Caroline Lubbers is unusual in that she comes from a family business on both sides. Steelmaking on her father’s, and hotel and hospitality on her mother’s. And it’s both sides that inspire her in business.
“My mother was the only daughter in a family of seven, so she was used to a very masculine environment, right from her childhood. She’s a very strong personality, like a lot of my other female relatives, so our family has never had a problem with female leadership. It’s very normal and natural for women to be in charge, and I’ve never felt that being a woman would hinder me in any way, or prevent me from managing the business myself one day. But female leadership is different than male leadership. My mother used to tell me about when she started out in business, and how she was the only woman among many men. Things have changed since then, but I think women still need to find their own leadership style, and have the confidence to follow that through. One of the things I want to do, personally, is help inspire women to do that, both inside our firm, and outside. Part of it is about accepting that it’s good for men and women to have different goals and priorities in life. Not better, just different.”
Caroline started her own career outside the family business, choosing instead to get experience abroad in a different industry, before returning to her family’s sector by working for Hilton in Italy. She then became a marketing manager in her family firm, the Hotel Theatre Figi in the Dutch city of Zeist, where she now has a role on the family board, as well as a social enterprise business of her own. “When I joined the family business one of my biggest challenges was to keep a professional relationship with my family, and to make sure we kept personal issues out of our decision-making. But that isn’t always easy: balancing the personal and professional is a tough one for me because I’m passionate, engaged and ambitious, and I like to achieve results, but I’m also a member of the family, and I feel a sense of responsibility and commitment to them. It’s all about setting the right boundaries.”
Digital technology is transforming the leisure and hospitality sector – it started with online booking, then there was TripAdvisor, and now, with the advent of AirBnB, the whole business model is changing. Caroline agrees that “the biggest challenge the business is facing is to stay relevant. Yes, everyone is talking about AirBnB but there are other huge opportunities out there, especially in how we engage directly with our visitors. The market is being changed by its consumers rather than the other way round - in other words, what people are demanding of us. We’re involving our younger generation family members in exploring this for us – they are ‘digital natives’ and they’re much closer to this new technology than my uncles are.”
Technology may be changing how the Hotel Theatre Figi reaches its customers, but its values and principles are the same as they’ve always been. “We are lucky in that we can take the long view, and focus on the profitability of the firm in the long term. And at the same time, I think every family business should aim to reinvent itself with each new generation – keeping the core values but adapting your products or services to what the market wants. We also have a strong social conscience as a family, and this is what has inspired me to work with the cocoa industry to help achieve a more sustainable production system and supply chain. Doing this worldwide has proved to me yet again how important women’s leadership is. Together with an NGO, I am setting up an international network of women working in cocoa and chocolate. Because empowering women is, and has always been, the best way to achieve real, positive change.”