“I can hardly claim that I've realised what I set out to achieve, as I set out back then without any kind of plan." Despite that fact, founder and CEO Hendrik Vanmaele has succeeded in turning Möbius into the biggest independent consulting firm in the country. His business, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, has been able to constantly reinvent itself over the past quarter-century by finding new niches and sectors time and time again. "I strongly believe that, as an entrepreneur, you are dependent on the people you encounter along the way. Much more than any business plan, it's interesting encounters and conversations that have forged our entrepreneurial story.”
Back in 1997, Professor Hendrik Vanmaele established his own business as a spinoff from Ghent University. "But the Möbius of today is a completely different business than what it was 25 years ago", he immediately clarifies. “We took our very first steps in the world of logistics and supply chains, which remains one of our strengths to this day. We then brought that experience with us to new sectors, such as the financial sector, utility companies, healthcare, the public sector, education and so on. We've always been eager to explore new niches. Today, we are the market leader in the healthcare sector, all due to the fact we became active there so early on."
"Take hospitals, for example. These days, any modern hospital is 20% healthcare and 80% logistics — something the coronavirus crisis has made all the more obvious. You constantly need to keep an eye on patient flows, you need to be flexible with doctors and nurses, you need to schedule operations and treatment carefully to make sure your expensive equipment is used as effectively as possible, you need to constantly monitor your medicine stocks — you get the point. Hospitals had little experience with running logistical operations, and we happened to have a lot. That's how we ended up in that new world," Vanmaele recounts.
Today, Möbius is the biggest independent consulting firm in Belgium, its CEO proclaims with more than a modicum of pride. "There's the big four — Deloitte, PwC, EY and KPMG — and then there's us. I take pride in the fact that we're the biggest Belgian player in that market, but above all, I take pride in the fact that we've remained strongly mission-driven to this date."
"Not everyone thinks particularly highly of consultants: according to some, we're opportunists flogging nothing but expensive and empty advice. I'm not going to comment on whether there may be a grain of truth in that, but what I can say is that this is absolutely not the way we seek to do things," Vanmaele says. "We want to run a profit, of course, but there's absolutely no need for us to pursue those large volumes. The most important thing is that we can make a social impact: that's the first and foremost criterion we look at when getting on board with new clients and projects."
"Last year, we worked behind the screens to help set up the entire organisation behind the vaccination campaign. We helped make sure that millions of people got their invites on time and could easily schedule an appointment, that every centre had sufficient vaccines available, that every vaccination centre had procedures to follow and so on. The chance to help out on a project of that magnitude and complexity, and with that kind of huge impact on society and the economy: that's what we get out of bed for in the morning."
"Every one of our employees knows that we strive to make a social impact, that we seek to build bridges, and that we work with an exceptional set of people. Those are the three pillars on which Möbius is built."
"That said, this mission hasn't exactly been there since day one. It has always played an important role, but it hasn't always been set in stone. For example, we could clearly see as much as twenty years ago that the circular economy would take on an important role, and we contributed to the foundation of both Bebat and Recupel. But our mission only took on a more formal shape at a later stage," Vanmaele explains.
"We fine-tuned our mission when we switched to a flat, self-managed organisation structure. When you remove every last vestige of a hierarchy at your organisation, your employees no longer have much to hold on to. A clear mission offers clear direction in that situation. It makes sure we're all pulling in the same direction, and it sets out a clear course. Every one of our employees knows that we strive to make a social impact, that we seek to build bridges, and that we work with an exceptional set of people. Those are the three pillars on which Möbius is built."
Today, Möbius employs around a hundred consultants, plus another 15 people on its support team. These consultants are located in Belgium, but also in the Netherlands and France. So, has the business achieved everything Vanmaele had hoped for 25 years ago? "Oh absolutely not, I had no clear picture at all 25 years ago of where I wanted to go or what I wanted to achieve. I didn't even have a plan for the first year, let alone for 2022," he quips. "I can hardly claim at this point that I've realised what I set out to achieve, as I set out back then without any kind of plan."
"I strongly believe that, as an entrepreneur, you are dependent on the people you encounter along the way."
"Lots of businesses achieve growth rooted in a concrete business plan. Möbius' growth has always been rooted in the strength of our people," its CEO stresses. "The talent we managed to get on board set the pace of our growth and decided which new markets and sectors we ventured into. I strongly believe that, as an entrepreneur, you are dependent on the people you encounter along the way. Much more than any business plan, it's interesting encounters and conversations that have written our entrepreneurial story."
"Take the hospital sector, for example: an entirely new and mysterious world, in which not a single consulting firm could see the point of getting involved. Two of our consultants were the first to venture into this new world. They were completely unfamiliar with the sector, but they applied their logistics knowledge to one specific hospital. The project set in motion a snowball effect. After that first hospital, we started working for a second, and before we knew it, we were the market leader in Belgium."
Transcend prejudice and clichés
The coronavirus has created a big wave for consulting firms to ride, including Möbius, Vanmaele claims. "We've noticed two evolutions over the past year. First of all, for lots of organisations in nearly every sector, the framework in which they were operating became extremely unpredictable. Add to that the fact that the economic recovery has been much stronger than anyone could have predicted. The combination of these two elements has only served to further accelerate the need for advice and support. Change management has become an indispensable factor at all organisations"
"In the past, the urge to work behind closed doors and maintain the status quo was much stronger, but due to the realisation that transformation is essential and inevitable, even more 'traditional' sectors like the public sector, healthcare and education have started to embrace change. They're no longer holding back on getting external expertise on board: "We're doing things we've never had to do before, we need to do things differently to how it's always been and we can't do so all by ourselves,' goes the story we hear time and time again."
The urge to modernise is all-prevailing now, according to Vanmaele. "And there's no way the private sector has a monopoly on that. That's one cliché we really could do without. Here at Möbius, we've been working with both the private sector and the public sector over the past 25 years. The private sector has just as many people who are absolutely set in their ways, and who simply go to work, do their hours and go back home. But the main thing we're seeing in both public organisations and private businesses is an incredible amount of passion."
"The staff at hospitals have just as much passion for their patients as the staff at private companies do for their customers," Vanmaele argues. "The flexibility hospitals and schools have shown during the coronavirus crisis has been every bit as impressive as what businesses have achieved. More than ever before, businesses, organisations and sectors need to work together to find solutions to the major challenges coming our way. And to do so, we need to transcend any prejudice and clichés."
"The flexibility hospitals and schools have shown during the coronavirus crisis has been every bit as impressive as what businesses have achieved."
Cooperation. In Vanmaele's view, that's the order of the day for the coming years. "Whether it's industry, banking, renewable energy or any other field: on the tiny patch of land that's Flanders or even Belgium, there's no way everyone can keep doing the same thing side by side in their own little corner. We need to start building bridges. In fact, that's a crucial element of our mission at Möbius."
"Over the past 25 years, we've built a reputation as facilitators and builders of bridges. For example, we facilitated a project on burnout prevention a little while ago. It was an important project to be involved in, as burnouts have a huge impact on people, society and the economy. We're certainly not doctors or psychologists, but one thing we can do is bring all partners in line so they can coordinate and combine their efforts. And if there's one thing COVID-19 has shown, it's that it's not always straightforward to get the government and experts to see eye-to-eye."
Launch the next generation
As far as his own role is concerned, Vanmaele envisages one task dominating after those first 25 years. "To launch the next generation. The people who've been here since day one are slowly getting to the end of their careers. They're getting ready to call it a day, or they'd like to embark on one more challenge in a completely different area before the end of their career. It's up to me to facilitate this changing of the guard."
"We appeal to a different group of employees: people who don't care much for titles on their business cards, but who want to shape their own job and career. People who carve out their own role, in other words."
There's certainly no shortage of talent, Vanmaele believes. "Sure, you need to put in a bit more effort these days to find new employees. But I've been through this war on talent before: the labour market always goes through ups and downs, and I'm sure things will settle down again in due course. Here at Möbius, we've got plenty of cards up our sleeve to attract new talent. Some people are looking for hierarchy: they prefer a neatly outlined career path, a promotion every few years, a bigger car every now and then and a more spacious office. We appeal to a different target group: people who don't care much for titles on their business cards, but who want to shape their own job and career. People who carve out their own role, in other words."
"Acting as a facilitator and preserving our mission is what takes up most of my time now. I still spend about a quarter of my time working with clients on projects, though not necessarily in a managerial role. First and foremost, I'm a coach now. If our staff has any questions for me, I'm more than happy to answer them as far as I can. But if they can tick along perfectly by themselves, I'll absolutely let them do so. To me, that seems like the perfect mindset to prepare Möbius for the future."
This article was written by Jeroen Verelst and is a collaboration between Bloovi Studio & Möbius. The original article can be found here (Dutch).