Be agile and be prepared to adapt

Barry Koolen, CEO EMEA and Executive Board Member at global ‘logistics and people services’ provider Crown Worldwide Group, and native New Zealander, boasts a hugely successful career rooted in his understanding of putting people at the heart of business.

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Barry Koolen, CEO EMEA, Crown Worldwide Group

Crown Worldwide, established in 1965 in Japan, has expanded into a global business encompassing six brands over the course of six decades, with services ranging from global and domestic relocations, records management, workplace solutions, fine art, logistics and wine cellar management. Koolen spearheads the EMEA leg of the business, operating in 18 countries, and is responsible for the results and performance of the region. Koolen has used his experience relocating from New Zealand to the UK to shape the delivery of Crown’s services, and firmly believes that a human-centric approach to leadership is rooted in lived experience.

A zealous New Zealander leading the charge
Koolen’s origins as a native New Zealander has provided him with an understanding of exactly what international moves entail, having relocated to the UK in the 1990s. He considers this to have been pivotal at the onset of his successful career, leading him to head up Crown Relocations, the international removals division of the company, for much of his time at the organisation. It’s this lived experience that allows Koolen to empathise with people undergoing the moving process themselves. He maintains that it’s delivering the kind of quality and simplicity that expats need and expect when they are undertaking complicated, life-changing moves that really makes a difference.

International relocation is certainly not without its challenges. Transitioning from one culture to another brings a level of uncertainty, from navigating unfamiliar territory to adapting to often unfamiliar cultural norms. “Relocating also saw me transition from one culture to another. And I believe that’s helped me to build better teams, and teams that are more diverse, drawing on the strengths of different individuals to help make Crown Worldwide Group one of the most successful privately-owned specialist logistics companies in the world.” There’s no doubt in Koolen’s mind that this lived experience has shaped his career development to this day.

Small steps to success
Koolen’s interest in the cross-over between sport and business has also provided him with a unique perspective on the industry and his approach to leadership. “I’m a big All Blacks fan, and – while disappointed at the outcome of last year’s rugby World Cup final in Paris – I was amazed by the tiny incremental gains deployed by the South Africans to win consecutive World Cups – they won the quarter-final, semi-final and final all by just one point.”

As leaders, we have to listen – or we get left behind

When it comes to success being measured by small margins, business is no different. Koolen maintains that it’s all about going that extra yard; looking at investing one extra dollar in a clever way has the potential to bring about huge returns. He also admires the determination and togetherness of the rugby team to succeed again and again, and the motivation to not rest and relax on previous successes. “Elite sports teams are incredible in this respect. I’d like to think that I’ve applied that sporting philosophy into my own work and instilled it in my teams; when it comes to delivering success for a customer, that appetite needs to be there constantly,” he notes.

Simplicity is key
When it comes to tackling challenges thrown his way, Koolen swears by a clear mindset. For him, simplicity is vital. “We’re steadfast in our focus on both the customer and our people, and we know that both customer success, and the success of our teams is contingent on making things simple,” he says. His client base in the EMEA region often face some of the most pressing challenges of today, whether this be the race to digitise processes to drive efficiency, evolve workplaces in a new world of hybrid work, or navigate the complexities around immigration and supply chains in a globalised world, that – increasingly – has competing nationalised interests. Koolen’s starting point is always, “How can we make it simple?” an approach that governs much of how himself and his colleagues at Crown across Europe seek to overcome challenges. Another key, personal strategy of Koolen’s is to surround himself with specialists with different skillsets and approaches, to help navigate challenges as a collective to ensure they are overcome with ease. “It’s the diversity – and diversity of thought – combined with a range of skillsets that makes tackling challenges more seamless.”

Success is more than just profits
Koolen’s definition of success would be the achievement of the goals set, which he believes to be true in business and personal life. “In business, like any CEO, whether they’re responsible for a corporate business, or a not-for-profit or charitable organisation, I’d be lying if I said that success didn’t – in large part – centre around financial performance.” In his view, financial success means businesses can invest more in their people, in innovation, in being more sustainable, and in growth – but that’s just one aspect that defines it. Success now goes well beyond profits, he argues.

When it comes to delivering success to a customer, that appetite needs to be there constantly

“It’s measured in the engagement, diversity and wellbeing of our team, the impact that we have on the environment, and specifically to me and my board colleagues at Crown, the quality and simplicity we deliver for clients and customers, in a world that is complex and ever-changing. So, I gauge and define my success and that of Crown, on how we’re performing in all of these areas.”

A leader putting people first
Developing a human-centric approach to business is instrumental to achieving this success. For him, human-centricity is about lived-experience – walking the walk, understanding, and living the challenges of both employees and customers – but also listening. “I spend as much time as I can listening to my teams and asking them to listen to their clients. Only then can we deliver services and create a work environment that puts people and their needs first. We’re listening to our customers as much as we can – encouraging them to engage in dialogue with us, so that we hear and understand their challenges – enabling us to provide a better service. And we’re doing the same with our staff, and that’s leading to changes in policies, the introduction of new benefits and initiative, and more.”

He expands on this by stating that a human-centric approach encourages businesses to stay attuned to these evolving customer needs, with this responsiveness facilitating innovation and the ability to adapt to challenges within the organisation. Listening to both Crown’s teams and customers helps to foster relationships and contributes to long-term business growth, but prioritises the people above all else. “As leaders, we have to listen – or we get left behind.”

A sustainable future for the next generation of talent
Looking to the future, Koolen predicts that one key goal is to drive down Crown Worldwide’s carbon footprint, a challenge that logistics businesses the world over are grappling with. “We’re developing a robust plan to achieve net-zero and I’m excited about the activity we’ll be undertaking, and the innovation we’re encouraging, to achieve that critical goal. We have a great track record of giving back to the communities in which we operate, but enhancing our work in sustainability is the next big step, and the opportunity and hunger among our team to do that fills me with positivity. We’re progressing well on that journey. Secondly, we want to grow Crown’s five international brands, and continually diversify the services that we offer our clients, in line with their needs.”

In the last 60 years, Crown Worldwide Group has expanded and diversified from its core business of relocations, and leveraged the assets acquired over time to deliver that core business – such as property, vehicles, entrepreneurial people – to meet the changing needs of their customers and society. “We want to continue in that spirit. The rate at which the world is changing shows no signs of abating – but with our asset base, our people, expertise and history, we’re well placed to help meet the needs of our customers as those changes continue,” he explains.

Hoping to inspire the next generation of leaders, Koolen’s advice is to the point – “be agile and be prepared to adapt.” The world is moving at pace, and those who can adapt quickly to what is going on in the world and the changing needs of customers will flourish. What worked last year may not work this year, priorities will change, and often due to circumstances beyond our control. His parting words? “You can’t change it, just change direction and move forward.”