Grönefeld watches: preserving craftsmanship through leadership

Being a family owned company ourselves, we have special admiration for family owned businesses who are conquering the world market. One such an inspiring company is that of the Grönefeld brothers. Our CEO Camiel Gielkens met up with brothers Bart and Tim to interview them on their entrepreneurship and leadership styles in their growing business. A story about letting go of control and trusting each other’s strengths.

An old-fashioned grandfather clock chimes in the background. The Grönefeld family has been in the business of making and repairing watches since 1912. Brothers Bart and Tim Grönefeld took over from their father Johannes (Sjef) in 1998. The horological brothers, as they are now known, grew up playing in their father’s workshop, mesmerized by the pocket watches of which some were 200 years old. This planted the seed for their ambition. Now they are recognized as one of the best in their field, creating award-winning time pieces.

Brothers in business

What does being brothers in business mean for them? Bart and Tim Grönefeld are united in their passion for watchmaking. At the watch making school in Schoonhoven in the Netherlands, they became friends and discovered they complemented each other very well in business. Bart primarily works on the finishing and the complications in the watches. Tim is in the lead for the commercial side of the business. Bart: ‘I am happy to be working with my brother. Our particular profession and building our brand involves a lot of money and investing. We push each other when in doubt.’ Tim adds: ‘We have a relatively small team. That makes decision making easier and faster.’

When things become difficult they work it out together. It’s part of their strength as a team. Camiel: ‘In high performing teams your function title doesn’t matter that much. It’s about your added value. Every opinion helps in the decision making process.’ ‘Right. It really helps when one of us comes up with the solution, or admits the other is right. Sometimes that can take a day’, smiles Tim.

Leadership by letting go

In the beginning, Grönefeld made 10 to 15 watches per year, but now the business is growing, the team makes to 75 to 80 watches per year. Making watches is teamwork: the team works on 10 watches simultaneously. Each watchmaker being an expert in a specific field. So how do they make sure the teams work well together? ‘They do that themselves!’ says Tim. ‘It was a difficult decision for us, but we left building the watches to the team. It was a specific request of the team.’

Letting go of control was hard, but it made sense. The watchmakers at Grönefeld have, on average, more than 20 years’ experience. And managing the business, accelerate its growth and personally taking care of clients takes up almost all of the brother’s time. Now the brothers and the watchmakers keep each other in the loop of both parts of the business.

Growing, as a company, and as leaders

Leadership asks for honest connections and open communication. A good leader shows empathy and knows what is going on in the business. It benefits the entire organization. Camiel: ‘I am still actively involved in execution of our global leadership programs and am a coach to several executives. I do this on purpose: our research shows that leaders who are actively involved in the day to day business are more successful.’

Similarly, with the growth of Grönefeld, it became more and more important to involve all employees in developments. By showing the way the teams can take ownership in their work. Because the growth means that watchmakers become teachers to new watchmakers. Bart and Tim don’t get behind the workbench as much as they used to, but they still love it. In leading by example they work closely with the team when they have developed a new product. This allows them to help the team members grow into the new role.

From leadership to legacy

The brothers have big dreams. ‘We are looking into obtaining a new building, so we can equip a larger team. This will enable the Grönefeld brand to go to the next level. ‘We can grow quite easily to 200 or even 500 pieces per year’, Bart says with confidence. With such ambitions, the leadership style needs to keep up with growth. According to Tim, the most important thing is to let the people do their job. ‘Trust them.’

The horological brothers are the third generation of Grönefeld watchmakers. Now Tim and Bart are trying to build their brand to leave a legacy to the fourth generation. Tim: ‘We both have sons and daughters. They don’t have to go into watchmaking, but if they are interested (and some of them already are), we want to create jobs for them. When asked what tip they would give to their successors, they reply: ‘Make a good business plan and stick to it. Make bold choices and be original. If you stay consistent in this, and keep focus on the long term, your organization will thrive.’

The horological brothers’ 3 lessons for leadership

  1. Stay true to your core values; be original & authentic
  2. Trust your people; they are the experts
  3. Focus on the long term; be bold

Do you want to create your own high performing team? Please feel free to contact Camiel Gielkens for executive advice.

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