Willem De Vos, who will depart as CEO of the Society of Plastics Engineers when a new top executive is named next year, said the society is on solid footing now, as it refocuses on the United States — and it's a good time for a U.S.-based CEO.
“I think we're in a terrific position for the future,” he said.
De Vos explained his reasoning for leaving SPE in an interview with Plastics News. The society announced Dec. 8 that he will step down. Korn Ferry will begin searching for a replacement in January.
De Vos, 47, plans to return to the chemicals and plastics industry, but he said he does not have a job lined up right now. And he pledged to remain at SPE until a new CEO gets hired, probably around mid-year — including remaining at SPE through the its major event, Antec in 2017, SPE's landmark 75th anniversary year.
“I will be for sure at Antec regardless of what happens. Even if we find someone tomorrow,” he said. Antec, SPE's annual conference, will run May 8-10 in Anaheim, Calif.
SPE hired De Vos as CEO in 2012, citing his international business experience after more than two decades in plastics in Europe and Asia. He came to SPE from his post as CEO of Vitalo Group, a global thermoformer and packaging producer based in Belgium. He is multilingual.
SPE membership was down, and some activists thought SPE had not responded well to globalization of the plastics industry. SPE had already taken steps to hold more international events before De Vos arrived. Those efforts accelerated under De Vos, as SPE leaders wanted to attract members in emerging markets like India, China, the Middle East and Brazil.
Those events were successful, De Vos said, but SPE has failed to grow and build new international chapters and membership to the degree society leaders had hoped.
“We realized that volunteerism in Asia is not the same as in the U.S.A. and that local competitors are already occupying the space,” he said.
De Vos said SPE will continue to host international events, and nurture and support successful international chapters. But De Vos said: “With the U.S.A. as the main focus for the next years, I believe SPE is better served with a CEO from the U.S.A.”
SPE is based in Bethel, Conn. In 2014, the organization named Russell Broome as its managing director.
De Vos said he has made major changes among SPE staff — and, together with Broome, has worked hard to make SPE more relevant to young people, one of the biggest challenges facing the plastics industry, and manufacturing overall.
“We are now much more attractive for the new generation,” De Vos said, noting that young people find out about technology, and communicate, using new mobile technology like smartphones and digital media. At the same time, SPE is not ignoring physical meetings and conferences, and these have been improved as well, he added.
One of his major goals was revamping SPE's website, to add elements of social media. At the 2015 Antec conference, SPE announced a free “e-Membership” designation, allowing some access to its professional networking site, The Chain, which includes a discussion platform called Tech Talk and other features. SPE also has added some apps.
And it's working, De Vos said: After only a year-and-a-half, SPE now has about 9,000 e-Members. The number of full, paying members, designed Premium Members, has fluctuated from about 13,000 to 15,000 since 2011, he said.
SPE also has changed its business model, so that industry services and additional events are now starting to generate the bulk of the society's income — instead of the heavy reliance on member dues, as in the past.
“We struggled somewhat with the start of this, but the ship has left the port, and we are starting to get some tailwind,” he said.
SPE also has reformed its governance model, allowing much faster decision making, he said.
De Vos said the new CEO will need to have perseverance. “I think he or she needs to be a strong person with strong coaching and management skills to lead such a complex association,” he said. The new leader needs to be able to communicate with SPE's volunteer members, as well as run the society like a business.
SPE now has 12 direct staff members, down from 20 five years ago, he said.
“But with a more performance-oriented team, we are now doing much more, much better with much less,” he said.
De Vos said SPE's information technology systems were “quite outdated” when he joined in 2012.
When he does finally leave SPE, De Vos, who has 26 years of industry experience, said he sees himself in a CEO-type role of a mid-sized internationally active company, or a senior executive running a business unit or a region for a large multinational corporation.
He plans to remain active in SPE — as a volunteer member — and available to support the next CEO at any time.