In the spotlight: General Director Royal Van Wijhe Verf and board member of the Future for Nature Foundation Marlies van Wijhe

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Marlies van Wijhe

 Text by Nicole Gommers
First published on

Marlies van Wijhe, fourth generation at the helm of the family business Royal Van Wijhe Verf, thinks that the discussion about the flow of women to the top is conducted in too negative a tone. She wants women to get a podium in a positive way, such as at the Future For Nature foundation, where she has been a passionate board member since 2016. The foundation, which in April awards its prestigious awards to young ‘nature entrepreneurs’, chose this year the theme ‘women in nature conservation’.

Why? “Not because women have to be helped, but because they do it automatically.” As a child, Marlies van Wijhe devoured nature documentaries. When there was a herd of walking elephants on television, she almost crawled into the screen, she thought it so beautiful. She saw a life à la pratatologist Jane Goodall, but soon found out what most biologists actually do: they spend their days in the laboratory, an environment that Van Wijhe finds uninspiring for herself. Getting out of it was possible once she, as the fourth generation, was on board of the Zwolle family firm Van Wijhe Verf. She started out as export manager, at a time when appointments were still made by fax. She focused her sights on South America and often traveled on the final stage. With a laugh: “A lot of people said indignantly to my father: do yout let your daughter travel through those countries alone? Irresponsible! My father always said very soberly that I really knew how to hold my own. ”


Woman with paint factory 

After she succeeded her father Dick van Wijhe at the age of 35 as managing director, Van Wijhe is the fourth generation at the helm of the Zwolle-based company, and she is very proud of the fact that Van Wijhe Verf since 2016 – when it existed exactly 100 years  – may carry the predicate ‘Royal’. “Especially our foreign customers think that royal status is great, but also in the Netherlands it helps against the somewhat dusty image of family businesses. An incorrect image by the way. Large corporates are found ‘sexier’, but family businesses innovate much more. Innovation even pulled us through the crisis years. You know that sales are difficult in a bad economic climate, so we used that time to become more future-proof. Sustainability plays a major role in this. Van Wijhe was the first paint factory to come up with a sustainable wall paint, based on biobased raw materials. This makes us a leader and trendsetter. “Van Wijhe is also a leader in her branch: she is the only woman in the Netherlands who runs a paint factory. It has never been an issue; not for Van Wijhe, nor for the branch. “I am and remain an exception, but I have the idea that everyone in the industry likes it and even likes it that a woman takes the stage, also at FBNed, the network for family businesses where I am chairman.”Van Wijhe would like to see more women on a ‘podium’, but is nevertheless strongly opposed to mandatory quotas to get more women at the top. “I am really against it. How can you change to what you want to be in a few years, a country with more women at the top? That needs time. The Netherlands has traditional, conservative values, you can not enforce a breach. That conservatism is just as good with women – I once said that a female job applicant dropped out of a commercial job because she would have to report to a woman. With the next-generation, the 20-something, the gender issue does not play at all anymore. The problem therefore dissolves automatically, but apart from that, I just do not think gender is that important. I go for quality. And it is precisely in this technical sector that I feel that the desire for quality and talent is increasingly leading us to women. Meanwhile, 22 percent of our employees are women in heavier positions. That is remarkable. “In the management team of Van Wijhe Verf, this throughput is more difficult. “Finally we have a woman since last year, our head HR. When a vacancy for a CFO arose, I thought: it would be nice and valuable to have a woman with it. Because I certainly see the added value of a balanced team. I notice that as a woman I make a decision longer, but then it is thought from a to z – women look broader and generally do not overlook anything and so you can add a lot of value. But with that CFO it did not come to an end – unfortunately, no woman simply applied for it. Whether it is because the industry does not appeal, or because we are in Zwolle … I do not know, but find it striking. You will not get there if women do not want to, or have unrealistic expectations – a top career in three days is not there. That is precisely why I think that we should not push the flow of women and should not keep repeating that it is time for quotas because we are lagging behind. Instead, we can zoom in better on women who are doing great – they are happy. ”


Chemistry and nature 

Giving women a positive podium is exactly what Van Wijhe is now doing with the Future For Nature foundation, where she has been a board member since 2016. The foundation wants to introduce a new generation of young heroes, who follow in the footsteps of icons such as ‘monkey woman’ Jane Goodall and biologist and television maker Sir David Attenborough – the man Van Wijhe used to keep glued to the tube. “Every year FFN awards a cash prize to three young nature entrepreneurs under the age of 35 who are selected by an international selection committee, with a corresponding financial injection for their specific project. Very inspiring, for example, is Lucy King from Kenya, one of the winners in 2013. She came up with a solution for the human-wildlife conflict between African elephants and farmers in Kenya through her “beehive fences”. King discovered – how simple it can be – that elephants are afraid of bees. If you place beehives on the edge of fields, the elephants simply get around it instead of over it. For the farmers, the beehives also form an additional source of income: win-win. This idea has already been rolled out to 15 countries. “The passion of the girl who watched breathless nature documentaries at the time has clearly never slipped away. That passion flashed again when Van Wijhe ended up at a meeting of Burgers’ Zoo via FBNed – also a family business. Alex van Hooff, zoo director and nature conservationist, told about the Future For Nature foundation during that meeting. “I became very inspired and became ‘friend’ of the foundation. When a vacancy arose, Alex phoned me if I was interested. I thought: the timing is bad, I’m very busy, but I just have to do this. “Van Wijhe can recommend a secondary function for a good cause. “Here too, look further than just corporates. You have to do what you are enthusiastic about, I think that at FFN. We benefit from each other: I learn a lot and I bring my network with me in exchange, and can thus also enthuse others for the work of FFN. “Is not it actually a bit contradictory, someone from the chemical industry who is committed to nature? Van Wijhe disputes that. A sustainable future is not possible without innovation from the business world, she argues. She points to the words of Koos Biesmeijer, scientific director of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, who recently explained the unique cross-fertilization between nature and business in the Financieele Dagblad. “Biesmeijer wrote about natural capital, the living and non-living nature that makes it possible for companies to make products and provide services. He sees nature as beautiful and special as a treasure chest full of smart solutions, valuable processes and innovative chemistry – and I see the parallel with how I lead Van Wijhe Verf. “When it comes to sustainable choices, Van Wijhe’s success and her team clearly: the ‘paint factory’ is the first chemical company in the world to have obtained the BCorp certificate in 2016. BCorps are profitable companies that have been certified by the American non-profit B Lab. They meet strict standards for social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. Illustrious counterparts from other industries include Tony’s Chocolonely, Ben & Jerry’s and the Triodos Bank.



Such a precursor is obliged to pay attention to diversity at its stand – and that is what Van Wijhe has to offer, not only at its own company but also at FFN together with the international selection committee. This year the foundation, which issued its prestigious awards on 20 April, opted for the theme ‘women in nature protection’ .The choice is mainly based on the wish to show what a tremendous positive contribution women make, not because women remain underexposed and support in the back. “I think that is a relief in the women’s discussion.” This year the Vietnamese Thi Thu Nguyen is one of the winners. She specializes in knowledge about illegal trade in endangered species, which are often poached to process in traditional medication. She maps the entire chain, from poacher to consumer. That way you can better combat this trade. “There is also a male winner this year, and Van Wijhe does not think that’s a strange choice, even though women were put in the spotlights this year. “We simply chose the best talents. And do you know what it is beautiful? Future For Nature exists 10 years and every year we select 3 winners. I have once again immersed myself in all the winners of the past decade. Then it turned out that we have had as many male and female winners. That happened spontaneously. Not because we felt we had to balance, but simply because men and women have the same talent. As soon as that penetrates into the business world, it will be fine. So I hope that Foundation Topvrouwen will continue to positively educate women and thus provide a different sound within a discussion that is much too negative. “