We meet with Remmelt Schuuring in the former Verkade factory turned cultural center in Den Bosch, The Netherlands. Remmelt, one of our bucket list heroes, is the founder of one of the first worker cooperatives of The Netherlands: SchoonGewoon. They operate in the cleaning business with lots of self-management practices while achieving remarkable results.
Remmelt’s story starts as a dream for many entrepreneurs. For 16 years, he owns a traditional cleaning service business with over 400 employees. He organizes his company in a traditional hierarchical manner. Remmelt tells us; “this is what everybody expected from me to do since it always used to go this way“. But Remmelt doesn’t feel comfortable with the situation. He feels as being dragged into the traditional system. He is the owner and leader of a successful company but he isn’t happy. Then, around 2010 he sells his company and decides to do nothing for a while. He gets bored, starts a new project and builds himself a mud house.
In 2012, he wants to make a fresh start and takes the first steps towards creating a workers cooperative. He is highly inspired by the Mondragon movement in Spain but soon after discovers that a similar model does not exist in Holland yet. He decides to pioneer and tries to introduce the workers cooperative model to the Dutch society. It ends up being an immense struggle due to legal and administrative difficulties. He has to create everything from scratch but eventually Remmelt succeeds in his mission. He starts a cleaning service cooperative, called SchoonGewoon, which is completely owned and self-managed by its workers. The workers decide about everything themselves. It makes them highly successful and the cooperative is growing rapidly; from 30 workers in 2015 to 250 in 2016. Some of the interesting points that Remmelt shares with us about his organizational model:
- There are no managers
- Workers make all the decisions
- Workers select their own coordinators
- All salaries are fixed
- 10% of the revenue is reserved for overhead (industry average overhead = 18%)
- Once all salaries, overheads and other costs are paid for, the remaining profit is shared among the workers
Trust vs Mistrust
Remmelt is fed up with all the rules that are embedded in our society. He advocates that all these rules derive from the high degree of mistrust among each other. It’s the fear that reign in the Netherlands according to Remmelt. He wants to turn this around and starts with trust. As an example: he brought back his contracts from piles of papers to a maximum of two sheets.
We recognize this perspective from one of our first Bucket List visits to law firm BvdV and co-founder Sjoerd van der Velden. He stressed that his law firm exists for a large extent because of the high degree of mistrust in our society, and he would love to see a change. Sjoerd too believed it would be an improvement if organizations and people would be more trusting and cooperating when it comes to making agreements. Instead of the continuous fights and struggles over every word on every page of the contract, all parties should invest in creating trust and building the relationship. Get rid of the extensive contracts and start having a constructive dialogue.
Remmelt mentioned another example of his belief in building a trusting relationship: they only take up a cleaning contract if it’s for a minimum period of 10 years. In the cleaning industry, contracts of 2 years are the norm. He believes it’s important to break through this as both parties should be willing to invest in a long-term relationship that benefits both parties.
The fact that SchoonGewoon is able to negotiate these 10 year deals is also a result of their unique way of working. Their customers seem to believe in the way they work. But also, they have a stronger negotiation position because they are able to sell their cleaning activities for a lower price. This is due to lower overhead costs and lower sick leave (see below). Although Remmelt mentioned they sell their contracts for common market prices, we believe the lower costs are definitely a competitive advantage for SchoonGewoon.
Remmelt stresses another benefit for SchoonGewoon to have a 10 year contract. The advantages of the worker cooperative take a while to take effect. The cleaning personnel has to get used to the new way of working and therefore the full benefits are starting to take effect after approximately 1 year.
In the companies we visit, one of the most measurable results of their improved ways of working is the degree of sick leave. In almost every single organization we’ve visited the sick leave has dramatically dropped after implementing new ways of working. Similar low sick leave percentages are present at SchoonGewoon. Their sick leave is under 1% (!) where the industry average is about 14%. Besides the sick leave, Remmelt stressed the fact that nobody wants to leave the cooperative. Because SchoonGewoon is such a young organization, it will take some time to see if these numbers remain over the long-term.
The way back
After our talk with Remmelt, we leave the former cookie factory and realize that Remmelt brought us a tremendous amount of new insights in workers cooperatives. We had never heard about this way of organizing in such detail and we realize that such a model is a new addition to the growing possibilities of creating happy workplaces.
It’s interesting to see that this model fits the cleaners of SchoonGewoon so well. Once again, it proves that there is not one simple blueprint to follow in order to liberate an organization. Just as we’ve seen at SchoonGewoon, the legal structures and the organizational structures can be very different for various types of organizations.