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Green Pioneer interview: Kees Kruythoff, LIVEKINDLY Collective CEO

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7 min read
AUTHOR: Stef Bottinelli
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Kees Kruythoff is the CEO and Chairman of LIVEKINDLY Collective. Prior to his current position, Kees worked at Unilever, fulfilling roles such as President North America and President for the Global Home Care division, and implementing the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

Kees is also Co-founder and Partner of IMAGINE, an organisation that helps build net-positive businesses, working with “courageous CEOs to put their companies in service of the world and thrive as a result.”

LIVEKINDLY Collective was founded by Blue Horizon Group. The Collective strives to make plant-based living the norm and believes that vegan alternatives have the power to make the global food system sustainable.

Its portfolio includes food brands LikeMeat, The Fry Family Food Co., Oumph!, No Meat, and The Dutch Weed Burger.

The Collective also has a media and lifestyle platform, LIVEKINDLY, which delivers content on sustainability, the environment, animal welfare and the plant-based industry.

LIVEKINDLY Collective employs over 500 people and its products are sold in more than 40 countries worldwide.

Before joining LIVEKINDLY Collective you worked for consumer goods giant Unilever for more than 20 years. At Unilever you implemented the Sustainable Living Plan. How has the discussion – and action – surrounding environmental and sustainability issues changed in the last decade?

I worked for Unilever for 27 years (smiles)! Sustainability has always been close to my heart. Now with LIVEKINDLY Collective I am really leading a business as a force for good. As my friend and business partner (former CEO of Unilever) Paul Polman has put it: “Many of us are working in this vein, and this is the moment to accelerate.” I was inspired to read his recently launched book, Net Positive, which is a practical guide to building a company that profits by confronting and mitigating the problems that plague our planet. It’s a powerful message – not only to those leading multinational organisations, but to all private-sector company owners and leaders out there.

The food sector is currently going through a transformation, particularly instigated by smaller, nascent companies and start-ups – and consumer demand of course. What’s needed to disrupt and modernise the food sector, and I’m referring – in particular – to the large, established companies that have been around for several decades, or even over 100 years?

Markets develop in waves. After the first part of innovation, you get segmentation and consolidation in the marketplace. The plant-based market represents a $1.5 trillion total addressable opportunity. With LIVEKINDLY Collective we have quite a lot of M&A capability and expertise in-house. We are very well funded, so financially we are a natural consolidator. Management wise, we are a natural consolidator as well because we have a best-in-class management team and experience and expertise, both in acquisitions and integration. We address the need for market segmentation with our broad portfolio of diverse brands serving customers on any eating occasion.

What steps can companies take to become more environmentally and socially responsible?

I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by purpose-driven peers and employees who live and breathe our mission of making plant-based living the new norm. LIVEKINDLY Collective proves that positioning your business as a force for good can indeed enable growth. We know that each package of plant-based food we sell is another step towards positive change. This is the actionable glue that holds our Collective together.

In your opinion, what are the main difficulties and barriers that businesses face when they try to transition to being more eco-friendly and socially responsible?

It’s in the leadership. I believe that to transform systems – in our case it’s the food system – the world needs an inspiring new wave of courageous leaders. This is how we truly transform the notion of leadership – what it is, what it entails, how it can change the world around us. We started LIVEKINDLY Collective with that ideology in mind.

LIVEKINDLY Collective promotes a kinder way of living, as its name clearly states. All your food brands are plant-based, and that by itself already has a positive impact on the planet, in terms of animals saved, water usage and CO2 emissions, as well as giving consumers a choice to eat delicious, cruelty-free and sustainable food. Plus, there’s LIVEKINDLY Media, focussed on content that tackles sustainability, animal welfare, environmental issues, the plant-based sector and also greenwashing.  In which ways does LIVEKINDLY operate internally to encourage an ethical working culture?

Each and every person you would talk to, from our Collective, believes in our mission. Our values are kind, mindful and bold and we let them guide us through everything we do. We also have our guiding principles of sustainability which is at the heart of LIVEKINDLY Collective, we call it our LIVEKINDLY Collective Upgrade Plan. It is all about the way we think we can contribute to upgrading people’s habits, mindset, and as a result upgrade the broken food system into a more sustainable one.

Gen Z is particularly vocal and demanding when it comes to choosing a career that aligns with its ethical beliefs. Its stance has been an inspiration to older generations, such as Millennials and Generation X. However, ethical and green jobs are few and far between and overall are still remunerated less than their not specifically ethical counterpart. What’s needed to change this situation?

Purpose driven companies are the future. And there is a way and a real need for entrepreneurs and business owners to turn their ventures into a force for good. The way global corporations are run has a critical, cascading effect on so much around us: food insecurity, the environment, policies and economies. With so much at stake, I believe it’s imperative that business leaders open themselves to the idea of including sustainability.
My biggest piece of advice on how to do this is to be courageous. Most people know exactly what’s needed in the corporate world to create real change, but for many, it’s easier to do what has always been done. We can only shape the future for the better when we have the tenacity to do things differently. Start small but think big and act fast. The second one is to assemble like-minded team. Surround yourself with those who care deeply about your mission. From your stakeholders and directors to your investors, managers and juniors, you’ll make a bigger impact if everyone is passionate about (your mission, ed) and clearly aligned with you. 

Let the change you want to bring be your North Star.

As a CEO, what do you think is of the utmost importance to forge a positive, inspiring, ethical and enjoyable working environment for your employees?

I believe that if you empower people, you’re far more likely to maintain their trust. When you’re building a new sustainable business, you don’t just need to sell the product, you need to invite people to join your journey. You need a voice and to lead by example. Everyone in the organisation needs a North Star and a clear understanding of your business plan. This is the kind of communication system and goal-oriented environment I strive for. If you develop a strong ecosystem of purpose-driven, intelligent and hard-working people, they can help you build an effective strategy focused on growth-by-impact.

What (or who) has inspired you to lead a more ethical life, both personally and professionally, and how do you inspire others, professionally and personally?

My mother is a great inspiration for me. From a very early age she used to say to me: “Never waste your talents and use them in service of society,” and it’s a motto I live by. It guides me in life and is a lens I use when investing in businesses or ventures. I try to be involved in initiatives that really move the dial in the strive for equity and inclusion. One of them is IMAGINE. IMAGINE works with courageous CEOs to put their companies in service of the world and thrive as a result. I encourage you to read Paul’s book, Net Positive, it’s a guide on how to work and live more consciously.


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