How Maxxton founder Jean Pierre Mampaey prepared his successor CEO Ruben de Looff
You're looking for an investor and already have a successor CEO in house. Is that possible? How can it work? The story of B2B SaaS company Maxxton will undoubtedly provide inspiration. Experienced founder Jean Pierre Mampaey personally paved the way for the young Ruben de Looff.
Ruben de Looff has been at the helm of Maxxton since 2020. In the space of five years, the young CEO evolved from business consultant, to COO and then CEO of the global provider of market-leading hospitality software-as-a-service for the large vacation & short-term rental industry.
Ruben: “It was never my intention to take over from the founder. However, Maxxton's challenging environment did appeal to me. After my 2.5 year traineeship at Rabobank I wanted to do something fun. My intention was to work in a small company and make an impact.”
Over the years, it became increasingly clear that Ruben was Jean Pierre Mampaey's dream successor. However, succeeding a founder is not straightforward. For a founder, being succeeded by a new CEO is, if possible, even harder. And you may also have to take investors’ plans into account.
How do you put the pieces together? In Maxxton's trajectory, we can see five steps.
Step 1: Think about succession early
“I wanted to quit at my peak,” says Jean Pierre, who otherwise had no specific timing in mind. “I'm someone who's skilled at building a company from an idea. I've been doing that with Maxxton since 1998. This start-up phase is right up my sleeve. For the next scale-up phase, I was looking for more support and a successor very early on. But who could help my company grow?”
“I wasn't looking for a copy of myself at all. On the contrary, I was looking for someone suited to the new phase of the business. Because meanwhile, Maxxton had gone for full-on expansion.” Thanks in part to Fortino's investment in 2019, the growth of the all-in-one software partner for vacation & short-term rental managers had accelerated, up to 25% increase in revenue a year.
Read the article Fortino Capital Partners invests in Maxxton, an all-in one ERP-software solution for the hospitality industry
Step 2. Enable internal advancement
An internal trajectory takes time, as Jean Pierre discovered: “I don't believe in hiring an external director or forced training to become the new CEO. Our business is too specific for that. You need to be familiar with the market and products, which is why I preferred to let someone from within the company develop at the right pace. I kind of new that Ruben would be a suitable successor when he was hired.”
The then successor and current CEO Ruben de Looff was not aware of the succession plans. Advancement and training followed the company's principles: hands-on. “I wasn't trained for the job,” Ruben says. “However, I was given space and took on projects. Jean Pierre accepted it and was able to let go, which I admire immensely about him.”
Step 3. Hand over projects
Ruben continues: “From my drive to make things happen, I took on more and more challenges. Jean Pierre let it happen, without too much discussion. I invested a lot of time and energy in the projects I took on. I read up on the theory and substantiated my decisions. Jean Pierre appreciated that, and gave me the freedom to work on the core of the company: the reorganisation of the development teams.”
But not everyone trusted the inexperienced manager to the same extent. “Ruben is too young. He has too little experience,” was the criticism of Jean Pierre's choice. But he didn't hold back, on the contrary: “My role was to enable Ruben, give him more space rather than less.... even if things didn't always go to plan.”
Step 4. Accept mistakes
For Jean Pierre, accepting mistakes is an integral part of a succession process. How does he do that? “When you look at your own successes, you focus on other people's mistakes. I, in contrast, look at my own mistakes. As a result, I diminish myself and find it easier to put other people's mistakes into perspective. And because I focus on other people's successes, it's easier to let go.”
Of course, the potential successor mustn't be afraid to make mistakes either. “Based on the theory, I thought front-end developers could also be designers in scrum teams, for example. In practice, this proved more difficult. The productivity of some teams shrivelled up completely. I learned from this that changes have to fit the phase an organisation is in. You can introduce scrum or agile working in the most beautiful way, but if your organisation is not ready, it's doomed to fail.”
“When Ruben made a mistake, Jean Pierre would sometimes hear: You're the boss aren't you, why don't you do something.” “But then I would say very clearly: ‘True, I'm the boss, but I'm not doing that part anymore.’ This meant the others had to accept my decision and Ruben couldn't be accused.”
“Jean Pierre's trust was extremely important to me. I may be self-confident enough, but the moment you do something new, you need back-up and space to make mistakes. Everyone can suffer a sudden pang of uncertainty.”
Step 5. Let go of the outcome
Neither the timing and the appointment of the CEO were set in stone. This allowed things to grow entirely organically. “There could have been two directors. Or I could have been replaced sooner or later,” Jean Pierre looks back.
The result of letting go? Ruben has been CEO of Maxxton since December 2020, much to the satisfaction of Jean Pierre, the company, its customers and investor Fortino.