Stefan Verhoeven, CEO at Miele Nederland, thinks back to his student years

Stefan Verhoeven (52) comes from a long line of entrepreneurs: his father and both his grandfathers owned their own businesses. Young Stefan studied business economics at Erasmus University. He eventually became CEO at Miele Netherlands. Now he thinks back to his student years. ‘I often thought to myself: when is this going to get fun?’

TEXT: Karin Koolen
PHOTOGRAPHY: Marie Cécile Thijs

Why did you choose to study at Erasmus University?
‘I’m from around Eindhoven, and my choices were really either Groningen or Rotterdam. Business administration in Rotterdam had a good reputation, and I really liked the city. For two years I tried to get into the Business Administration department and couldn’t, so eventually I just chose for aspecialisation degree – Business Economics (BKE). In retrospect, a good move!’

How so?
‘The major was led by four professors from different disciplines who were all very dedicated. Nel Hofstra was situated in business sociology and psychology. Ronald Schuit – who, unfortunately, has passed away – had a background in finances and investments. And then there were Jaap Paauwe, who came from an internal organisation, and Jan Bunt from commercial policy (marketing). They were all part of the school of thought that said that while you could be good within a certain field, real success was found in bringing together different disciplines. That’s the truth if I’ve ever heard it. To this day I maintain that same principle: that being open to others and other disciplines is the foundation for a successful and sustainable collaboration. That’s the key for improvement. Once every now and then we have a reunion for BKE where Jan Bunt still preaches the necessity of this very gospel, usually gleefully and full of emotion.’

What kind of student were you?
Laughing: ‘At first I was cutting corners. I wasn’t enjoying it, those first few years. I thought everything about it was anonymous and surreal. Big lecture halls, general theory. And those exams at the Ahoy, giant halls full of students. I barely passed most of my exams. I wouldn’t give up, though, but I did often think to myself: when is this going to get fun?’

And? When did it get fun?
‘In the final years! That’s when it became more practical. We went and visited companies, had to solve real problems. That’s when I really got into the spirit of things. I ended up on the board of the student association le managEUR. We were known as enterprising, creative, and had a little bit of an attitude. It fit my style – and still does. On the board I was put in charge of organising “the project”. That meant that I had to combine an educational trip somewhere with (semi) scientific research. It was, perhaps, the most educational period of my studies.’

‘A little bit of attitude works for me’

Where did you end up going?
‘The US. I’d never been. Our focus was on environmental management, something that California was quite ahead of the curve of. We saw different companies, like Frito-Lay, Yeast Brocades, Dow Chemical and Unocal. We ended up putting a whole programme together. A committee had to be put together, I had to write to companies, canvass them for funding and participation in the research – try to get students to participate, put together a cirriculum around it, book the flights, hotels, everything.’

Did you ever join a student association?
‘No, by then I’d already done my fair share of partying. During the Eureka week I thought maybe I would, but it never happend. A shame? Perhaps. Perhaps it could’ve helped me along the way. But a lot of the connections I’ve made during my studies I still maintain. I know the value of a good network. Shall I tell you something funny? A while ago I had my house renovated, and a lot of old schoolmates ended up being involved in the process: one had a business in concrete, another had a connection with taps, the other had something with kitchen drawers. It’s nice to do something like that with people with whom you have a shared history.’

Are you still involved with Erasmus University?
‘I’m part of the alumni organisation. And via my old position at Esso I ran into an old peer who does a lot for the Trustfonds. Now I’m looking into that. Moreover, Miele is currently collaborating with Food Lab in the Mandeville building: we placed several ovens and stoves there in exchange for their help in developing recipes with a low ecological foodprint for our own culinary school. I’m proud of that. The university has a little place in my heart.’

How important is sustainability to you?
‘Very important. It’s something that I’m very invested in. Luckily, sustainability is gaining traction. Currenly I’m working on a programme that recycles bed linens. In my free time I teach on the topic, as a business professional. I think I’ve reached the point in my career that I want to give back to society, to the world. I also have some more time to myself: the kids have gone off to college, my career is more settled. Now there’s more space to think. I’d also love to spend a few years working abroad. That would be wonderful!’

'Miele is currently collaborating with Food Lab in the Mandeville building: we placed several ovens and stoves there in exchange for their help in developing recipes with a low ecological foodprint for our own culinary school.

  • NAME: Stefan Verhoeven (52)
    STUDIED: Business economics, Erasmus University Rotterdam
    TITLE: CEO at Miele Netherlands