NSM Focus | Alumnus Koen Verlinden: ‘I want to make an environmental and social impact’

Koen Verlinden (45) is committed to pursuing sustainable production practices and offering career opportunities to people with poor job prospects. After graduating with a degree in business studies, Verlinden started FAIR Coffins, a social enterprise specialising in sustainable coffins.

Why did you choose business studies?

“After secondary school, I attended the IVA automotive school in Driebergen. I then went to the United States, where I earned a Bachelor’s degree in automotive marketing management. Some of my IVA classmates went to Radboud University after graduating. I wasn’t sure if university was for me, but I ended up enrolling in the business studies programme in 1999 because it seemed like a good foundational programme. It was also a way to put off entering the workforce for a while.”

How was student life?

“Fantastic! Those were such formative years; not just school and studying but student life in general. I was a member of Phocas rowing club, I spent a year on the Nijmegen Student Associations Board, and I organised countless events. I also participated in the Heineken Race of the Classics, an annual sailing competition. For my graduation project I joined a research study led by Professor Jan Jonker on the influence of stakeholders on corporate social responsibility. My reading and research made me realise how important it is to find solutions to global problems like overpopulation and environmental pollution.”

What did you do after graduation?

“I got a job as deputy director of an automotive company, which ended up going bankrupt due to mismanagement by the parent company. The director called in sick, leaving me with the daunting task of firing sixty employees. It was extremely difficult. But I scoured my network and ended up helping most of them find new jobs.

After that I held various positions at other companies, but I didn’t love the work. So I quit my job to reflect on what I really wanted to do. I came across an old career quiz I’d taken in secondary school. One of the job prospects was funeral director. Not long after that I saw a vacancy for the regional manager position at DELA in Arnhem. I bought myself a new black suit for the job interview, which turned out to be a big mistake. DELA wasn’t the boring, stuffy company I was expecting; it was young and vibrant and everyone wore casual clothes and sneakers. I ended up getting the job anyway.”

You started FAIR Coffins in 2017. Why?

“At DELA I learned two things. The first was how polluting coffins are. Most are made from chipboard, veneer and non-biodegradable glue. I remember thinking how much more sustainable the whole process could be. The second thing I learned was how valuable employees with a disability can be. One of the employees I hired under the Participation Act was from Winterswijk. Every day he would make the long commute to Arnhem in his 45-kilometre-an-hour microcar. He had to leave at 4:30 in the morning in order to arrive on time for work at 8:30. His dedication made a big impression on me. Those two things – making sustainable coffins and hiring people with a disability – inspired me to start FAIR Coffins.

Our coffins are made from a biodegradable and carbon-neutral cardboard-like material. It took a lot of time to develop this material. Once again, Jan Jonker stepped in to help. We met at a circular economy festival and I told him about my plan. He immediately rounded up some people and said: "You need to talk to Koen." Those people put me in touch with other people. One turned old paper into toilet paper and another exported containers filled with old paper to China, but was looking for a new destination. Slowly but surely I inched closer to the product I had in mind.”

How is the company doing now?

“We produce about a thousand coffins a year and employ 25 people from vastly different backgrounds: from people with low literacy and intellectual disabilities to young people with a criminal record and an ankle bracelet and highly educated individuals with autism who are struggling to change jobs. We're probably the most inclusive workplace in Nijmegen.

We invest the money we make into social and environmental charities. This job is never going to make me rich, which is a conscious choice. I like to say I spend my days collecting karma points. Money means nothing to me, but karma means everything. I want to make an environmental and social impact through my company and by helping and supporting other entrepreneurs.”

What was the most valuable lesson you learned while studying?

“I learned to ask questions and to do my own research before forming an opinion. Social systems theory turned out to be very important. According to this theory, you shouldn’t just give employees tasks, you should also give them a framework and the room to complete them. Try and think in terms of roles and talents instead of job profiles. That's exactly what we do at FAIR Coffins: we look at what people are capable of and what gives them energy.”

What advice would you give to today’s students?

“Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone; that’s when you learn the most. Keep asking questions and discover your true passion. Think about what you loved to do as a child, before your parents and society steered you in a certain direction. And don’t focus too much on money or status, but on the things you find important and enjoyable.”