“I just look for nice companies run by nice guys with a nice idea.“
Frans van Seumeren, Entrepreneur.
From lifting submarines to owning a soccer team, no task is too daunting for lifelong entrepreneur Frans van Seumeren.
Frans van Seumeren has been in business for almost as long as he can remember. The eldest son in a family of 11 children, he began working for his father’s cranes and haulage company, Van Seumeren Kraanbedrijf, at the age of 16.
His father initially pulled him out of school to become a crane driver for the company.
“I thought: ‘OK, I have to help my family to eat,’” says Van Seumeren. “But I have two left hands, so it was not the most successful period of my life!”
After six months, Van Seumeren decided to go back to school, before returning to the family business aged 19. Four years later, he was made CEO of the company, where he remained for 35 years. Later, after taking over its larger competitor, Mammoet, in 2000 — a decision that was to make the company’s fortune — he led the amalgamated company, which continued to trade as Mammoet.
At the time, crane and transport companies tended to do business primarily within their local area. “Understandably so,” acknowledges Van Seumeren. “You always have to travel with your cranes and equipment, and the further you move, the more expensive it is.”
But in taking this attitude, they were missing a trick, he explains: “Often, companies would get in touch to order a crane, but what they really had was a problem with transporting something from one area to another. They’d say: ‘We want this bridge over there.’”
It was then that he saw an opportunity to do things differently. “I offered to make their problem go away for a good price,” he says. “I didn’t care about distances. If a construction company was missing the knowledge or the capacity, we’d open an engineering office to help them.”
Today, most crane and haulage companies offer an engineering service, but, says Van Seumeren, “we were the first.”
The company grew rapidly under the young CEO through investment in branch offices, rather than acquisition. “I was keen to go international right from the start,” says Van Seumeren. “Even though we were a small company, I went to France and Germany and established offices.” This gave him access to a much broader customer base, which, in turn, drove the company to expand.
It was in 2001, however, that the company gained international fame. When a Russian nuclear submarine, the Kursk, became stuck at the bottom of the Barents Sea, Van Seumeren’s company — thanks to its impressive set of references and sound knowledge of Russian culture — was called upon to try to raise it from the deep. The ensuing success earned Frans and his brother Jan medals of honor from Vladimir Putin.
Despite having stepped down in 2005 at the age of 55 — giving his younger brother Roderik and two nephews the reins at Mammoet — Van Seumeren’s career in business is far from over. In 2006, after a well-deserved career break that involved, among other things, a 6,000km hike through Greece, France and Italy, the family decided to sell 75% of its shares in Mammoet to a large Dutch company called SHV.
Van Seumeren is now using the proceeds from the sale to invest in new ventures and is optimistic about his chances of success. “You have to innovate,” he says. “In our case, that means looking into offshore, heavy transport — anything to do with water, where we still have a lot of knowledge that we can use to make money. In Europe, especially, we need to use our knowledge to stay ahead of our Asian competitors.”
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