Pauwels Consulting duplicates its Belgian success story in the Netherlands with the acquisition of 4People with 200 engineering, construction, infrastructure and environment specialists.
Pauwels Consulting is doing extremely well in the Dutch market. In the slipstream of the previous acquisition of Science@Work, it is already taking the next step. Managing Director Bert Pauwels, who established the group 23 years ago, has always been clear about the ambitions of his project sourcing model. What once started with secondments for IT projects has now expanded into a prominent market share in engineering and life sciences in Belgium. With 4People on board, Pauwels Consulting is now also serving the Dutch market in the same way.
We spoke to Bert Pauwels and Ronald Ter Beek (4People founder), Joost Hordijk (4People Head of Sales & Strategy) and Stef van den Broek (4People General Manager). The venue immediately set the tone: Expo A16 Rotterdam, an experience centre on a new major road in Rotterdam. It is a mega project to which 4People is making a real difference.
Ronald, why did you start 4People 21 years ago?
I came of age in the business world as a consultant at Brunel. After eight years and an IPO, I established 4People in 2001. Initially we focused on IT project sourcing, but that wasn’t really our thing, so we stopped that. I felt we could make a far bigger contribution in civil engineering. That’s where we could really make a difference. We set up in Deventer in the middle of the Netherlands. From there we went to Hengelo. We continued to expand our activities with branches in Groningen, Den Bosch, Rotterdam and Utrecht and more than 200 employees.
You’ve had 21 years of growth. What sets 4People apart from the rest?
Without a doubt, it’s the human side of things. People is in our company name for good reason. I saw a lot of good things during my training, but what I missed is having people as the central focus. They are still the success factor. We’re a business, of course, but we grow by building things around and with people. They make or break everything.
4People is a coveted business, so why did you choose Pauwels Consulting?
You’re right: there was a great deal of interest. Our top five included a few strategic players and some financials. In the end, we chose a strategic partner. We really appreciated that Bert Pauwels showed a genuine interest in the company itself. In the people themselves. And he has a whole group behind him that will help 4People thrive even more in the future.
Stef, you were in the cockpit of this acquisition together with Joost. What’s your take on this?
Now we can keep thinking bigger and bigger. The company is already at a great place, and there’s far more to come. The collaboration with Pauwels as a strategic partner can only accelerate this. And importantly, our content, core values and culture are very well aligned.
Can you describe 4People’s DNA for us?
We truly reflect the Dutch eagerness to do business. We’ve always been very inventive, especially now that our civil engineering projects need to enter into a dialogue with urbanisation and nature. We’ve been at the forefront of technology with the support of clusters such as Brainport Eindhoven and the Rotterdam area. The place we are now, Expo A16 Rotterdam, is a testimonial of what our team is marketing in the technical field. Tunnelling, bridge construction and engineering: they all come together here. Of course, we’re facing considerable challenges, but we achieve great solutions on a daily basis together with the customers.
Joost, how do you see this?
We speak the language of technology. For this A16 project, we deliver people in positions that others may only experience once in their lives. Contracts like these are full of special technology you need to have expertise in. We make choices according to feasibility and profit in projects of this size very early on. Our teams are put together even before the award process, which often makes us the first and only one who gets to deliver. Our reputation and profits are earned outside, with our feet in the mud.
Bert Pauwels, if we include 3d Investors, this is the 12th (!) acquisition in seven years. What attracted you to 4People?
We clicked straight away, not just business-wise but on a personal level as well. You can have the best people, the best technical concepts and the right vision, but having the right relationship is very important as well. 4People’s story so far was perfect for us. Our Dutch organisation was particularly strong in IT, whereas in Belgium we offer IT, engineering and life sciences. This was our chance to expand the organisation in a similar way in the Netherlands. We had already developed our life sciences in the Netherlands with the acquisition of Science@Work. In terms of engineering, we’d also been working with Bruggenbouwers already, but now it was time for a significant expansion. Both countries are now at the same high level in all three industries thanks to what I can only describe as a match made in heaven.
What’s going to change for 4People’s employees and customers?
What is definitely a positive signal to the market and employees is that many people from the current management are joining the new capital structure. This shows 4People’s belief in the company’s further growth. That’s also how we jointly approach the people and the market. I’m really looking forward to presenting the Belgian organisation and letting people discover how much overlap there is in culture, management style and job content. Pauwels Consulting tackles every new tailor-made collaboration with great respect for everyone involved. We have our story, but 4People has also developed a unique DNA as established by Ronald. We’re here now because 4People do many things well, just like us. Now we can learn best practices from each other to accelerate growth. In the long run, we’ll see a healthy culture we create together.
Stef, as Managing Director, what challenges do you see approaching in your industry?
This acquisition process focused on two questions: who is from a cultural perspective the best party for us as a company and how are we going to do business together? Sometimes you have to look at that separately from the numbers. Of course, as our new partner, Pauwels Consulting can support our acceleration, but the way we do this is just as important. Bert has made a huge difference from the first meeting. We spoke to other people who literally had no idea what we were actually doing and then just pushed out a bid. Bert has both vision and respect for who we are and what we stand for.
And where do you see the next challenges in your sector?
The war for talent, which will also affect our internal organisation. Fortunately, we’re ever more successful at retaining the right people. This is because we are very clear and specific about our culture and core values. Unlike our competitors, we are much less transactional in our business. We make a difference in job content. Talented people are obviously recognising this when they make their next move in their careers. We also notice this in job interviews. We often hear that starting to work with us is a refreshing experience for many people. Of course, we present a critical front – there has to be a good match – but cultivating the experience afterwards is the real win for our employees. And of course, the key to growth is our internal organisation and the connection with extremely loyal customers. Their commitment only contributes to our joint growth. And it doesn’t stop at the front. Ambitions need to blend. Bert has taught me how much Pauwels Consulting is committed to the continued training of employees’ hard and soft skills. I was happy to hear that there is a wide range of learning and development, coaches and talent managers on hand. In my opinion, we can always learn from a model like that.
Joost, how do you experience this war for talent from a commercial perspective?
Success is a choice. Of course, you are dependent on economic factors, but we are in an essential position in the market. Our people are in places that are crucial both in engineering and construction. The biggest challenge is not to find people, but to find people who understand and can convey the vision of 4People and Pauwels Consulting and who can implement the acceleration we want. We expect a lot more from our people than a normal secondment agency, but when we share our plans, you can really feel the urge to achieve them together. As Stef said, applicants experience us differently: personal contact and content go hand in hand here. Both our consultants and our customers endorse this.
Back to the man who was right there at the very beginning: what will be the next challenge for founder Ronald Ter Beek?
In any case, I felt the need to distance myself a little after 22 years. That’s why I had already attracted Stef as CEO. However, I did notice that I couldn’t distance myself mentally like I’d wanted to. It goes against my nature, I suppose. You always stay involved and people don’t call you for all the fun things. They tend to call you if there are problems (laughs). They stay with me and it was difficult to let go. So, then I thought: why not make my long-term plan happen a little sooner, knowing that I have a top team ready? What I’m not going to do is sit still. I adore Italy, so I’ll do things there. What I don’t know yet – I’m sure I’ll stumble upon something. I don’t worry about that.
Bert, how do you see the management team?
When Stef presented his vision as managing director for the first time, I felt the business undercurrent as well as his insistence to always include the employees of 4People in the story. Success may be a choice, as Joost just put it so nicely, but I really feel that the entire organisation is making that choice. That only works if everyone has a well-developed sense of empathy, and for that alone I have the greatest respect. That’s why we literally started moving forward after just a few weeks to the point where we are now. Of course, 4People are the best in their job; that’s not based on ego, but on pride in proven merits. Joost talks about the market with unprecedented depth. He knows exactly what his customers are doing. The fact that he has a very broad technical knowledge certainly helps, but what also keeps emerging is this empathy for the customer. The fact that Ronald has given his trust to this top team seems logical from a distance, but of course you need that talent to take the company to a higher level. Ronald’s focus on people always went much further than what is suggested by the company name 4People. After all, companies are made by people, but also for people, and at 4People you see very clearly how the team is built on that.
Nice words for your team, Stef.
Thank you, and I agree with Bert. Besides ratio, a person has feelings, and I had a good feeling about Bert from the very beginning. You can clearly sense this in all our interactions. We were soon talking about content, constructive questions and, above all, Bert’s enthusiasm to make Pauwels Consulting an even greater success. And we are part of that.
Bert has a habit of challenging his partners in sports.
Ronald: Absolutely not. I enjoy riding my rally motorbike in the desert or having a nice glass of Italian wine, particularly the latter. But Joost, Stef and Bert are always welcome, because of course I want to find out how the 4People and Pauwels Consulting story continues!