Dedon founder Bobby Dekeyser in an interview
BY ANJA FAHS
Bobby Dekeyser was 15 when he stood up one day in an English lesson and announced: “school is not for me.” Instead, he wanted to be a professional footballer. Four years later he was standing in the goal of FC Bayern Munich. However, after a player from the opposition severely injured him a spectacular adventure began: from a farmhouse in lower Saxony, Dekeyser, father of three children, managed to build up a global business with several thousand employees and make the luxurious outdoor furniture with the brand name Dedon internationally known.
In his book ‘Unverkäuflich!’, Dekeyser tells of how he succeeded in what is important for him and of his path to success which was not based on a dog-eat-dog principle. This is a handbook of inspiration. An encouraging book, an intimate glimpse into the soul of a human being and entrepreneur. We spoke to Bobby Dekeyser about his adventurous life, his ideas and desires and his will to neither give up nor be bought.
Bobby, in your book you tell of friendship, loyalty, vitality, adventurousness, respect and trust. Which of these values are a priority for you?
Bobby Dekeyser: There’s no friendship without loyalty, respect and trust. Remaining true to yourself, regardless of what happens, is of great importance. Not letting yourself be diverted away from your path. Believing in who you are.
At the beginning of your football career, Pelé gave you advice for life. What advice was this and how did it influence you?
B. D.: “Follow your dreams”, this sentence has accompanied me my whole life and has given me courage again and again. It has been a kind of motto.
What other people have had lasting influences on the course of your life thus far?
B. D.: My wife Ann-Kathrin, who unfortunately died much too early: her goodness and friendliness. My children and my extended family.
Football defined your youth and was your life for many years. What did you learn during this time that would influence the rest of your life?
B. D.: You are never as good as others say, but you are also never as bad. I have learnt to focus and to work towards a goal. And not to give up, whatever the score is.
You have always practiced sports passionately. Are there other passions which accompany you, drive you and which have shaped your personality?
B. D.: I travel often, which I love. Movement helps me to free my thoughts. I discover new things, I am awake. Movement is important in life.
In the past, you made detailed lists for your training sessions, sports activities or nutrition. Are you always a ‘list writer’ or how do you remember important things?
B. D.: Sometimes I write lists for myself in order to sort things or to gain clarity before making a decision. I write everything on a list in order to weigh up what the right path is. But I’m not a bureaucrat of my own life.
When you decided to give up your football career due to an injury and become an entrepreneur, what kind of feeling was that?
B. D.: It was a release, a feeling of ‘now we’re getting going!’ I lay in hospital with a severe injury and sensed that a new chapter was beginning. Looking back, it was also a little naive. I should have waited a little.
Key word ‘bast giraffe’ – when you think back, this must have been a symbol of your first success. Why?
B. D.: We wanted to use the bast giraffes as a stand decoration at a trade fair. Suddenly though, everyone began to ask about them and wanted to buy them. For us, this meant a financial breather, as the furniture wasn’t yet working out. So the bast animals saved us and were sold ten thousand times. I wish for anyone in a critical situation, that he finds his bast giraffe.
Is there a talisman or an object that is of particular importance for you today?
B. D.: Material things have little significance for me. But I am stuck to my old pick-up truck, a wine red oldie from the 60s which I bought in California. My son Yannick will have it one day.
You hardly ever separate business and private life and act according to the ‘family & friends’ principle. What does this mean to you?
B. D.: I like to surround myself with people I can trust. Family and friends are top priority for me, my ‘pack’ is important to me. In a company, unlike in a family, one person always has to be in charge, otherwise it doesn’t work.
That means you always trust people right from the beginning. Have there been times where you were disappointed?
B. D.: Of course. You can’t look into a person’s mind or heart. But that doesn’t distract me from my basic principle of trusting people in the beginning. Disappointment is just part of it all.
How have you learned to deal with defeat?
B. D.: Defeat is also part of life, it is almost more important than success. Drawing the right conclusions, changing things, drawing strength. I like crises because they make you creative. You question things and clean up.
And what was your biggest achievement, apart from setting up an internationally successful company?
B. D.: My fantastic family. I am proud of my three children, who are following their own paths, each in his own way. Carolin is a young entrepreneur, Yannick has started his career as a musician with some success and Marie wants to be an actress.
You said it was worth being active for daily balance. What do you mean with this statement?
B. D.: Pulling yourself together, moving, not consuming too much, it’s better be proactive. An example: I drive into the football stadium, sit in traffic and let the game wash over me, or I go to the park with a ball.
What situation has ever brought you into a state of imbalance?
B. D.: The sudden death of my wonderful wife Ann-Kathrin.
How do you deal with it? How do you ‘process’ it?
B. D.: It is a constant process which never stops. They say that time heals wounds, but not all of them. It gets better with time but the pain is always there. My family and friends were a great support for me.
With your foundation ‘Dekeyser & Friends’ you are attempting to convey a new type of education. What can we understand from this?
B. D.: For me it’s not about a new type of education, but a school of life. Experienced personalities pass on their knowledge to young people. That is the idea. Our most important project is on the Philippine island of Cebu, where we built a village for more than 400 people who lived on a rubbish dump. They started a new life there. My daughter Carolin has climbed on board and is doing a great job. I privately finance the foundation.
You are also very committed in the area of CSR and offer your employees a fantastic working environment. Do you always put them at the centre of the company?
B. D.: I once said “only a happy employee can create a comfortable chair.” A company should have a good soul. We are not only selling furniture, but also representing a way of life. And yes, we look after our people with sports offers or in Asia with bank accounts and transfers to work. An entrepreneur carries social responsibility.
When you look back at your career as a successful businessman, what does entrepreneurship mean to you today? And how was it 20 years ago?
B. D.: Entrepreneurship means freedom. Making decisions, being able to act, building a platform – that is fun for me. As much now as 20 years ago.
What is the key to success for you? Is it a different one for the private life and for business?
B. D.: Family and sticking to values will always get you further in your private life and in your business life. Success is a very individual term. How do you define success? I often find that material objects are given too much importance.
What do you think is the most important thing that you can pass on to your children?
B. D.: The idea of the foundation. The desire to make things better for other people, to be able to offer them something
You have developed a whole island, Dedon island. Where and what is it exactly? A sort of ‘Dedon furniture showroom’ in the flesh?
B. D.: Dedon island is a resort on the island Siargao. Of course our furniture is also located there, but primarily it is the desire for completely natural luxury. The surroundings are heavenly. And you can also go out with the fisher in the mornings, learn from a cook how to prepare the fish and sit with friends on the beach in the evening and enjoy the fish.
Dedon island bears the attribute ‘barefoot state of mind’ – the luxury of walking barefoot and doing without shoes and other common conventions for a time. What is pure luxury for you?
B. D.: Pure luxury is having time. Enjoying nature, being outside, with friends is a pleasure.
In what places in the world do you have a sense of well-being?
B. D.: There are many locations. Ibiza has become my home; I like the naturalness of the island a lot. I go walking, swimming and take out the stand up paddle board. In the mornings I sometimes see dolphins. It is heaven.
There was a time in your life when all your possessions fit into a suitcase. Back then it was not exactly connected with a feeling of freedom. How is it today, now that you moved to New York City with only two suitcases? Do you view possessions as a burden?
B. D.: Possessions can be burdening, you have to be careful. It is a great feeling to move to New York with just two cases. I am light and flexible. In the past I separated myself from several material things, for example cars. I don’t need them.
What three wishes do you have for the future?
B. D.: The next adventures await my friends and I.
Bobby Dekeyser was born in 1964 in Löwen in Belgium. Following the injury causing the end of his career as professional goalie, he founded the outdoor furniture company Dedon in 1990. In 2009 Dekeyser started up the foundation ‘Dekeyser & Friends’, with the goal of inspiring young people to follow their dreams and change the world.
School dropout, professional footballer, entrepreneur of an international company – the completely crazy biography of Bobby Dekeyser is available from Ankerherz.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q3 2015. Picture credit © Mai 2012, Ankerherz Verlag GmbH (Hollenstedt)