Piet Colruyt is a Belgian independent 100% impact investor, and board member at the family holding Korys, the majority owner of the Colruyt Group. He also founded Impact House in Brussels, a dynamic hub for change-makers.
In this introductory interview, Piet shares how impact investing has made him grow as an individual.
How did you come to be an impact investor?
My grandfather started selling coffee and chocolates in his father’s bakery in 1928. Today his legacy is Colruyt; the biggest retailer in Belgium, with a turnover of 9 billion euros and over 30.000 employees. It is listed, with 100 family shareholders still owning the majority. As one of those shareholders, I started working in the family company in 2000, initially as an architect, and later on the shop floor and in the finance department. I was focused on making the supermarkets more sustainable, but after I had worked there for 10 years, I realised I could contribute on a much larger scale, by putting my energy into investing. So I completely immersed myself in the impact investing field, and learned everything I could; attending conferences, and reading profusely. From there, there was no going back, I became an impact investor.
What was your biggest inspiration?
In 2009, Ashoka introduced me to “How to change the world” a book by David Bornstein, on social entrepreneurs. Reading their stories and seeing them not giving up on their ambitious missions, inspired me hugely. That human spirit is what started my impact journey but it is also what keeps me going. Throughout the years I have found that dedicated people are the force behind everything. A bad plan and a good team is always better than a good plan with a bad team. It’s a great reminder that success is defined by people.
What kind of advice would you offer ‘young’ impact investors?
Don’t be afraid to fail, and focus on change. Personally, I don’t really care about measuring myself or my impact, I am more concerned with making sure my model is integrated: that my turnover matches my impact. I believe is it very clear whether something is good or not, so trust yourself, start investing and be as open about your failures as your successes, so everyone, including you, can learn and benefit.
How does your position at Korys and your work as an independent investor come together?
As a board member at Korys, my context is quite indirect, but I feel it to be very complementary to my work as an independent investor. I impact invest in both capacities, just at different levels and with different focus points. One of the issues I am passionate about is safe-guarding biodiversity, and with that reducing harmful mono cultures. Investing in this can take multiple forms. As an independent, it might mean investing directly in a multicultural farm, that enriches the land, the soil and our diet. As a board member at Korys, it has meant introducing Colruyt to Ashoka fellow Tobias Leenaert, a vegan strategist. Leenaert predicted a decline in the consumption of meat and an increase in meat-free products. As the biggest butcher in Belgium, Colruyt reduced their new meat factory by 35%, based on his consult. A great decision for the planet but also for our supermarket, for it has put us at the forefront of a growing industry of vegan products. This to me shows that different arms working together, at different stages of risk, makes for a healthy eco system of impact investing. This is why I founded Impact House; a network of change, based on shared skills, support and contacts, and why I believe in philanthropy. Many innovative ventures don’t necessarily operate on a traditional business model, but like the example above, they might have the power to change the whole sector indirectly, so our support is essential.
How is impact defined in Belgium?
In Belgium, there is no uniform definition of impact. In fact, I would say there are maybe more differences between Wallonia and Flanders than between Flanders and the Netherlands. In both countries, I feel however that the development has been stunted somewhat, because we have a bigger ‘sociaal vangnet’ than in places like the UK. I think it has led us to become more dependent on subsidies to solve issues, instead of using social enterprises.
What are your thoughts on risk?
There is a big distinction between social investors and finance-first impact investors. Finance first impact investors look for market conform returns and are focussed on growth. Social investors take bigger financial risks, so their financial record fluctuates. The goal is different. I balance these two, investing for my family business and as an independent investor. As an institution you can’t take as much risk, but as an independent and ambitious impact investor I can and want to. Luckily, I do not have to choose between the loyalty to my family and my heart. I do both. High risk, and right risk.
What is your ambition?
I want to change the mindset of people, especially other next generation inheritors. I want to inspire them to experiment. To understand that doing good and doing well are two sides of the same coin.
What should people invest in?
To me, it is not about what you invest in, but rather that you follow your passion. I think it needs to be personal. This is simpler than people think. I have money on my bank account. There are problems to solve. If you have the means, do something. For example, you can put money into ESCO’s -companies that pay for energy saving renovations, and are paid back by the savings made in the future. We recently did this for 78 elderly homes, and reduced emissions by 30%. It does not matter why you do it; whether it is out of guilt, or because you feel a sense of responsibility, we can and should use all financial instruments at our disposal for positive change, from subsidies and taxation to investing and patronage. Whatever you choose to invest in, have intention.