A Powerful Story about Team Diversity: The Philips Founding Fathers

A Philips light bulb on a grey background

Leadership Expert Series Logo in green with worldmap and compassThis post is part of our Expert Series in which Hanneke Siebelink shares valuable leadership lessons from a list of experts, researchers and role models she selected and interviewed. Read all LeadershipWatch Series articles here.


In the winter of 1894, the young engineer and entrepreneur Gerard Philips could no longer deny the fact that he was worried. A few years back, he had – aided by his father Frederik – founded a company producing light bulbs. He was convinced that electrical lighting would soon conquer the world: his travels to Germany and the UK (Glasgow), where electric lamps already brightened up some streets, factories and theaters, had shown him that. So he had bought an empty factory in Eindhoven, a small village in the south of The Netherlands, for a price he could afford (12000 guilders). His 28 employees worked day and night for reasonable wages, and the quality of the lamps they produced was outstanding – thanks to the countless hours of innovative research and experiments he personally put in.

Portrait of Gerard Philips, Founder of Philips NV

Gerard Philips (source: Philips Museum, Eindhoven)

So why was it that his company, after a flying start, was on the verge of bankruptcy? The thought that he could actually fail made Gerard’s stomach twist and turn. ‘For a while I was so worried I could not sleep,’ he recounted later.

Enters Gerard’s younger brother Anton, who didn’t think much of Eindhoven (‘a group of houses in a desolate and misty place’) but decided to team up with his brother anyway.

No two men could have been more different. Gerard, whose moustache covered half his face, was not a man of many words. He was a strategist with a good sense of where he thought the company should go, but preferred the technical environment and silence of his research lab over noisy (and in his view often meaningless) conversations.

Anton, always with that twinkle in his eyes, had never been the genius his brother was. But he had a nose for the commercial side of things, and did he have a talent for understanding people! ‘He was very energetic, loved meeting new people and took decisions swiftly’, his grandson remembers. ‘When Philips was still a tiny company, he traveled to America to buy a state of the art machine from General Electric. He somehow managed to befriend the senior leadership. The machine ended up going to Philips – not to a much larger company, as GE had originally planned.’

Portrait of Anton Philips, Founder of Philips NV

Anton Philips (source: Philips Museum, Eindhoven)

The Gerard-Anton team proved to be a powerful combination. With Anton taking sales under his wings (he traveled to the farthest places to talk and listen to sales agents and dealers in person – many sons of which remember their father’s stories about ‘Mr. Anton’ to this day), Gerard could focus on what he knew he did best: the R&D side and the production process. Anton, on the other hand, would never have sold as many light bulbs without the continuous quality improvements his brother guaranteed.

The synergy and healthy competition between the Philips brothers served many people well. The company they built together lies at the basis of the multinational Philips N.V., which in turn lies at the basis of the city of Eindhoven, currently one of the most inventive cities in the world. Entrepreneurs speak highly of the ‘extremely collaborative ecosystem’ they find on Eindhoven’s High Tech Campus (Read a nice Forbes article about it here: Why Europe’s hottest Med Tech entrepreneurs are pitching up in the Netherlands). The Philips founding fathers, had they been alive today, would probably have been proud.

What can today’s business leaders learn from this true story? Here are some questions to reflect on:

1) Could it be that the real driver of progress and innovation is collaboration between people, and not the individual – no matter how bright he/she is?

Author Joshua Wolf Schenk, for instance, is convinced that the lone genius is a myth. Even Einstein, he argues in his intriguing book ‘Powers of Two’, would not have come up with his relativity theory without his collaboration and frequent conversations with engineer Michele Besso.

If true, to what extent do we deliberately choose teamwork to create the innovation and progress that will drive our company’s success?

2) A variety of backgrounds (education; character; culture, …) can make a company more adaptable to its ever changing environment. Healthy debates can lead to better decisions. We all know many reasons why diversity in teams and in the boardroom is important. But do we really choose diversity over like-mindedness when confronted with a business challenge?

To what extent do we actively seek diversity, even when we feel we are dealing with great differences that seem incompatible, like opposite poles? Do we make one another’s best qualities explicit, and combine them to achieve remarkable results? Just like the Philips founding fathers did in Eindhoven?

We look forward to hearing your experiences and thoughts!

Sources:  ‘Het Wonder van Eindhoven’ (Arno Kantelberg); ‘Anton Philips’ (Marcel Metze); Philips Museum, Eindhoven.

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Photo: James Bowe/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Hanneke Siebelink is Research Partner and Writer at HRS Business Transformation Services, and author of several books. Her current research focuses on how leaders build successful organizations by increasing the quality and effectiveness of collaboration across divisions, companies and cultures. In the LeadershipWatch Series she shares valuable leadership lessons from a list of experts and role models she selected and interviewed. Find out more about Hanneke and HRS services. If you would like to invite us to your organization, contact us here.

4 Comments on “A Powerful Story about Team Diversity: The Philips Founding Fathers

  1. Thanks for the insightful article. The fathers name was Frederik Philips, not Frits.
    That was the son of Anton who became a famous CEO of the company too.

    Like

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