JTH Group CEO Eric van der Hoeven is relishing the challenge of a new sector
The temptation for any incoming leader is to make a splash with immediate moves to restructure and impress. But when Eric van der Hoeven switched to the IT field following his appointment as chief executive of JTH Group – a member of the Jardine Matheson Group – in 2014, he had to take the opposite approach. He knew that change was needed to realign the business and prepare for a host of impending challenges, but for the first few months, his priority was simply to observe, question and absorb.
“I knew we had some issues,” van der Hoeven says. “But my background was in the hotel business, so coming into an IT organisation effectively meant starting from scratch with a blank piece of paper. At first, I spent a lot of time mainly listening to customers, employees and other stakeholders to understand the industry’s major drivers and our day-to-day operations. After a while, I was very clear on what we had to do.”
In essence, that was to split the business in two, creating JOS, a systems integrator and consultancy, and Innovix Distribution, a technology distributor. Whatever the previous advantages, it no longer made sense to have distinct lines of business under one roof with one management structure. The answer was to have different teams and separate brand names, allowing each to focus and expand without being tied at the hip.
It was also important to evolve from a structure based on geography to one based on areas of expertise. And, of course, it was imperative to ensure each entity’s staff had the foresight and support to capitalise on the shift towards cloud computing and future waves of innovation.
“Not everybody agreed with my views on where the business should go,” van der Hoeven says. “A number sat on the fence initially and some voted with their feet. But I believed the strategy was sound, bringing greater clarity and a focus on new-generation infrastructure and systems. Our customers tell us it is big step forward and definitely the right direction to take.”
It is also quite a departure from his original hopes and ambitions. Growing up in the Netherlands, where his father was a civil servant, van der Hoeven wanted to be a chef and have his own restaurant. A first part-time job as a dishwasher had introduced him to the noise and non-stop action of a kitchen, and that led to a degree in hotel management at Tilburg – and an unexpected turn of events.
“I just loved the hospitality industry, but after three years’ training a back injury meant I wasn’t allowed to work in the kitchen,” he says. “So the hotel where I was doing my practical year put me in the accounting department, where I didn’t want to be. In hindsight, though, it was lucky because I started to enjoy the work and was then offered an apprenticeship in finance with the Intercontinental Hotel Group.”
He was soon in charge of cost control for stores, wine cellars and banquet requisitioning at a group property in Amsterdam. A subsequent spell as night auditor for the reception desk was not only a step up, but also a chance to catch up on studies for a BA in business and economics.
Always keen to see more of the world, he and his wife jumped at the offer of a move to London in 1984. It was a time of high occupancy rates and free-spending Japanese tourists, which also made it a good place to get noticed. Around three years on, when the finance function at the group’s Mayfair hotel ran into difficulties, he was called in as a trouble shooter to clear things up.
Success there caught the eye of Mandarin Oriental, who were looking for a financial controller in Jakarta, and the move there in 1989 somehow seemed destined. “My grandfather used to sail to the East Indies as a ship’s engineer and we had heard all his stories about Indonesia and its appeal. For me, though, the challenge was change management and processes, getting a 450-room hotel with 900 staff to go from manual operations to using computers. But performance improved dramatically, making it possible to start paying dividends and, ultimately, paving the way to a head office job in Hong Kong in 1999.”
Before getting there, though, he detoured to Berlin to work for a privately-held Thai company acquiring and renovating hotels in eastern Germany. With support from a banking syndicate, it was all going well until the Asian financial crisis hit in the late 1990s, at which point the Thais had other priorities. However, tapped once again by Mandarin Oriental, he soon found himself part of another expansion drive, conducting due diligence for new properties in Europe and America, before deciding – in career terms – that he had “done” hotels.
“I’m inquisitive and want to keep learning, so when I know my territory, I get a little bit bored,” he says. “But life is full of moments where you have to be in the right place at the right time, and I have certainly been lucky.”
That fortune saw him become Jardine Matheson’s head of internal audit and risk management for five years and then, marking a sharp change of direction, chief executive of Jardine Shipping Services.
“I came in from the cold, not knowing the insides of the business, but taking a clinical view of the industry,” he says. “If the model is not working, there have to be changes.”
Eric van der Hoeven’s advice for IT starters
Be flexible “In this industry, things change all the time, so if you want a nine-to-five job doing the same thing every day, this isn’t for you.”
Get creative “Technology and digitalisation are all about innovation and thinking outside the box. So we look for people with the mindset and intuition to help us deliver that to customers.”
Take a chance “Working in IT is not just about programming. In fact, we recruit salespeople with no technical background who go on to have very successful careers.”
Inspire change “For the sector at large, so many organisations now have innovation initiatives to develop digital business that there are huge opportunities for today’s young graduates.”
Start early “Since 2015, we have run the JOS Innovation Awards, inspiring teams of school and university students to solve real-world problems in five areas: smart transportation, future hospitality, connected retail, green living and healthcare innovation.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Changing the terrain.