Building ambitions together: 95 years of Bulsink
When he took over the helm in 1997, the staff employed by the Bulsink construction company consisted of two carpenters and two bricklayers (“including my cousin and my brother”). He still works closely with his brother Marcel: “In the family business, he’s responsible for project quality.” Since then, the total ‘Bulsink family’ has grown to about a hundred employees in the offices alone. On the occasion of its 95th anniversary, Owner and CEO Antoine Bulsink takes a look back at a few key moments. Together with his son Ruben, who envisions himself sitting in his father’s chair one day.
The office manager starts chatting with you after taking your coat. A fresh espresso. With a sausage roll on the side. And all that in a setting that looks more like the lobby of a five star hotel than the reception of a construction company. The hospitality is no gimmick. That’s just how things are here. At Bulsink, they are well aware of the power of perception. Not at all unusual when you sit at the table every day with brands like Rituals and Basic-Fit.
“The 2008 economic crisis was instrumental in determining the direction we took,” recalls Owner and CEO Antoine Bulsink. “Before that time, we used to take on everything. A dormer, a house extension, a shop, an office. But as an ordinary construction company, you have a hundred competitors in your own village alone. The crisis forced us to refocus: where can we make a difference?”
This was followed by a few rigorous choices. “No more projects for private customers; keep the focus only on B2B with repeat clients. Initially in retail for the most part, and before long in all kinds of other industries where concepts and branding play a role.”
Besides retail, Bulsink set his sights on the hospitality, leisure, healthcare and office markets. Through this strategy of specialisation and differentiation, the company managed to attract fast-growing chains and land prestigious contracts, such as the recent conversion of the American Hotel in Amsterdam into the Hard Rock Hotel.
“Over the last several years, differentiation has actually become less important again, and we’re more concerned with projects that fit into the way we work,” Antoine continues. This brings him to a second success factor for his company’s growth: smart construction.
“If we’re able to handle projects in our own way in partnership with the client, and take the lead as the general contractor, then we can build super fast.” Digitalisation plays an important role here. We have always been fully committed to this, but the pace accelerated during the covid pandemic.”
During the preparation process for construction projects, Bulsink uses 3D designs, virtual reality and augmented reality, among other methods. This gives clients a realistic impression of the end results, which simplifies communication in the project, facilitates the decision-making process, and prevents any unnecessary mistakes during construction.
Over the past decade, Bulsink has been serving more and more companies seeking to conquer Europe from within the Netherlands. “That had long been a kind of travelling circus. In the beginning, I went to Paris with the boss of Rituals to look at a storefront there. But in the meantime, our clients have become so big that they have their own offices in France, with French staff. They don’t want a company from Eindhoven advising them on how to do things there. They’d rather turn to Bulsink France.”
Apart from Paris, Bulsink also has branches in Barcelona and Cologne. An office in Berlin is also on its wish list. When it comes to rolling out retail and hospitality formulas in Europe, Bulsink is now considered the industry authority. “Major Dutch clients where we used to struggle to get in our foot in the door, now call us themselves because they are looking to go to France.”
One recent development includes the formation of an executive team. A commercial director with extensive sales experience who also knows exactly what it takes to build a brand. Two operational directors, who understand the construction world inside out. And a financial director with a background in real estate and property development. “A four-member executive team with immense drive. The different backgrounds, leadership styles and expertise in different disciplines mean that they complement each other well as a team. After all, Bulsink shouldn’t be a one-man show, but ought to be in a position to run independently.”
For Antoine, that means less of a physical presence. “I’ve never felt that I should be the first one in and the last one out the office, but that is certainly not the case now. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself constantly interfering with everything. The executive board also calls me out on that. They ask me: what do we have to do to keep you away?”
Now, how should the executive board manage that? “By putting my mind at ease. It’s that simple. Are we delivering on the ambitions we’ve set out with each other? Are we generating enough turnover, making a nice profit? Are our customers happy? Is the team happy? The employees truly make all the difference in the Bulsink family. It’s very important for us to recognise and value them. We’re investing in the Bulsink family, because investing in their development and well-being leads to high levels of performance and success for the organisation as a whole.”
By leaving the day-to-day management to the executive team, Antoine now has his hands free for new developments. “My aim is to eventually generate a quarter of our turnover from our own initiatives and partnerships. For example, by participating in construction projects or financing the initiatives of others.”
Then I hope one day it will be taken out of my hands. Like, ‘Hey, step aside old man’.
And in five years’ time, when the company celebrates its 100th anniversary? Where will Bulsink be then? “By that time, we’ll have an even more solid presence in France, Spain and Germany. At that point, I think we’ll have passed the 100 million euro turnover mark. And then the company will start gradually shifting from my hands and on to the next generation. First recover, then I hope one day it will be taken out of my hands. Like, ‘Hey, step aside old man’.”
Antoine winks at his son Ruben, who has been carefully listening in during the conversation. Ruben is studying Construction Management & Engineering at TU Eindhoven and frequently spends the day with his father. And how does he feel about running the family business himself one day?
“I do have aspirations to sit in that chair one day. I love being able to observe, join in and learn things here that you just don’t learn at university. But first I need to finish my studies. Then I may want to do an internship or work at another company. After that, I can imagine myself coming here. In five years time? Then I could realistically be working at Bulsink. And I would like that, too. But I don’t know how much responsibility I would have at that point. There are a lot of capable people around here, who I can still learn a lot from.”