In 2012, I was introduced to @NRF in Mill to discuss a development program for high potentials. The intake with the HR team and at that time Sales Director Frank Toebes, became a vibrant discussion. The meeting ended with a wink and the proposal was the start of an exciting journey. Ever since there hasn’t been a year without new impulses, feedback loops and learnings that both fuelled experience and enthusiasm. A vital and virtuous cycle that takes leadership.  

NRF is an International company operating in the market of engine cooling and air conditioning. Both in manufacturing and trading for industrial and automotive aftermarket. Having and aiming at dominant positions in industrial niche markets (maritime, rail) they invest in engineering and commercial competencies. And after expanding in Eastern Europe from Poland, one of the(ir) Top 6 European markets they grew fast to tip €100 million. Unlike the Dutch company name, their set up is very international. Germans lead the Industrial business, Spain has become the heart of Engineering and Gdansk now is their aftermarket headquarters. With an approximate 10% market share they are 2nd in the market of specialized companies. System suppliers are larger, yet often less strong in the segments NRF is operating in. NRF strives to be the number 1 thermal specialist in the European aftermarket.

When you say automotive you think of status and disruption. The time of catalogs with an annual reprint lies way behind us. Electric cars, connected cars, car sharing, autonomous driving etc are impacting the portfolio, product replacement cycle, intensity of usage etc. NRF made a clever move to transcend product level and strengthen their core competencies on supply chain management and category management. Thus being able to provide their customers a guaranteed and hassle-free improvement of their top and bottom line. In other words; narrow (in segments) and deep (in portfolio and big data).


(Chain of excellence: from Disney – World Class Benchmarking)

Sustainable growth goes way beyond transactional relationships. You need to build a reputation that leads to loyal connections. Customers that don’t switch to a competitor for an extra discount but promote you for the meaningful impact you have on their business. Certainly in a market that is consolidating.

Building these connections requires the same approach internally. NRF invests in these connections with its employees. Be it in training or coaching in new challenges. If you show ambition you will get the opportunities to create your own role. Yet also the obligation to deliver. Actually; all the participants of our first development program became change agents. And even the fact that most of them left NRF is a sign of mature development. Certainly knowing that they became impactful and successful again in their new jobs. The benefit of investment in people lie in the dynamics you create for the whole organisation; aspiration.

In fact, we applied that learning to the new set up of management development. To enable a movement instead of an institute we started ‘the Network’. Participants flow in and out which creates a vibe. You don’t just participate but contribute to learning. Even or probably thanks to the COVID-19 lockdown we ‘virtualized’ these dynamics. The Network is an example of informal learning. The heartbeat of the program is a series of projects that contribute to the so called Must Win Battles. Every second week one project is evaluated in the MT. And the other bi-weekly sequence is training or other learning impulses from business experts. In the future, we will restart our Network Events where MT business reviews are merged with Network initiatives in live, 3 day sessions. Until that opportunity arises again, we have virtual events, 1 week long, ½ days sessions.

It takes leaders to make change. Every employee can show personal leadership. Show vitality to adapt to change. But the environment is created by formal leaders. When asking Frank Toebes what leadership style he favours for NRF, he referred to ‘action logic’. Of course leaders need to understand situational leadership, Covey’s habits (please: all 8 of them) transformational approach etc. But the essence is adaptability.

So, it’s the reality check that survival requires vitality, sensing and shaping the style to retain momentum. And to understand that you need diversity; also in leadership. Frank’s intend is to strengthen a Strategist action logic, knowing that in the past he was more an Individualist. It shows both self-reflection and awareness of the facilitating role that you have as a CEO. An element that underlines this action logic is flair. He gives room to initiative and demands you to take charge. For most of the young employees it’s intimidating at the start. But eventually they get the confirmation that they can make a difference. When asking Frank what it takes from him to coach employees he said; ‘a high level of commitment’. It means parking your car a block from home and spend an extra half an hour on the phone with someone. And it’s rewarding. Looking back on 8 years working with NRF it’s not a handful of talents that flourished, it’s a long list of highly engaged people.

There is more to come. Growth is a choice and best build on a strong platform. Their core competencies enable leveraging the market coverage and customer impact by stretching the portfolio. Adding a new category that is in line with existing technology and fits well in new demands, like electrification. Thus increasing efficiency and certainty for their customers and being able to service a significant share of their business. NRF strives for a single source position of at least 5% which reduces complexity for their customers. Next to that it creates a strong base to enter new markets. With the certainty of a strong blueprint you are able to adapt quickly to a different setting without diluting the commercial principles. But growth also requires disinvesting; their US activities will be stopped. Pruning encourages growth and therefore these decisions will strengthen the balance sheet.

It also enables NRF to be more appealing to existing and new employees. Sustainable growth requires a sound compass; a purposeful perspective. Certainly young people need a more holistic arena to work in. “Show me the money” is a line in old movies. “Show me your meaning” is the mantra for now. Building meaningful connections leads to interesting business results. That’s the reward of, not the reason for employee and customer experience. Organisationvitality starts with spirit (purpose), asks for strength (competencies) and demands energy (Culture).

#organisationvitality #engagedemployees #NRF