British Julie Perkins and her family thought business would be easy in The Netherlands: ‘Because they all speak English there’. But it wasn’t as simple as they thought. Dutch consumers and workers turned out to be very different from the British! Her abundant passion and adult leadership style helped her to leap this cultural ‘gap’ – and create a thriving and pleasant environment for all. She adopted the sober attitude and modesty of the Dutch and combined it with her British humour and drive to perform. This allowed her to put the Specsavers optical chain, which has since grown to 117 stores, firmly on the Dutch map.

1. How long have you been in The Netherlands?

I settled here in 2002. Before that, I travelled regularly back and forth between England and The Netherlands.

2. How did you become an entrepreneur and why?
Entrepreneurism is something that I learnt at an early age. My parents set up Specsavers in 1984. They developed an innovative form of cooperation that provided a secure and enjoyable way for opticians and hearing aid retailers to do business while benefiting from good support. It proved to be highly successful, effecting a revolution in the British optics market at the end of the eighties.  Specsavers is a true family business. My parents, brother, sister and myself are all involved in the company and I’m the country director of The Netherlands. We came to The Netherlands to see if we could extend our success to other countries. The Netherlands seemed an obvious choice, because of its proximity and the language situation. ‘They all speak English in The Netherlands, so it’ll be easy’, we thought.

3. Did you encounter problems when you wanted to become an entrepreneur?
It wasn’t as easy as we thought – as I found out when I opened our first store in Haarlem in 1997.  Dutch consumers are a bit more critical than the British – and very loyal to their opticians. I learnt that building relationships is very important here, as is social networking. Valuable information is often exchanged over a coffee and during lunchtime network meetings. In recent years we have grown massively, which of course made us very proud. I think it’s very important to do business in a socially responsible way and for this reason I set up our own charity foundation, Stichting Specsavers Steunt (the Specsavers support foundation), which enables our stores to support their local charities and community activities.

4. What are the differences between doing business in The Netherlands and in the United Kingdom?
A big difference between the UK and The Netherlands is that the Dutch are more inclined to be down-to earth. They’re more modest and want to avoid being seen as the tall poppy. Dutch employees do want recognition, however. So I spent a lot of time encouraging them that it’s OK to be proud of success and achievement. There is a also a lot of respect here in the relationships between the various levels in the workplace. At Specsavers we think we have a good balance between the British drive to perform and Dutch modesty and common sense. We use a lot of incentives, competitions and awards to encourage our staff. I think that good performance should always be rewarded. It motivates us and keeps us focused.  What also struck me is that a job in retail – especially in a store – isn’t seen as a career in The Netherlands. People say, ‘I work in a shop’. But it isn’t a career, it’s just some job you coincidentally ended up doing.  I think this is such a waste. In the UK it’s very different. There, a job in retail is definitely a career – with a solid future. Which is why we think education is so important. We launched a training academy from the start. This doesn’t only open up good career opportunities; it also generates passion, loyalty and commitment.

5. What is typically Dutch when it comes to doing business and being an entrepreneur?
The way people share problems and their openness in meetings is typically Dutch. But sometimes there can be a bit too much talk and too few decisions.  And you do have to get to the point where you just make a decision. What I really like about the Dutch is their general friendliness in the workplace: the way they greet each other on arrival and departure, and lunch together – preceded by, ‘Enjoy your meal!’ They’re also interested in each other: ‘How was your weekend?’ or, ‘How was your holiday?’
Of course this kind of friendly chat also happens in the English workplace, but less so. I think it’s really important, because it makes such a big contribution to a pleasant atmosphere.

6. What have you taken from both the English and Dutch cultures?
From the UK, the performance mentality and drive. From The Netherlands, friendliness and the ‘polder model’:  making decisions that favour the whole team – not just yourself.

7. Would you ever go back to England?
‘Never say never’ – but I do love The Netherlands and doing business here is still a challenge.

8. What are the secrets of your success?
Passion and quality are key for me. As is taking responsibility for your own decisions. I’m a big proponent of the adult leadership style.  You don’t have to phone me to ask whether you can arrive late because your washing machine is broken.  Just do what you think is right and set your priorities. As a good employee you must know that you have to finish your work and shouldn’t complain if you have to work 20 minutes longer. We don’t have a 9 to 5 mentality here. But in return we offer good rewards for good performance, extensive training and a pleasant work environment.

9. What is your favourite fruit, and why?
Mangos, they’re as sweet as chocolate.

10. What is your favourite Dutch product and/or place?
Favourite product: poffertjes. My favourite place is where I live, Naarden-Vesting: a beautiful place with a history.

TIPS from Julie

1. Be passionate and always strive for quality
2. Ensure that you work with professional people
3. Take responsibility for what you do
4. Keep up to date

“Business in The Netherlands turned out to be less simple than we thought”