range.”
Any tips for fellow entrepreneurs? “Don’t wait around and just go out and do it. We’re making steps in the right direction, but we really need to accelerate to get to where we need and stop climate change.”
Innovation in the hospitality industry
Patrick Beijk is the owner of Chaplin's Pub, Mr. Mofongo and The Dog’s Bollocks. He sees himself more as an inventor of restaurant and pub concepts and got into the business sort of by accident. “When I was still a student, I organized an event for my student association. The Hanze University asked me if I could help out with another event and the catering company they used to work with felt sidetracked and quit. So before I knew it, I had my own catering company.”
“I didn’t know anything about running a business or things like taxes”, Patrick continues. “I was about 22 at the time and wasn’t even allowed to register my company at the Chamber of Commerce, so my dad had to come along and with a lot of persuasion, I was able to register.”
Getting drunk on Cointreau and €50.000 birds
His catering company became bigger and bigger and Patrick, again by chance, Patrick got into the pub and restaurant business: “I bought Chaplin's Pub with a friend, who met a girl and decided to not be the pub owner. So, I suddenly had a pub and just went from there.”
One of his concepts he wanted to try, was a theater restaurant. “Nobody showed up during the opening night, so we decided to get up on stage, sit there and get drunk with a bottle of Cointreau. But people caught on after a week or so and suddenly we were fully booked for the rest of the year. We also had two cockatoos in the restaurant, which took up a lot more space. After doing the math, the two birds actually cost us €50,000 in revenue. So I sold them.”
Black hole and National Geographic
Business was great for Patrick, but the success came at a cost. “I made the mistake of wanting to do everything on my own, so I worked 16 hour days. That cost me my relationship at the time and it taught me that good management is about setting up a good organization and making yourself dispensible, instead of indispensable.”
Something needed to change: “I decided to sell everything except Chaplin’s and Mofongo. I was always interested in underwater photography and wanted to pursue that dream. However, I didn’t want to spend four years at the Photography Academy, so I contacted one of the best underwater photographers in the Netherlands and said: where are we going? I’ll pay for the trip!” .
Mr. Mofongo’s robotic arm
Some of Patrick’s photos were featured in National Geographic Magazine and he was living the dream, travelling the world. “Until I got called back, because of some problems at Mr. Mofongo: “The building next to it, where we had the kitchen, was owned by the university and repurposed. So I decided to buy another building next to it. At first, I wanted nothing to do with it, but again, one thing led to another, I became involved and saw some really cool possibilities.”
Those possibilities included a retractable roof and a robotic arm for fetching bottles. “Isn’t that a huge investment?” Bart Breij asks. “And is something like that really necessary?” “Sure it is”, Patrick answers. “You need something to distinguish yourself, with so many bars and especially considering it’s not a prime location, even though many people think it is. You need something special to attract people.”
Patrick has also planned something special for Merckt, the building at the Grote Markt that will replace the recently demolished pink building. “The first floor will be a big food market, along with a brewery, where we plan to rent out the tanks to startup craft breweries. We can use the leftover product from the yeasting process, to make bread and sell it at the market, things like that. So it’s kind of a circular concept too.”
Although there’s a similar food market in Rotterdam, according to Patrick, it will be very different: “Their concept is not very good”, he says. “It’s a market with a roof over it. If you involve everyone, make it circular, you get a dynamic and you really create something vibrant. It’s not about the money or selling square feet, it’s about creating real value for everyone.”