Marike Bonhof: ‘Hire people who you know will work on the human level, regardless of experience’

Ebbinge talks to the leaders of today and tomorrow and asks them the questions that really matter. This time: Marike Bonhof, CFO of Vitens, a major Dutch water company.


What was your first job?
Cleaning holiday homes near Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, where I grew up. I started when I was 14, working through the temp agency, Content. ‘We’re only content when you are’ was their catchphrase and I used to think how nice that was. I had to work fast to keep up with the professional cleaners. The nice thing was that you immediately saw the results of your work.

How do you explain to a child what you do?
I have two sons, ages 15 and 13. They know I am the director of an organisation and they’re somewhat proud of that, although my youngest son says I work too much. We live in Almere, in the Vitens service area. When I pour a glass of water from the tap, I can say: we make this happen. We supply about a third of all the drinking water in the Netherlands. Drinking water is so often taken for granted in our country that hardly anyone knows what it takes to get it out of the tap every day, and at an incredibly low price too.

What do you want to change about the status quo?
Every new house should be built in a drinking-water-friendly way. We hear a lot of people talk about transitioning away from natural gas. Similar to them, I say we should also stop pumping drinking water into toilets. We take water out of the ground, turn it into clean drinking water, use energy to transport it and then flush it down the toilet? It would be better to use rainwater that’s been collected at home. It sounds strange in business terms: we produce water and we want our customers to use less of it. It would cost us revenue. But we’re still very much in favour of limiting the use of drinking water. If we don’t, we’ll run out of our most basic raw material. The energy transition is at the top of the political agenda now, but we also have to deal with the water transition.

‘It sounds strange in business terms: we produce water and we want our customers to use less of it. It would cost us revenue. But we’re still very much in favour of limiting the use of drinking water’

To whom do you owe your career?
I really got my first management job working for the City of Amsterdam. They were looking for a manager to lead the administrative advisors. The director said to the municipal secretary: ‘This applicant has no management experience. What should I do?’ The municipal secretary said: ‘Do you have confidence in her as a person? Do you think she’s a good fit on the human level? If so, then you should hire her. She can always gain experience.’ They had the courage to choose me. I try to apply this now when I hire people. If you’re trying to solve the challenges of the future, past experience is of little use. It takes someone who works on the human level. Anyone who wants to contribute to our strategy of making every drop sustainable is welcome at Vitens.

What keeps you up at night?
In the four and a half years that I’ve been working at Vitens, I’ve seen the quality of our water sources deteriorate. In our groundwater, we’re just now seeing the impact from industrial pollution that took place decades ago. It takes 50 to 60 years for the impact of human activity to reach those sources. We also see the effects of climate change. There’s still enough water in the Netherlands, but patterns are much more extreme: it’s either a lot of rain or prolonged drought. Some places where we currently draw water from the ground are not climate-proof.

We’re now taking the steps for the water that will come out of the tap in 60 years’ time, and that means we’ll need sources in other places. In Overijssel, certain companies wanted to buy extra water from us at the beginning of the year. We’ve already had to turn them down. The danger we run into is that Hugo de Jonge (the Dutch Minister of Housing) gets his 100,000 new apartments a year, but we can’t connect them to drinking water.

‘If you’re trying to solve the challenges of the future, past experience is of little use’

What’s the best leadership advice you ever received?
I started my career at the Ministry of Finance when Gerrit Zalm was minister there. He always wanted to have everything on a single A4 sheet of paper. Zalm taught me to reduce things to the essence. If you can’t put your message on a single page, you don’t understand it well enough. It’s a powerful lesson that I apply myself. If someone sends me a thirty-page document, I immediately send it back.

You were immediately involved with planning the Dutch budget. What did you learn from that?
When I started at the Ministry of Finance, I buried myself in the details. I learned how important one-on-one relationships are to getting things done. Other ministers knock on the Finance Minister’s door for money, and the amounts involved are enormous. It helped if they had a respectful relationship with the Minister, regardless of their political differences. In the end, if you strip away all the layers, we’re just human beings. And sometimes childish too. It’s about being seen. About making contact. Who are you dealing with? It’s better to be firm in some situations, and maybe a bit more seductive in others. That awareness is the craft behind leadership.

What kind of family do you come from?
My mother started working as a chemist’s assistant when I was in secondary school. She had enormous intellectual capacities which she was not always able to use. That’s why she always encouraged me to do so. My father was a teacher of German. I grew up in a secure environment but had more of a craving for adventure.

What do you do to blow off steam?
We live by the water and have a small cabin sailboat at home, a Friendship 23. It’s easy to go out for an hour on the lakes in the evening when the sun is setting. I love the bobbing up and down. It really relaxes me.

Which career would you have had in another life?
Politics. That’s the career I missed, although I did work close to it. As a young girl, I got up early every day to read the newspaper. That nurtured me and gave me a broad outlook on society. My friends always said: you’re going into politics. As a student, I was on the University Council at the University of Twente. I think it’s a privilege to live in a democratic constitutional state. Voting feels very special, every time.

How do you deal with conflicts?
It takes a while before I call something a conflict. At first it’s a tense discussion. It often helps to ‘subtitle’, or give a guide to what you’re saying, so that people don’t take it too seriously. For example, I might say, ‘I like to keep asking tough questions. That’s just who I am.’ It’s also important to face uncomfortable situations; for example, to go after someone who’s walked away angry. Then you can learn to agree to disagree. It’s not the same as reaching an agreement, but your relationship is still strong.

Photography: Pieter Bas Bouwman