Geraldine Matchett and Dimitri de Vreeze had been two top women and men at DSM for four months, when they encountered a first fundamental difference of opinion. It was the second quarter of 2020, and corona was raging. Half the world economy was at a standstill, the threat of a massive recession hung in the air. Still, De Vreeze believed he saw the perfect opportunity to acquire Glycom, a company that counterfeits nutrients in breast milk.
Is that smart, Matchett thought. The acquisition would cost nearly $1 billion. “The capital markets were closed, nobody had any idea what the world would look like in a few months. Dimitri said yes, we can sell this and this to take over Glycom! Then I said: yes, and there is nothing else going on now?”
The takeover went through, but it was a tense moment. Matchett: “We took a time-out, and talked about it very fundamentally.” De Vreeze: “It was the test.” Were they able to have this conversation together? “Otherwise everything would have gone off the rails. Four months into work, and ready immediately.”
They’re still there as co-CEOs, chief executive officers, De Vreeze and Matchett. With their striking management structure, a rarity in international business, they have been leading DSM since February 2020 (9 billion euros in turnover, more than 21,000 employees, head office in Heerlen). They present together, hold together calls with investors and jointly make decisions about the company’s strategy.
DSM is known to the general public as an industrial juggernaut, the sea of lights that looms up when you enter South Limburg from the north. But the group has not been involved in that kind of heavy chemistry for years. In recent years, DSM has focused on products related to ‘health’ and ‘nutrition’. Think of seasonings, vitamins and enzymes for drinks and cheeses.
It has another branch that makes “non-edible” materials, such as thermoplastic elastomer, which is found in medical gowns. But that division is for sale, reportedly for around 5 billion euros. DSM, decided by Matchett and De Vreeze, will focus on nutrition.
De Vreeze is the first to enter for this interview, in a DSM branch on the Amsterdam Zuidas. He immediately pushes the reporters an orange box of pills. A new form of ‘sunshine vitamin’ D, which DSM has recently sold to consumers in Australia and the US.
His point is clear. DSM, once De Staatsmijnen, has been through the years of fertilizer and basic plastics for years.
Fifteen minutes later, Matchett also comes in. “The great advantage of being CEO together,” she jokes, while sitting down and tapping De Vreeze on the shoulder as she passes. The conversation will mainly be about how the two of you run a company. But there is also a pressing, topical issue.
You have partially withdrawn from Russia. Why?
De Vreeze: “Last week we withdrew from a small Russian joint venture that produces materials for packaging, furniture and the car industry, among other things. We weren’t 100 percent sure that those products wouldn’t end up in equipment used in the invasion. That is simply not allowed by the European sanctions.”
Matchett: “We will continue to make food ingredients, especially for animals, in Russia. This is mainly for the local market. We had discussions about that, and we decided: OK, we want to contribute to healthy people and a healthy planet. Also there.”
Do you see any further influence of the war on the company?
Matchett: “It will have a major impact on the global food supply, and therefore on us. Our customers say: if Ukraine achieves 20 percent of its normal production this year, that would already be a miracle.”
Ukraine and Russia are major producers of grain and other agricultural products. If less of their raw materials become available, less food is produced – and DSM sells fewer ingredients.
High energy prices also play a role, says De Vreeze. He is up for a lot of tricks, but does foresee that production in Europe – including for DSM, which has factories worldwide – could become less attractive if prices continue to be high. “It can then be cheaper in Asia and the US.” In addition, some food manufacturers will question whether they should be so dependent on a few countries, Matchett says.
During the conversation, Matchett and De Vreeze regularly supplement each other’s sentences. The two are clearly familiar with each other. Matchett often calls De Vreeze ‘Dimi’. And when ‘Dimi’ starts talking about his love for good coffee, Matchett barely rolls her eyes. “He is so compelling that coffee should be good.”
When you took office, there was some skepticism about appointing two board chairmen. Some thought this was done to prevent one of you from leaving.
Matchett: “In the beginning people were indeed quite surprised, looking for some mysterious reason. But this was a deliberate choice. Look at where we come from. We had a board of three people, Feike [Sijbes-ma, toen bestuursvoorzitter], Dimi, and myself. When Feike retired, this was a natural option. We knew the company well, had worked together for six years. Investors may have feared it would become more difficult to make decisions.”
That is not true?
De Vreeze: “Perhaps in the first year. But now I know very well how Geraldine stands in something. we have our groove found it. We have divided the company in a way: Geraldine does the financial part, I do the business side. But of course I also have an opinion about the financial side.”
Matchett: „And there are no finances without business†
De Vreeze: „We always do a few things together: takeovers and acquisitions, corporate culture, strategy. For the rest, we trust that the other person is doing his job well. And we call every week, on Friday, to share what happened.”
You don’t necessarily have daily contact?
Matchett: „No, intuitively we know what business as usual is and what we should discuss with each other. That gives great freedom. We also say to our teams: leave it to us to consult with each other. When they have to move back and forth between us, things get complicated. We are responsible for not surprising each other with a decision.”
Matchett and De Vreeze say they fully agree on the strategy, such as the sale of the materials branch. They want more focus. This fits in with the idea that overly diversified conglomerates are outdated. DSM also foresees a lot of growth in food and health products.
There are sometimes differences of opinion on smaller issues. They have developed a system with three levels for this. At first level they agree. On the second, one has doubts about a decision that falls within the domain of the other – but they trust that the other is right, and both dare to take responsibility.
The takeover of Glycom is an example of level three. Then there are really fundamental differences of opinion. In an app of the two together, they keep track of the levels of different issues.
That sounds cumbersome.
Matchett: “No, this is exactly where it gets interesting. You see more together. To make an important decision, you need different perspectives. The two of you integrate diversity of ideas into your decision-making. Sometimes one person is very focused on what customers think, while the other thinks more about the staff when making such a decision.”
De Vreeze: „It is an old-fashioned idea that there is one chairman of the board who determines everything. That does not lead to the best decision-making.”
Does job sharing improve work-life balance?
De Vreeze: „You do this job 24/7. At the same time, you are sometimes a bit more flexible. People often want to speak to the chairman of the board. Well, then they can choose.”
Matchett: “I think sometimes we forget that we are privileged. For example, last year I got Covid at a very inconvenient moment when we were just about to present the new strategy. It helped that there were two of us at the time. I was on stage from a TV screen, Dimi was there in real life. Even if there is an emergency at home, we can stand in for each other.”
There are very few top women in the Netherlands. Mrs. Matchett, have you encountered any obstacles in your career that have not bothered Mr. De Vreeze?
Matchett: “Ha, that’s a difficult question. I come from a family of four daughters, and we were raised with the idea that we could do anything. That’s how I’ve always experienced it. If you ask me if I was stopped somewhere, I would say: no. But I don’t know if everyone who has observed me all these years would say the same. I have not suffered, but sometimes you may not see the glass ceiling or a missed opportunity yourself.”
Can you give an example of that?
Matchett pauses for a moment. “No, for me personally nothing really comes to mind.”
Some people may think that you are sitting here with a man, instead of alone, that is already an example.
De Vreeze: “As if the trust wasn’t there?”
Matchett: „I see it differently. I think we are so complementary that it just works well.”
De Vreeze: „I strongly object to the thought in that question. I’m a better board chairman with Geraldine on board. And…”
De Vreeze begins to laugh. “If I may speak for her, I think she is with me.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 12 March 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of March 12, 2022