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Business is about making a profit for shareholders. or not? The founder of today’s billion-dollar Patagonia company showed that it can be done differently. Profits will now go to charity. “This is historic, but it’s not unique,” says Case Klump, lecturer in the economics of meaning at Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. There are also companies in the Netherlands whose profits go entirely to charities.
Willem Bronk’s 22-year dream started with a gas station in Gouda. The businessman wanted to help charities, without getting richer there himself. So he provided a shed for the aid organizations to store things. School furniture for poor countries or relief supplies for Ukraine.
“But there are also costs associated with a shed. Mortgage, municipal taxes. I had to get money from somewhere to pay for that,” Bronk says. So he set up a gas station next to the shed. Through the proceeds, he pays for free storage to charities. “And also the hours we give away for free to arrange transportation, for example.”
Gouda De Baanderij gas station is not the only charitable pump. Since 2000, motorists in Amsterdam have been able to connect to the Kriterion student pump. With the proceeds, working students can pay for their studies.
Bronk got the idea in the United States where he saw a Salvation Army gas pump. “This is where the idea of social entrepreneurship comes in,” says Professor Clumb. “The first example I know of is Bernie Glassman’s New York bakery that was founded in the 1980s to get the homeless into business. It wasn’t about making the most profit possible, but about making the least profit possible in a commercial sense.”
Gas stations are early examples in the Netherlands. “The number of social enterprises has really increased in the last 10 years,” says Klomp.
In 2015, the Netherlands had between 5,000 and 6,000 social enterprises, according to figures from consultancy firm McKinsey. Five years ago, there were more than 2,000 fewer. Clump: “The crisis of 2008 was an important catalyst. More and more people are starting to think about the question: What on Earth are companies?”
Social enterprises are also on the rise in other European countries. A European comparison shows that Italy, Hungary and France in particular have a relatively high number.
Some of these social enterprises grow into major corporations. “The best known Dutch examples are smartphone maker FairPhone, restaurant The Color Kitchen, and bicycle manufacturer Roetz,” says Klomp. All these companies do not see profit as an end but as a means.
But a company the size of Patagonia (annual profit of 100 million euros) gives all its profits to charity? Clump: “This is so special, it gives philanthropy a whole new meaning.”
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