Eelco Keune: ‘Ceasing operations in Russia felt like the only morally right thing to do’

Ebbinge talks to the leaders of today and tomorrow and asks them the questions that really matter. This time: Eelco Keune, CEO of Keune Haircosmetics.


What was your first job?
In a teahouse, near a surf beach in Naarden, in the Netherlands. But they fired me immediately. I was a waiter, but I hated keeping people waiting when the other waiters were off doing something else, so I would just offer to help them myself. But sometimes when you try to do everything at once, you wind up just doing nothing at all. So, that didn’t last very long. After that, I went to work in my father’s factory. I stood beside a conveyor belt and put caps on bottles, bottles in boxes. My father was raised to make do with very little, so I would always complain about not getting paid, and he would tell me, “You’ve already got everything you need.”

What makes a family-owned business different from other kinds of businesses?
I think in a family business, you’re more in touch with what people need. Maybe we’re also more committed when it comes to our role in society. Our company doesn’t do business in China, because they require animal testing there in order to bring a cosmetic product to the market. That’s not in line with how we think you should treat animals. It’s really as simple as that. That’s just the way my father and I feel about that.

What kind of legacy would you like to leave behind?
Well, at the risk of sounding a little self-aggrandising… I’d like to leave the world better than I found it. To me – in simple terms – that Keune helps our employees to grow and seize opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Or to become better at what they do professionally. I want to make an impact and help people get ahead. I love to create things. That’s why I set up a television company years ago. I would rather be a street builder than a housekeeper. At the end of the day, I’d rather say “Look, I helped build this road” instead of saying I cleaned something that will just get dirty again the next day. Then you just have to start over again. When I started at Keune, it was already a successful company. It would have kept on going just fine without me. So, I took a hard look to see where I could make a difference instead of just kicking up my feet and taking the easy path.

What’s the most important impact you’ve made?
I think it all comes down to a simple idea about not wanting to be the biggest, but wanting to be the best. It’s a clear vision and it doesn’t always pay off. For example, we had to discontinue our wholesale channel, because wholesalers take a cut from products which we make, and which hair salons sell onto their customers. I think that the money should go to us and the salons only, though. So, saying goodbye to the wholesale business cost us millions, but sometimes that’s the price you pay for wanting to be the best in the industry.

‘I think it all comes down to a simple idea about not wanting to be the biggest, but wanting to be the best’

What’s the hardest decision you’ve ever had to make?
Ceasing operations in Russia. Russia was a huge market, and we suspended all our operations there. It felt like the only morally right thing to do, even if it took an enormous financial toll. For companies like Heineken to continue selling there – I find it incomprehensible. A very nice brand, I used to work for them, but that’s one thing that really disappoints me. After Russia invaded Ukraine, my father and I didn’t have to discuss it for even five minutes. My father lived through World War II. He knows what it’s like when people turn their back on what’s happening. We say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Show the world what you’re made of.

How does that feel now?
We don’t want to support the Russian regime in any way, so I still think we made the right choice. But what people may not realise is that in Russia there was a family working for Keune who had been committed to building our brand for the past 30 years. We know those people and their teams well. It’s complicated: what you hope is that by putting pressure on the people themselves, you create resistance to the Russian regime from within. But along the way, you wind up harming people who are dear to you.

What is your big dream?
That we can help make life better for people in the hairdressing profession. That’s why we support initiatives in Brazil and Indonesia, teaching young people the hairdressing profession. We offer them training and products, free of charge, so that those young people from the favelas, for example, get a boost. I think we’re really making a difference there, because not everyone is born with an opportunity to get the education they need.

Was that your idea?
No, it came from a distributor in Brazil. We are surrounded by people who think like us, I am proud of that. He saw so many young women looking for work, who couldn’t find a job. Our programme keeps them off the streets, and as soon as they start earning money, so can we. Not everybody agrees with this way of doing things, but to me it just makes sense. I am a strong believer that most people prefer to do something of value instead of just getting a hand-out.

‘I like putting my trust in people and giving them the opportunity to do their best’

How do you bring out the best in others?
First of all, by being very clear about what you want. People often overlook that. I don’t believe in just letting people do whatever they want. People thrive on having a set of rules in place. I also want them to be enthusiastic about our goal. That’s why we’re very selective in who we hire. People who are just really good at something don’t necessarily have to be good with us. Someone can be brilliant at what they do, but a complete pain to work with, and that’s not the kind of person we’re looking for. They can completely ruin your team’s culture. So, we look for people who try to surprise themselves and the company every day, who make a positive contribution to others. If you don’t say hello to the receptionist, we don’t need you. This isn’t the place for you.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’m someone who gets emotional about things sometimes. If I have to make a tough call – like our decision to pull out of Russia – it can keep me up at night. The same thing happens if one of our employees is struggling. Our Keune House offers a temporary shelter for employees who are in need. There are people in really heartbreaking circumstances sometimes. I want the best for all of our employees. I’ve been so lucky, just by virtue of the family I was born into. That also brings a sense of responsibility.

What’s the best leadership advice you ever received?
Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. That’s also what I like to do. We have so many good people around us now that they can really surprise me. I like putting my trust in people and giving them the opportunity to do their best. And maybe someday, someone will come along who’s up to the task of running the company. Until then, I think I’m still the most qualified, I think I do a pretty good job of overseeing the whole thing, but I don’t have to be the only one in charge. Besides, my father is still actively involved as well. We may think differently on some points about managing people – my father has always led the company in a hierarchical way, I take a more service-oriented approach to leadership – but we both share the same moral compass, and I think that’s what matters most.

Interview: Vera Spaans | Photography: Pieter Bas Bouwman