The courage to let go
“Most of us don’t learn how to fall; we learn how not to fall. And that’s a shame.” Ben Decock knows all too well what it’s like to let go of all certainties, start from scratch and reinvent yourself. After 20 years in the market research sector and having reinvented his company no fewer than three times, he’d had it. He sold his business without any plans as to what to do next. All he knew was that his next venture wouldn’t be in the service industry. And just when he was beginning to think he wouldn’t find anything, he was offered the chance to take over Camp’s Preserves, a successful but somewhat sleepy family business producing English pickles, mustard and preserves. It proved to be just the change he was after.
Back in 1988 Ben graduated as a theoretical psychologist from Leuven University and decided to do a Masters in General Management at Vlerick, in Ghent. “In hindsight, that’s where I really learned to deal with change. Everything was different — the location, the subjects and classes, the teaching method... I discovered that a business plan, while essential, isn’t cast in stone and I was taught how to use it flexibly to deal with unforeseen circumstances. I also learned to let go of perfectionism when working under pressure to strict deadlines. The many case studies where you had to make decisions, sometimes based on incomplete information, really prepared me for life as an entrepreneur. Taking over a company isn’t unlike solving a case study, only for real. The year at Vlerick really boosts your confidence, so that it’s easier to try new things, to dare to take the plunge.” He smiles and adds: “And then there’s the alumni network. My classmates have been my biggest supporters, always encouraging me in the changes I’ve chosen to make.”
Too big to change?
Ben points out the fundamental tension that exists between management theories and the need for change. These theories focus on risk management and control, on establishing routines to make things predictable. “Oh, I can see the advantages. I just feel more drawn to enabling change,” he smiles apologetically. “One of my long-standing customers who uses our pickles as a basis for his products had noticed that this year’s cauliflower chunks were slightly harder than usual. It’s important for him to get the texture just right. We found a solution by adapting the recipe for his batches. This flexibility is what sets us apart from bigger competitors. For large companies, every specific customer request is an anomaly, disrupting a carefully fine-tuned production process. But, in the long run, flexibility and openness to change are vital for large businesses too.”
Too tempting to taste
Today van Camp’s — as the company is now called — is just a small business employing five people. But companies in the food industry are under a lot of pressure to grow, as Ben explains: “You need critical mass to afford the costs of complying with EU food hygiene regulations and food safety standards. The big challenge is to grow without losing your flexibility to change when needed.”
Van Camp’s is currently operating from a beautiful old building full of character, where meeting the hygiene standards takes a lot of effort. Not without reason do so many food factories look the same, with epoxy floors and easy-to-clean white wall cladding. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t question the need for hygiene at all. But I also realise such a sterile environment would have an impact on the working atmosphere.” So, while Ben is all for change for the better, there’s one thing he wants to preserve at all costs: “Whenever our pickles are cooling, I have to keep myself from tasting them. And that must never change!”
Don’t be afraid of deadlock
As a psychologist Ben knows better than anyone: resistance to change is natural. “The point is to recognise and acknowledge the urge to leave things as they are. If you’re trained to devise systems and tools to maintain control, you risk losing the skills to deal with change. You have to learn to trust your ability to improvise when you’ve lost all your certainties. It’s important to acquire the skills to dare to let go, trusting in your ability to break the deadlock. It’s equally important that society accepts that there’s a chance you won’t.”
As an entrepreneur Ben’s more of a starter than a manager. “Time really flies when I’m working on something new. It’s incredibly invigorating and satisfying to see things pan out the way you planned. I’m not one to manage and optimise a smooth-running going concern. Luckily, van Camp’s still has enough challenges to keep me on my toes for the next couple of years!”