Things are going well for the Ghent design and consultancy firm Maat-ontwerpers. The firm got off to a flying start. And in 2017, partner Peter Vanden Abeele was appointed city architect for Ghent. A turning point. Which direction did they want to take the company in? How could they become more professional? To face these challenges, Filip Buyse and Esther Jacobs decided that two of them would follow the SME Challenge programme at Vlerick. The changes they are going through are now giving them renewed energy.
“Let me first outline the history,” suggests Filip Buyse. “In 2012, I set up Maat-ontwerpers with Frédéric Rasier and Peter Vanden Abeele. The ball immediately started rolling and the assignments started pouring in. The firm grew from three to eight employees in a short time. As designers, none of us paid sufficient attention to how you manage that kind of thing. When Peter became city architect in 2017, a reorganisation became inevitable. The first step was to appoint Esther as operations and office manager. It was her idea to take the SME Challenge programme.”
A woman with a plan
“I had taken the short Project Management programme at Vlerick a year earlier,” explains Esther Jacobs. “SME Challenge tied in perfectly with this. It also provided the guidelines I needed. The theoretical framework gave me a language to manage the financial, more operational side of the agency. Among other things, the coaching process generated the business plan which we are currently using. These tools gave me a clear overview of the firm and allowed me to think along with the others about the future.”
“Another important reason to start the programme was our struggle with our profile,” adds Filip. “Maat-ontwerpers operates in various different sectors: urban development, architecture and research. The focus lies on urban development and within this, we work on a wide variety of projects. The combination of these different aspects makes it difficult to communicate clearly about what we are doing.”
Insights and peace of mind
“The SME Challenge programme encouraged us to rethink our original business plan.” Filip explains that they never made time for this before the programme. Now, they simply had to. “The different angles gave us ingredients to talk about. One of the tools, the Pimento Map, provided some interesting insights. We realised that the market in which we operate is a closed market. Our position is safe because there aren’t many newcomers. This knowledge gave us the peace of mind to continue focusing on the quality of our projects.”
Quality comes at a price
“During one of the sessions, we landed on the ‘Boutique’ concept,” Filip continues. “A concept that refers to quality, creativity and the time it takes to get there. There is a price to pay for this kind of labour-intensive process. These kinds of business reflexes are new to us. We now have the courage to express more clearly to clients what we stand for and what it means when they choose us.
Tailored to suit the team
“The training also emphasises the importance of the team,” adds Esther. “Because we deliberately want to keep the firm ‘small’, it’s important for everyone to feel good in their working environment. We want to use this to stand out from the other firms.”
A different perspective
What did they think of the group activities? For Filip, they offered added value. “As people with different profiles and backgrounds take this course, you are confronted with reflexes which are less quickly addressed in our own sector. By nature, we don’t tend to lie awake at night thinking about profit, growth, optimisation processes… I found the perspective of people who do just that fascinating. It also gave me the insight that it’s not wrong to think that way, either.”
Entering into a process
In addition to the group dynamics, Esther found the personal involvement of the lecturers rewarding. “Their commitment doesn’t end once the programme finishes. The lecturers and coaches are still available for questions.” “That’s right,” says Filip, “It felt more like entering a process than a series of lessons.”
Filip and Esther attended the programme together and Frédéric participated in several coaching sessions. A superfluous luxury? “Certainly not,” says Esther. “We developed a common language for talking about the company. It allowed us to bounce ideas off each other right away. If this wasn’t the case, a lot of knowledge would be lost.”
Filip ends the conversation with an important insight into change. It’s something which a company should embrace.
“Before the programme, I was afraid of change. Now, one year later, I know that you have to make room for something like that and something stronger will grow out of it.”