Vertrouven Bakkerij – a negotiation/leadership case

bakery Vertrouven Bakkerij was initially a small bakery founded by Andre Vertrouven in 1953 in the Northern part of Belgium. At that time, Andre was making bread and many other sweets and his wife, Celine, was helping in the shop (especially at the end of the day).

Andre always had one motto: “Be passionate in what you do, always cherish the trust of your customers, make them participate in the business”. His bakery was very successful. He was able to hire an assistant, Jo, in 1957 as well as his niece, Laura, as assistant shop keeper (in 1960). Andre had two sons, Jeroen and Fillip, and in order to prepare his succession, Andre opened a branch closer to the capital city: one branch will go to each of his sons. When they took over, his sons continued their father’s work and Vertrouven Bakkerij continued to gain customers at a steady pace. The bakery became more and more popular and people also started to come from the capital city – usually on Sundays – to buy their cookies. These sweet little cookies were indeed the (only) innovation they brought during their years at heads of the bakery. Revenue also came at a steady pace, increasing by a few points every year or two.

To his biggest dismay, Jeroen had no child. The only person in the family who could succeed was Tom, the only son of Fillip. Tom was the first male child not to start studies to become a baker (he did a brilliant M.Sc. thesis in retail trade). Tom had big ideas and even bigger ambitions for the family-owned bakery. He wanted to increase revenue, industrialize at least some parts of the production chain (still mostly manual in 1998), give a modern image while keeping the traditional feeling of the bread produced. He was thinking of diversifying into more products, making alliances with supermarkets for the cookies and opening more branches than 2 for the “traditional bakeries”. Borrowing money and asking for investment capital from outside the fanily was not an issue for him.

Drupal summer school One of his best ideas was started in 2004. During summer 2004 indeed, one “cooking class” started in the original bakery shop. Students would get an introduction about bread and a lengthy speech on the history of Vertrouven Bakkerij. He even brought in his father Fillip and his uncle Jeroen to tell students historical stories about the company. During the same day, students would then learn how to make a simple bread, actually bake it and they could come back home with their bread (for free) and any additional item they would buy in the bakery itself, at the end of the day.

The concept was so successful that Tom expanded the concept to attract companies and not only “women in their 30s-40s bored at home when their kids are at school” (dixit Tom). Tom indeed followed a training on leadership given by a skipper who did a round-the-world trip with inexperienced sailors. Tom thought that people don’t need to have such extreme examples that are, in the end, far from their everyday lives. He always remembered his grand-father, Andre, a hard working man, the founder of the company, the one who put service to his customer before the emergency of bringing his wife to the hospital for the delivery of their first daughter – Tom’s aunt. His grand-father was already working in the bakery at 5AM, everyday of his life. He was also managing a team of a few people. He learned accounting by himself. And he was once honored by the municipality for his positive and trustworthy work in the Community. With all that, Andre Vertrouven could make a perfect figure for leadership and, at the same time, remain close to everyday issues average employees at companies would face.

And this concept worked! On top of individuals, companies signed for these “Leadership and communication at the bakery” courses of one week. The fact it was much cheaper than a similar course with a renowned but retired “captain of the industry” or with a skipper who live from these courses, probably helped. And slowly Tom became less interested in the product lines in his factory, the way his 10 branches decorated shops or partnership with supermarkets. During Easter and summer of 2010, Tom started to organize parallel sessions of the same course at their 2 original branches. These Eater and summer schools lasted until 2012. Tom developed a complex system of dual-classes / split-professorships where students at one branch could meet with students at the other branch, on top of the mix between batches, and where professors had to give classes at both sites during the same week but at different times.

Economic downturn.In 2012 even cheaper price couldn’t help keeping the economic recession at bay. People and companies became less interested in leadership courses. Starting from April 2012, Tom saw intentions to follow summer classes dropping. Tom could arch his back and take a loss on a few sessions. But he definitely wanted to change something.

Between April and June 2012, Tom brainstormed with his staff of potential solutions. July came and a batch of Summer classes started. Tom cherished these students: by putting some more communication efforts (and additional cookies at pauses) they could become better ambassadors and bring more students for future sessions. Although he cherished these students, he never spoke to them about these difficulties. And after three days, Tom decided he will not arch his back – why deprive the company of money? So Tom asked the board to stop all classes that are not at the original, historical location. Right now.

On Wednesday evening, Tom sent Patrick, the Programme Manager, to announce that for the two last days of the course, students will need to join the other students at the other location. Those who don’t want to follow can get their money back and leave. Tom was ok to sacrifice this amount of cash – but that was the only gesture he was ready to make. On the positive side, Patrick also announced that the certificate they would get at the end (if they continue) would have another, better meaning for next years: it would take them at the second level of the assistant baker education (it will however only be applied in 2 years). And, even better, Vertrouven Bakkerij would, at the end of this 5 years plan, have a brand new campus in the capital city, even more classes, a new name and a new logo – because the crisis will be over at that time.

Tom was very surprised when Patrick phoned him on Wednesday night and told him students were not happy with the change. How do they dare? This is the best plan for the bakery! Tom agreed to meet the students at 11AM on Thursday.

Answer the following questions:

  1. Do you see an evolution of the values and principles at Vertrouven Bakkerij?
  2. If you were in Tom’s position, would you have taken the same decisions? If yes, in what mindset and with what proposals (if any) would you come to the meeting on Thursday, 11AM? If you would have taken different decisions, what would you have done?
  3. If you were in the students’ position, would you have had the same reaction? If yes, in what mindset and with what proposals would you come to the meeting on Thursday, 11AM?
  4. Tip: as much as you can, follow what has been thought in class about “integrated, value-enhancing, relationship-building, principled negotiation”.

Note: this is a purely fictional and invented case ; any resemblance to any existing or past events would be – of course – pure coincidence!

Photo credit: bakery by liberalmind1012, on Flickr (license CC-by), Drupal summer school by han Soete, on Flickr (license CC-by-nc-sa) and Economic downturn. by iamdat, on Flickr (license CC-by-nc-sa).

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