The CEO and communications director: Tom van Aken and Caroline van Reedt of scale-up Avantium on communicating as a pioneer and thoughtleader

Astrid Prummel 05 March 2020
Interview Leadership

CEO Tom van Aken and Director Communications Caroline van Reedt Dortland both traded their secure jobs at an established multinational for a pioneering role at Dutch company Avantium. They had the same reason: They wanted to be able to talk as enthusiastically about their work as the men and women they met at the chemical technology company. Part 2 in a series of interviews with executives and their communications directors.

Tom van Aken
started at Avantium 16 years earlier than Caroline de Reedt Dortland, but they both felt attracted to the company for the same reasons. Tom came from DSM and became Vice President of Business Development at the then start-up. He later laughed about that title in an interview, “Sounds important, but it was a company where everyone had a fancy title, we joked that the receptionist was also a VP. So that hadn’t been his concern. And at DSM, things were going very well, but the doubt had begun to gnaw. ‘It was too big and impersonal for me, I got the feeling that it didn’t matter what I did.’
Three years later, he became CEO and turned the tables on the firm belief that the future of the chemical industry lies in green chemistry. Avantium became a pioneer in the emerging industry of renewable and sustainable chemistry. Avantium’s mission statement reads, catchily summarized: ‘We believe in a fossil-free world. Let’s go!’

Caroline van Reedt Dortland
worked for many years at Delta Lloyd, where she rose to Director of Corporate Communications & Investor Relations. Over the years, it had begun to gnaw at her, too. ‘In the financial sector, people are constantly defending themselves to justify the work they do. I didn’t always manage to do that anymore and that’s extra difficult when you’re responsible for communication.’ She wanted to work at an innovative company with a positive impact on the world and found it interesting that Avantium, with just over 200 people, was a lot smaller than the large Delta Lloyd.
Like Tom, Caroline did not know Avantium when she first started talking to it. ‘They had a website with a lot of information but I didn’t understand any of it: what is this about, I thought. I purposely came too early for the first interview and sat down on a bench to taste the atmosphere and feel: what kind of club is this. I was actually sold immediately. It is literally a very open company, everyone supports the goal of Avantium, everyone really wants to go for it. Everyone also has to contribute, it’s that small, and that’s nice. That was different in the financial sector: there you had people who had been working there for 40 years and were actually biding their time.’

Tom, what type were you looking for, what did the Director Communications need to meet?
Tom: “The appointment of Caroline was an important step for us. We did have someone sitting in for marketing communications before that and after Avantium’s IPO in 2017 we hired external parties for PR and investor relations. Actually, we needed a communications director even then. We have always had a high teddy bear nature, which is very nice, but it was really time to take our communications to the next level. It needed to be more professional and proactive. When you’re publicly traded you get a lot more attention from the press and instead of waiting for questions to come up, it’s better to take charge yourself, execute your own plan. We were looking for someone with an understanding of the financial markets and a passion for sustainability. The third point, no less important: it had to be someone who is not afraid of complex content. Because at Avantium you are inundated with chemical information that is not easy to decipher.’

Caroline: ‘There are many bright minds working here and everyone wants to tell their own story and preferably tell it very precisely. To simplify complicated information you sometimes leave things out and that is a challenge here.’

Did it take some getting used to, going from a financial corporate to a biotech scale-up?
Tom to Caroline: “There was no question of getting used to it in my opinion, on your first day you were thrown full into the deep end!
Caroline: ‘The day before that! On Friday, I received a text message from then-CFO Frank Roerink asking if I could start as early as Sunday. That Monday morning, October 15, 2018, an important press release had to go out the door: the announcement that Avantium had a dispute with German chemical group BASF. It was about the future of the joint joint venture Synvina. BASF and Avantium were working together in Synvina on a promising technology for developing bio-based plastic PEF, a plant-based and circular alternative to PET (known from bottles).’

Tom: ‘We sat together late into the evening at Avantium working on that press release. It was a baptism of fire in extremis that you passed with flying colors.’
Caroline: “It was also a blessing in disguise, because you are immediately engaged in the heat of the moment. Avantium is now building a plant that will produce large-scale FDCA for PEF packaging. Carlsberg, Coca-Cola, Danone and Nestlé, among others, have joined Avantium as partners.

After 20 years, why is Avantium still called a scale-up?
Tom: “In the chemical industry you have to be patient and Avantium has changed. Before 2005, it was primarily an R&D company focused on providing services to the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. When I became CEO, we decided to become a real technology company in green chemistry. In 2011, we opened the first pilot plant and now we are ready to build that really big plant. We are bringing an entirely new plastic material to the market, which is special because it rarely happens. The major plastics were all developed 50 to 60 years ago. The fact that there are 200 of us working on this gives a special feeling. It takes a long time, though, and it is capital intensive. That’s a tricky combination.

‘We have the zeitgeist with us and Caroline is able to navigate that well on the communications side: the circular economy and climate are trending topics. What we do is very tangible compared to the financial world Caroline comes from. Here it’s about plastic bottles, about foils on television, about practical issues.

‘I gave a guest lecture at Utrecht University last week to 70 students who all had a bottle of water in front of them: either a Dopper or a plastic bottle. You can immediately start the conversation about that, which is very nice – it comes very close for everyone.

What is it like to work in a small team?
Caroline: “Very nice, as I had hoped. At Delta Lloyd I had a team of 22 people and everything was pico bello. That is still not 100 percent the case here, because there are two of us and we do a lot manually what was automated at Delta Lloyd. My work here is very broad, international and focused on different stakeholders and audiences. It ranges from maintaining media relations to building a website, from internal and labor market communications, to investor relations and PR. I also like the combination of one moment thinking strategically and having conversations with the management team or the supervisory board about where we need to go and the next moment hands-on sending out a tweet. We are developing a social intranet and I am now working with colleagues to prepare the annual results and annual report. Because we are still in the scale-up phase, we have to think carefully about where we spend our budgets and how we do things. That makes you much more creative and because everyone in the company is so into it, it creates a bond.

Can you give an example?
Caroline: ‘We organized a day for private investors in our own premises for the first time last week. There are not many listed companies in the Netherlands that do that and certainly not the way we did it, in the large room that is in open communication with the upper floor where colleagues were working. It was very nice to do it here. Colleagues were also willing to help, standing around making coffee. We do a lot by ourselves and together. It may sound a bit coddling but in the end we put on a strong event that was very well appreciated.’

What challenges does Avantium face in terms of communication?
Tom: ‘Our partners, shareholders and employees are Avantium’s stakeholders. We want to position Avantium as a company that attracts very good people. What we do appeals enormously to the imagination and we want to convey that to the labor market. The parties that invest in us want to understand where their investments are going, how big the markets we focus on are and how fast the developments are going. That’s the nice thing about communication here: our target groups are very different and require specifically different approaches. We want to move a bit away from the cuddly bear aspect and more towards an image of a respected and commercial company.’

Caroline: “The cuddly bear aspect will go away when we have our first commercial chemical plant up and running. We are making that turn now. We are getting more questions and are increasingly coming out as a thought leader. Gert-Jan Gruter, our Chief Technology Officer and associate professor of Industrial Sustainable Chemistry at the UvA, is a sought-after speaker, as is Tom. In the past year we issued 28 press releases: about as many as Avantium sent out in the previous four years. We are increasingly in the spotlight and we have more, including price-sensitive, information to bring out.’

Do you have discussions, disagreements?
Caroline: “No, well conversations.
Tom: ‘We get along well, each other is listened to carefully. I am not a communications expert so if Caroline can explain to me why she thinks something should be done differently than I had in my head, I trust that. In many publicly traded companies, things happen a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always done it. I hate that kind of argument. Caroline laughs, “Fortunately, I wouldn’t even be able to say that, I work here too briefly for that. We are publicly traded but we are also small and we always have to weigh up how to do certain things as conveniently and pragmatically as possible. We like to be open and accessible. That’s what sets us apart from others.’

About Caroline van Reedt Dortland

Caroline van Reedt Dortland received her master’s degree in History and Journalism from the University of Groningen in 2002, did a 4-month internship at RTL News in New York. She worked at Delta Lloyd from 2002 and became Director of Communications at Avantium in October 2018 through Herman Rutgers.

About Tom van Aken

Tom van Aken has been with Avantium since 2002, serving as CEO since 2005. Before that, he worked at DSM for more than 6.5 years. He studied Chemistry at Utrecht University. He is also a member of the Chemistry Top Team and Advisory Board Member at the start-up Plantics, a UvA spin-off.

This is the second part of an interview series initiated by Herman Rutgers executive & interim search. Read the first interview, with Nicoly Vermeulen and Joost Ravoo of TU Delft, from December 2019 here.


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