Ecotap, based in Boxtel, has embarked on a conquest to convert the world to solar-powered charging stations. Supported by employees with a disability. Social involvement goes hand-in-hand with excellent results. What is their secret?
Why on earth would an ambitious manufacturer of charging stations employ people with a disability? As part of a grand plan to conquer the world of course! The highly diverse team at Ecotap has achieved a leading position in Europe in just a few years. With innovative new tech products such as eco-friendly solar-powered charging stations, made from renewable materials. CEO Kees van Bergen proudly calls his people ‘ambitious misfits’. So what is the secret behind Ecotap?
Frank and open communication is the first thing you notice on the work floor at Ecotap. People seek each other out in large communal work areas and matter-of-factly tackle the task of buttering their sandwiches together at gigantic lunch tables. The same straightforwardness characterises the company’s culture; no inarticulate mumbling and complaining can be heard anywhere in this facility in Boxtel. But you do hear the accents, down-to-earthness, modesty and dry humour that are so typical of Brabant. A dynamic, innovative and very successful company. Employing more than 60 people, most of whom were unable to find employment previously. How has Ecotap achieved this?
Kees van Bergen and his wife and two daughters seemed to lead a charmed life. His company in car cleaning products flourished. Good health was taken for granted. Until somebody Kees loved dearly became chronically ill. An existential dilemma for Kees. “The powerlessness that I felt at that moment was something completely new.” Even so, the shadow that darkened his life taught him a valuable lesson. “My horizons broadened and I became acutely conscious of what was important in life. Making money was no longer my motivation. I sold my business and stopped working.” However love alone could not support the family forever. So Kees started to sell Saabs, a venture that lasted 10 years.
One of his daughters shook him awake: ‘Dad, what legacy do you want to leave behind?’ “Her casual question struck a chord. “Looking back on my life, I realised that I belonged to a generation that did not care about the environment. I had a lot to make up for. I wanted to do something with eco-friendly mobility.” From that time on, fate seemed to play a helping hand in achieving that ambition. Saab went bankrupt so Kees looked for a new opportunity. Shortly afterwards, Peter, a university-educated engineer and one of his former Saab customers, got in touch. He asked whether Kees would help him with his plan for developing a charging station for electric bicycles.
“That was exactly what I was looking for. He would look after the engineering side of things and I would handle marketing. Everything fell into place - a bizarre and serendipitous chain of chance events. I am probably the least devout man on Earth, but this mission seemed to be predestined. That is how Ecotap was born.” The door to his office opens at this point. Peter walks in. “There he is, the cause of all our problems!”, Kees says jokingly. Another example of mysterious synchronicity perhaps?
The first charging station was simplicity itself. A steel post with a power socket connected to the mains electricity supply. For electric bicycles initially. This bare-bones charging station got off to a flying start, successfully proving the concept. But Kees and Peter were bursting with visionary ideas that would have an even greater environmental impact: green electricity was their new dream. “The idea of a solar-powered charging station for electric bicycles, scooters and mobility scooters was revolutionary. Peter thought that it was technically impossible. But my lack of technical knowledge was a blessing in disguise. I refused to accept any limitations and continued to believe in it unconditionally. Eventually, Peter came on board and bent the laws of physics in a true stroke of genius.”
This powerful partnership between a visionary and an engineer has helped Ecotap flourish through high tech innovation. Kees shows us a promotional video. A pretty young blonde effortlessly connects the battery of her electric bicycle to a green post carrying a solar panel. “My daughter”, says Kees with a chuckle. In the video, she tells us that the charging station recharges the bicycle battery in just one hour and has enough power available for 18 bicycles a day. The charging station works anywhere - in the middle of the jungle if necessary - requires no maintenance and is even vandal-proof. Furthermore, you can recharge your telephone or tablet via a USB cable. Schools and municipalities are avid customers, both in Europe and on faraway continents. Kees: “We don’t do much in the way of publicity - our products sell themselves. People come here to Boxtel from all over the world to look at our pioneering innovations.”
Ecotap expanded at lightning speed from day one so there was a constant need for new talent. On the face of it, the company seemed a perfect workplace for successful technicians. Kees had other ideas though. CVs that perfectly matched the vacancies ended up in the waste-paper bin. In fact, he consciously selected people who were unable to find work elsewhere. He affectionately calls them ‘ambitious misfits’.
“Ambitious misfits don’t want to vegetate at home, they want to stand out by using their talents.” Why did he make this unusual choice? His inspiration was somebody close to him who was afflicted by a chronic illness. “A very talented and ambitious woman. She desperately wanted to put her skills and energy to good use in a normal job. But she was rejected time after time because of her disability.” He is visibly angry. “The way we treat people who have some form of disability here in the Netherlands is heart-breaking.” Kees drew his own conclusions. “From that time on, I only wanted to employ people with a disability. What right do I have to tell an autistic person that he or she is not good enough? Why should somebody not be given a new chance after a burnout? Why should somebody who suffers from depression be written off? Why is somebody over 60 too old?” Kees offered them all a job.
Surely this is asking for trouble if you are an ambitious employer? Not so, says Kees. In fact, he could hardly wish for more motivated staff. “At Ecotap, we don’t look at what people cannot do. We let people excel in the things they are good at. We give the people here opportunities that nobody else was prepared to give them. They regain their self-esteem and you see them grow and flourish more and more every day. I have the most passionate, loyal and talented employees imaginable. Our excellent business performance is a reflection of their boundless commitment.” He takes a moment to dwell on a number of success stories. Employees who were once condemned to the shadowy fringes of society, but who now impress everybody with their qualities. All of them, without exception, are examples of a personal transformation. Ecotap proves that positive attention does wonders.
However, Ecotap is anything but a sheltered workplace. Profit is important here. Kees does not mollycoddle his employees. The idealist and businessman in him exist alongside each other in perfect harmony. “We are a normal commercial company that has to make a profit and stand up to all the pressures of work that that involves. Furthermore, each and every employee deserves to be treated and held accountable in line with his or her abilities. If somebody is considered to be only capable of 40% of a normal worker's productivity and pushes himself/herself to the absolute limit, he or she is a hero in my eyes. But if that same person only delivers 30%, he or she can expect to fall out with me. There is a period of mutual probing each time a new employee joins the company. Our mentors try to identify each individual’s abilities and weaknesses as accurately as possible. And, as you would expect, things go wrong sometimes. But that is allowed here. Social involvement is important to us, but we combine it with the down-to-earth practicality that is so typical of Brabant. Welcome to the real world!”
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