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Yvette Watson (37), the co-founder of PHI Factory, finished second in the Dutch bank ABN AMRO Sustainable Top 50 competition in 2019 and was nominated again for the award this year. Sustainability has always been in her blood, ever since she started pursuing all kinds of green goals at a young age. She campaigned for Greenpeace, WWF and the Dutch Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Dierenbescherming), waving homemade signs. Born into an entrepreneurial family – her father was an entrepreneur with his own architectural company – she also has the firm belief that you have an influence on your own happiness and success.

After an HBO education in facility management followed by 14 years of service in business, she switched to being self-employed in 2016 and founded her first company, PHI Notes. That was initially alongside her regular job. However, Watson liked doing business so much that less than a year later, in 2018, she quit her job to set up a joint venture with her partner. That became the PHI Factory, whereby they help organizations of various kinds to make their building, procurement, and facilities management completely circular. The timing turned out to be good. Previously, organizations were not so keen on sustainability, but now the time was ripe, with organizations suddenly queuing up to make the transition to sustainable and circular business operations.

What was the reason for you to start your own business?

“During my studies and at the companies where I worked, I had always focused on sustainability, although at the time it wasn’t such an obvious thing to do. At a certain point I thought I’d like to start my own company, but preferably not on my own, because I like to do things together with other people. I met my partner, Geerke Versteeg, when her employer introduced us to each other. That turned out to be a great success: Geerke and I immediately clicked and less than a week later we started working out our entrepreneurial idea. We tend to strive for the same goals, but also complement each other perfectly. Where I am creative and analytical, she is very structured and results-driven. What was also really useful: She had a large network within the government and I had one in the business world.”

What exactly is your product?

“Facility management entails a broad field of expertise. The goal is to support an organization and its employees in such a way that they can deliver their best performances. You also need to have a bit of an understanding of everything: from technical building management or arranging a pleasant working environment, to catering, security, and cleaning. As a facility manager, you are responsible within an organization for all raw materials entering the building, you have an influence on their use, and, finally, you are responsible for disposing of them via the waste contract that’s in place.

It’s all about the best quality, the best price, and – above all, especially important to me – that we also balance our products and services with the ecosystem.

The services we offer with PHI Factory are divided into three units. Consultancy is aimed at advising on matters such as construction and circular procurement projects, but also determining strategy and training and the formation of so-called ‘circular coalitions.’ Then there are our calculators, such as the CO2 footprint calculator, which we can use to measure the impact of purchased products using various instruments. The third unit is an online ‘serious game’ and interactive platform, in which individual employees within an organization are set to work in order to contribute to the sustainability objectives for six weeks.”

What do you want to achieve with this?

“We come into the picture when organizations, from both the government and the business community, want to get to work on making their business operations more sustainable. We focus on the building environment. After all, buildings are responsible for 30% of the waste stream of raw materials and at 35%, the largest source of CO2 emissions.”

“We are also a bit rebellious in this respect, in the sense that we do not regard the building as an architectural work of art or static object, but primarily as a utensil. What matters is the added value that the building can deliver to the employees and the social function of the organization. Often buildings and facility processes are designed on the basis of an assumed need, rather than how the employee will actually use these facilities. This is a huge waste of resources.”

Can you make that a little more concrete?

“Take, for example, a water boiler. It heats up a lot of water, while you probably don’t need two-thirds of it at all. The rest you throw away. That’s a huge waste, isn’t it? In England, where they are real tea drinkers, they have calculated that the amount of electricity that is wasted in making tea, you could light up the whole of England! That’s crazy, isn’t it? But in the Netherlands, too, we’re huge wasters. We don’t use our buildings very well: the average occupancy rates of 35% are not strange. And cars are left parked 90% of the time.”

You see all women and only one man on your website, even though it’s typically quite a male environment that you operate in. Why is that?

“It’s funny you should ask. We are constantly striving for diversity because that is very important to us. Still, we’ve only had one man on board all this time, though not always the same person. But somehow we always got reactions from very strong female applicants.”

“Just prior to the corona crisis we had two vacancies. But because we wanted to know why we didn’t attract strong male candidates like the women, we submitted our vacancy text to an expert. He said: this is a typical vacancy text that appeals to far more women than men. The qualities that candidates had to bring to the table were focused on more female assets such as collaboration, enthusiasm, ability to make connections, and a sensitivity to the environment. We then adapted the text to focus on more masculine aspects. With the desired result: two very good, male candidates! Unfortunately, the corona crisis then broke out, and we had to put the vacancy on hold for a while.”

You have won many awards in recent years. Did those awards help?

“Yes, they did. I’m very happy about that. I’m also proud to be on such a list with such leaders in sustainability, who I have so much respect for. Those awards were also certainly important for our brand awareness. The ABN AMRO Innovation Award was very important for the development and launch of our online serious game. The trust that ABN AMRO Bank expressed in us this way has contributed to the fact that lots of other companies have also registered with us.”

What is the most difficult thing you have experienced with your company?

“The corona crisis. It was unforeseeable. What’s happening now, no one had counted on that. Not only has our order portfolio been halved, but many of our clients in the facilities field have also been hit hard by the crisis or are on crisis teams that have to get all employees to work at home and then soon enough, back at work on-site in this new meter-and-a-half economy. So they now have very different priorities, which I can understand. In the long term, I’m convinced that it will be fine.

Fortunately, we do have good reserves. Also, the situation is making us creative again. We are entrepreneurs, and we are sharp. Within two weeks, for example, we had made our transition to working digitally. In addition, we didn’t use to have any international ambitions, because long-distance business travel would involve a lot of CO2 emissions. However, now that we have all accelerated our online work, we suddenly see all kinds of great opportunities here. The Netherlands leads the way in Europe when it comes to the circular economy. We would like to take that knowledge and experience – online – across the border.”

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