Focus on Leadership: John Rietveldt launched I4F with top-level leadership experience and unfettered enthusiasm - May 2020
Interview by Kemp Harr
John Rietveldt, founder and CEO of I4F, rose through the ranks of the business world to become president of Tarkett’s global residential business, following stints at Moulinex, Electrolux and Whirlpool. At Tarkett, he oversaw major growth initiatives, including a large investment in glass reinforced cushioned vinyl, the establishment of joint ventures worldwide and creation of a distribution model throughout the U.S.
After three years at Tarkett, he was recruited by Ideal Standard International to serve as global CEO. Ideal Standard was then part of a conglomerate with three distinct operations: Trane, a manufacturer of heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems; Wabco, a producer of automation systems for heavy duty commercial vehicles; and American Standard Bath & Kitchen, a manufacturer of plumbing fixtures. Ultimately, Rietveldt oversaw the sale of American Standard Bath & Kitchen to Bain Capital which was relaunched as Ideal Standard International. “The incentive plan associated with this transaction gave me the financial basis to invest in building smaller companies,” the entrepreneur recalls.
Rietveldt started I4F, previously known as Innovations4Flooring, in 2013 with the invention of a one-piece drop-lock flooring installation system and has gone on to introduce many additional innovations within the category as well as the patent cluster concept, which gives licensees more options to select patents, or groups of patents, that best meet their most current business needs or create new revenue streams.
This September, Rietveldt will marry Gilliane Palmer.
Q: How did you end up focusing on a career in the flooring market?
A: It was a combination of coincidence, interest and “love.” Of course, my background in flooring, as president of Tarkett’s residential division, led to several ideas for new technologies and, therefore, my return to the flooring market.
When I joined a Dutch investment group in 2009, one of our portfolio companies was, at the time, an innovations company focused on the beverage packaging industry. I discussed with that team the need for a one-piece drop-lock flooring installation system, and shortly therafter, we developed what is now known as 3L TripleLock. With this innovation, I was able to return to the flooring industry, which I always loved the most.
Q: Prior to starting I4F, you spent several years as a corporate leader-first at Whirlpool, then Tarkett and finally at Ideal Standard. What drove you to leave the corporate world and start I4F?
A: I have worked for large corporations for the vast majority of my career, and it had always been my dream to become a CEO of a big multinational. My dream began to take shape when I joined Whirlpool as the youngest managing director and was responsible for its Benelux business. I moved on to become one of Whirlpool’s global officers based out of its European headquarters in Italy. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there because Whirlpool’s ethos matched my personal values, which is to operate with passion, discipline and to never give up!
My dream became reality when I was nominated as CEO of Ideal Standard International after American Standard Bath & Kitchen’s delisting from the New York Stock Exchange. I was suddenly responsible for 18,000 employees and 40 factories across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. This proved to be an invaluable experience, but, if I am truly honest, I can’t say it made me especially happy. They often say it is lonely at the top, and I can confirm that this is the case a lot of the time.
Something was niggling inside me for a new challenge, and I wanted to prove that I could build up businesses myself. I decided to put my international experiences to use by helping the management teams of companies belonging to our investment group’s portfolio become better. I like to coach and help develop people so that they can reach their full potential.
Q: What skill sets from the corporate world do you utilize in your entrepreneurial endeavor?
A: Making things happen in a complex international environment. This comes in many shapes and sizes but begins with the ability to define a long-term strategy with measurable short-term milestones.
Equally important is to identify, attract and build a diverse and highly competent management team, as well as a strong and distinctive brand. This is supported by the creation of robust structures in processes and procedures, clear key performance indicators and the ability to manage cash.
Q: What makes I4F’s drop-lock better than the other floating floor locking systems?
A: It took someone out of the industry to develop an innovative solution that matched a real need in flooring. Our 3L Triple Lock and Click4U systems are much faster to install than angle/angle, snap solutions. Additionally, our systems show superior technical test results versus other fall-down technologies in, for example, vertical and horizontal locking strengths and castor chair tests.
Q: Why did you feel there was room for a third intellectual property (IP) licensing company in the flooring space?
A: During my time at Tarkett, I had interaction and experiences with technology providers and licensors. I believed the time was ripe to revolutionize the IP landscape through open and transparent communication, as well as to establish a platform where others could market their innovations.
The biggest change of all was mindset: showing manufacturers and distributors that they could become partners with us, instead of having the standard supplier-customer relationship. In order to structure this offering, we introduced patent clusters as part of a pick-and-choose menu of patent families.
Q: How have you changed the world of innovation in the flooring business?
A: By focusing on value adding innovations that help the market sell more.
Q: I notice that you picked up talent for I4F from some of your previous corporate jobs. What characteristics do you look for when pulling together a team of winners?
A: In general, I look for “can-do” people. Losers have excuses; winners have a plan!
The team needs to be diverse but should be able to work in harmony. I always say everyone is a soloist in an orchestra. There should also be a good mix of age and experience. Young people try a lot of new things and make mistakes, more mature people have deeper experience but are less likely to experiment in order to avoid mistakes. A mix of both is the best. Finally, everyone needs to be respectful to others, competent in their fields of expertise, hard workers and willing to have some fun!
Q: How did you find Ramphastos Investments to fund the growth of your company?
A: I am also a partner in the fund. The team trusted my opinion and business case. Ramphastos’ major shareholder is an entrepreneur “pure sang” [pureblood]! He also saw the opportunity and stood 100% behind its implementation.
Q: When you are assessing innovative developments, how do you decide which ones offer the most potential for growth?
A: Our team is very close to the market. We brainstorm regularly about trends we see.
Based on that, we evaluate the potential success and possibility to develop meaningful innovations. We also generally validate our opinions by carrying out scaled tests in the market or in an R&D environment.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge you face in your business?
A: To stay ahead of the pack. To be happy but never satisfied. To keep reinventing myself and the business. Complacency is always lurking around the corner!
Q: You smile more than most CEOs. Where did you learn that success is easier when you have a pleasant disposition?
A: With smiling you use fewer muscles, so you become less tired. I had a good role model: my father. He was always smiling and never saw problems, only solutions. He was a good teacher, and he enjoyed life to the max. Unfortunately, he passed away five years ago. He would have been very proud to see what has become of I4F; that would definitely make him smile.
Q: Who do you consider your mentors?
A: I have been privileged throughout my career to have several great mentors, including Edward J.F. Herrelko, former senior vice president of marketing and sales at Whirlpool; Fred Poses, former CEO American Standard; and Marcel Boekhoorn, the main shareholder of Ramphastos Investments. Now I try to be a good one for others.
Q: Why is branding a critical component in business success?
A: It is easy to copy a product; it is very difficult to copy a brand. A brand allows you to build a relationship with the market, to build strong values and a distinctive identity. A brand is the collective impact or lasting impression from all that is seen, heard or experienced by customers.
Q: How do you balance your work life with your personal life?
A: This is, of course, the eternal challenge. There is no right or wrong-more important is that you like what you do. This has a direct influence on your environment. I am always there when my family or friends need me. That is my number one priority.
Q: What advice would you give a 25-year-old professional about the right way to develop a successful career?
A: Go after your dreams. You only live once. Why not give them a try? Throughout your whole life, people will be telling you that achieving your dreams is not possible. If you believe in something, just do it. There is no magic in life. If you want to achieve more, you need to do more and work harder. You will always find others as smart as you, but the person going the extra mile always wins. Be that person and, as I said before, always be happy and never remain satisfied.
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