May 27, 2016
Read time: 3 minutes
When I close my eyes I can still see him. My grandfather. With his wrinkly face and big cigars. The stale smell in the house as a result of not ventilating enough, trying to keep the heat inside. Frugal. As always. And his hands. His big, strong hands that used to pinch me in the knee. Those hands that were aged, and showed a life of working hard. It was only after he passed away and I got a little older that I started wondering where those hands had been. What he had done with his hands. What he had built.
At the age 72, when my grandfather passed away, he was a millionaire by today’s standards.
As a father of eight boys and 2 girls, he was very much the patriarch of the family. He had been able to provide for his family and he had been able to improve the lives of thousands of his customers.
You see a year and a half into World War 2, he started his own business. He was 23 years old at the time and already married to my grandmother.
Back then the Germans were rounding up Dutch men all around the country.
Not to send them off to the infamous concentration camps, but to put them to work at German arms factories, to repair and build infrastructure and to build defense structures in the front lines of war all over Europe. But not grandpa. He became a carpenter. And a very good one at that.
Entrepreneurs and self-employed people were considered the backbone of the country.
The Germans didn’t take those men to work in their factories. There wouldn’t be much of country left to occupy and raise taxes from if they did. So in the converted shed in the back yard, that previously served as a hen house, my grandfather started hand crafting furniture, build to order. Chairs and tables and cabinets.
There was this post-war energy.
This profound feeling of having gotten a second chance.
With his bare hands and nearly no tools to speak of, he made the best of a bad situation and in the process avoided being drafted to be put to work somewhere else in Europe.
After the war, he had three choices. He could either grow his business into a factory and keep creating his own furniture, or he could morph into a retail store, selling other people’s furniture, or he could go work somewhere as an employee.
He chose retail and grew into an all-round interior decoration store.
It was hard work and the days were long. But there was this post-war energy. This profound feeling of having gotten a second chance. A positive outlook on life.
My dad was one of the oldest sons and he took over the family business. He made a deal with the bank to pay part to my grandparents immediately and the rest over time.
During my childhood, I lived next door to my grandparents, so I got to know them pretty well. And what was surreal to me, especially in retrospect, is that, having gone through extreme poverty and hard times, always putting their family before themselves,
They were unable to enjoy their new wealth.
Their interior was old.
In perfect shape, but old. It never occurred to them that they could pimp it or renew it. As long as it wasn’t broken, it was not going to be replaced. My grandmother wore dresses she had made herself from old curtain samples that were no longer used in the store. Potatoes were not peeled but scraped.
If you have to feed 10 kids of which 8 were boys, that makes a difference. But when they are all out of the house, and you’re just with the two of them, not so much.
I distinctly remember a Christmas one time, where all of the extended family was gathered. Can you imagine 10 children, all with their spouses AND their children? It was what we in the Netherlands call: very gezellig.
In the Christmas tree is saw 10 ordinary white envelopes. Just hanging there. My dad later told me that in each envelope, my grandparents had put 10 grand.
At 72, when my grandfather passed away, he was a millionaire by today’s standards. My aunts and uncles were able to buy or build their dream homes with only a tenth of the total inheritance as a down payment. My mom and dad expanded and upgraded the business several times until it became one of the Netherlands most prestigious, high end furniture stores.
When I was only 24 years old, my parents trusted the family business in the hands of my wife and I.
For four years we worked that business and created the most amazing interiors for our customers. We worked for famous soccer players, successful entrepreneurs, factory CEO’s and also for, what you’d call ‘regular’ locals that appreciated quality and service.
After 4 years I decided to go do something with that new thing called the internet.
Well that was back in 2001 and the rest is history. My sister and her husband now run the family furniture store. So after almost 75 years, it is still in business and still in the family.
Now why am I telling you all this?
I just want you to know how deep and emotional our connection is to the small business owner.
We’ve been there.
We know what a successful small business can do for an entire family. How it can provide food, shelter, an education, opportunities. Life! And that is why we have a deep rooted passion. A drive. An inner motivation to help, not the big companies, not the enterprises, not the factories, but the small, local, self-employed people. The men and women that work hard every day to provide for their families and that add value in their marketplace.
And if we can help them do better. Be better. Get more business. Than that will make the world a better place. At least their world. And that of their families and customers.
We know it will.
When I look at my own hands now, they are just as big as my grandfather’s. And I too pinch my sons knee from time to time. Only my hands are soft. And my tool is a keyboard. But I will never forget his big rugged hands – nor where I came from…