- Rolof and the start of Hospitainer
Over the past 10+ years, Hospitainer has grown from a sole proprietorship to a thriving business. As such, we wanted to look back at how it all began and how things have changed in the past few years.
Rolof didn’t exactly have a standard career path even before he started Hospitainer. After 6 years in nursing, he eventually transferred to working in IT and found a job as a system administrator with the EO (Evangelical Broadcasting Channel). While there, Rolof and a number of his colleagues frequently visited the nearby chapel to play music and sing. The management liked what they heard and asked Rolof to work on the soundtrack for a program with the bible scholar Henk Binnendijk. They even released the soundtrack on CD and 6 more CD’s followed!
Rolof eventually started his own IT company and wound up in Ghana, installing an IT container next to a massive, expensive hospital. As it was almost a week before he could actually get to work, Rolof had plenty of time to ponder the situation and ask himself some questions.
15 million dollars had been invested into a hospital which was overengineerd for those who needed medical care the most. There was no solid plan behind and Rolof thought that for this amount he could build 50 to 100 smaller and better suited modular and mobile clinics. And so, the idea for Hospitainer was born. Not to mention that, though Rolof didn’t know this at the time, the hospital would be closed just two months later…
After returning home, and after discussing the matter with his wife and asking the blessing from above, Rolof began building the first Hospitainer in his neighbour’s yard. Though it was a very large investment, the first Hospitainer was completed shortly before Haiti was hit by an earthquake. This earthquake caused massive destruction and, among other terrible things, caused the collapse of a hospital which was run by Doctors Without Borders. They inquired if the Hospitainer was still available and, within 2 days, the container was packed and shipped.
With the first Hospitainer sold, Rolof soon began work on a second with the feedback from Doctors without Borders in mind. After a somewhat tense period, Rolof eventually got an order from the UN for a container with an X-ray machine installed in it and not long after another Hospitainer was sold and shipped to the Philippines.
It took some trial and error, but soon more and more orders came in and Rolof was no longer the sole employee as Hospitainer began to grow. As it became clear that he could make the idea of Hospitainer a reality, Rolof began to think of what the company’s mission and philosophy should be.
He based this on the views and experiences of four men he found to be inspiring and we’re going to look at these men and how they relate to Hospitainer.
- Rolof and John the Baptist
“Even as a child I found John to be an inspiring figure, because of his message urging people to serve god and to share. For example, he told people that if they had two coats, they should give one away. That appealed to me.”
Of course, it’s easy to say that you value sharing and equality, but it has to be put into practice as well. When asked how Hospitainer shared things with the less fortunate, what ‘coat’ they were giving away, Rolof listed a few examples.
The first example he mentioned was how several managers had willingly accepted reduced salaries because they believed in the company’s mission and wanted to ensure the company could afford to be generous with the less fortunate.
He also mentioned how, on several occasions, Hospitainer added things to a client’s order free of charge, just to ensure the final product could help as manny people as possible. For example, sometimes extra medicine or equipment was added to a Hospitainer just to ensure it could have the maximum positive impact without costing the client so much that they could no longer afford to run it.
“We enjoy being able to give this to people. We like hearing how people are getting treated and cured in “our” clinics and hospitals.”
While generosity is obviously important to Hospitainer, Rolof also emphasized the importance of finding a balance so the company can afford to be generous without threatening its own financial stability. Despite the difficulty in finding that balance, though, Rolof explained he chose to start a company rather than an NGO because he didn’t want to be reliant on donations and other forms of public or governmental funding.
“For me, profit is number one and helping people is number one. If those two are in balance, we have a sustainable future of impact.”
- Rolof and Ricardo Semler.
Unlike most other people on Rolof’s list of inspirational people, Ricardo Semler might require a bit more of an introduction. Ricardo Semler is the (Former) CEO and owner of Semco, a Brazilian company renowned for its culture of industrial democracy. Employee committees get a say in all aspect of sales and production and, while this slows the process initially, the process of implementing a decision is made much faster as a this process generates a lot of support for the decision among the staff.
Mr. Semler earned the admiration of many for his daring management style and Rolof was one of these admirers. He was impressed by the level of trust in one’s employees that this method required and strove to emulate that with Hospitainer.
link naar Semler
Five years after the TEDx talk in which Rolof listed Ricardo Semler as one of the people who inspired him, he is still fond of Semler’s methods. However, when asked if anything had changed over the years, Rolof mentioned that he had become more aware that the method could not simply be copied and applied to Hospitainer without adjustments.
One issue with this method which Rolof encountered was that, while some people enjoy the freedom and independence this method allows for, others need the routine and stability which comes from more classical managerial styles. Rolof explained he had some trouble finding a balance that works for everyone.
Another area where there were some issues in finding a good balance was in the amount of input everyone had. While Rolof considered this part to be very important, he found it slowed the process of decision making too much during a time of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. This was a time in which Hospitainer had to react quickly and decisively and it’s much harder to do that when everyone tries to present their view on the matter.
“When there is a crisis, sometimes a different, more direct kind of leadership is required. That switch to a more direct form of leadership can take a bit of getting used to, though, both for the employees and for me.”
Rolof mentioned the many conversations he has had with his team regarding this matter. Though he said he found it difficult finding a balance between allowing his employees their freedom and employing that direct form of leadership for those who need it, he said he felt a good middle ground had been reached.
Naturally, the differences between Semco and Hospitainer plays a part in the difficulties here. While Semco’s business is built more around mass production, Hospitainer’s products are made to measure and our modular containers and tent-based field hospitals are often modified to suit a client’s needs. These and many other differences mean that a method made with Semco in mind won’t necessarily fit quite as well with Hospitainer.
However, Rolof admitted he felt that he occasionally fails to properly communicate his ideas or to make sure people are following along when he changes his mind. He explained that a training session for Hospitainer based on the Process Communication Method (PCM) had taught him a lot about how he communicated. link naar PCM This method, developed by psychologist Taibi Kahler, is used by several multinational companies to help choose their staff and NASA even uses it to choose their astronauts. It showed Rolof that he could change mental gears very quickly and move from one plan to the next. However, it had also shown he was very attached to certain morals and values.
While Rolof felt these qualities were very important for someone running a company like Hospitainer, he also acknowledged that they could cause problems when communicating with others at times. Those who can switch gears quickly would have little problem keeping up with Rolof’s line of thinking, but people who weren’t as fast would be left behind and feeling like they had to catch up to know what the new plan was.
“For me it’s no problem to start the day with one plan and end the day with a different one. In some ways that’s a strength, but it can leave people who can’t switch as quickly confused and wondering what happened to the old plan.”
Despite encountering some difficulties with Ricardo Semler’s approach and learning it couldn’t be directly copied to Hospitainer, Rolof said he found it very inspiring and he wanted to keep the parts that did work for him. Because of this, Hospitainer has maintained a high level of equality in its corporate culture and employees are encouraged to speak up and offer input or ideas to make the company better.
As Hospitainer has grown, it has of course taken on more people and Rolof mentioned he was glad he could rely on some of these people to make sure everyone is on board if Rolof switches gears too quickly for everyone to keep up and to help put his ideas into practice.
“I can get very into the details or become too concerned about the quality of a projects at times. However, when it’s clear that things have been communicated properly and everyone knows what they’re doing, I have little trouble letting things go. And I have turned over the operational leadership to a colleague who has been there from the start and who has great qualities to run the company. This gives me time to design new products, to start new alliances and new business opportunities.”
- Rolof and Jesus
Hospitainer works together with a variety of partners to get our products made, shipped and ready to provide medical care all over the world. As such, we’re exposed to many different customs, cultures and, of course, religions. That last one, in particular, is something our team have found often motivates people to offer aid and extend a hand to those in need.
It was one of the motivating factors behind the birth of Hospitainer as well, despite the fact that Hospitainer is not a strictly Christian business. Rolof was raised in a Christian family and his faith is extremely important to him. Rolof mentioned that a big part of his motivation stemmed from the desire to emulate certain elements from Jesus Christ’s life.
One part of this is what Rolof called the ‘Gut Factor’. Many of Jesus’ decisions, as described in the bible, required a significant amount of bravery. In other words, they required guts. While Rolof said he didn’t want to draw equate running a business with Jesus’ accomplishments, he did feel that this also required guts. He explained that testing your bravery and taking risks was just something you had to do every now and then, just to make sure a company doesn’t stagnate.
“As my daughter likes to say, you need both the God and the Gut factor at times. The God factor means that there is more between heaven and earth than what you can see. But when tuned in, it will enable things you could not have reached without. I am not saying that I have a special privilege, but I challenge myself and others to reach our for more.”
Many passages in the bible speak of how Jesus tended to the sick, the marginalized and the helpless and his message urging people to love their fellow man. Rolof explained how inspirational he found this story and how it drove him to do all he could to help in his own way. Providing medical aid to people who often struggle to get it was one such way, for Rolof.
He went on to say that, among the many NGOs and businesses Hospitainer has worked with, he’s found many others whose faith or ideas had driven them to offer aid in their own ways as well. He said it was great to work with people who share similar values and, together, strive to make the world a better place.
Of course, Hospitainer also operates in a lot of places where Christianity isn’t always the most prominent religion. For example, a number of our Hospitainers have wound up in the Middle East and Asia. Religion is often a contentious topic on which many people hold many different views, so the potential exists for it to cause disagreements and other problems. When asked if problems ever arose for Hospitainer and for him personally because of it, though, Rolof happily answered that he mostly had positive experiences to speak of. He did admit that his work with Hospitainer had broadened his perspective on a lot of matters, including his faith. Growing up in a Christian household had left Rolof with his own convictions and preconceptions, which were challenged as he met and worked with people who had grown up with different religions. “I learn from them and it broadens my view on how God is at work in and through people who have a different religion or maybe no religion as some state”.
Rolof explained that, in these circumstances, being open, respectful and genuine were vital. Though he never hid his faith, Rolof explained that he strove to be respectful towards the faith of others and show a genuine interest in them as people. He felt this helped build a relationship based on trust, which is incredibly important in fostering a solid bond with new partners.
“Us Dutch people have a tendency to be direct and get right down to business. However, in some cultures, it’s much more important to really engage and connect with the other party first. Actually this fits me well in a natural way. This makes me feel relax in different cultures”
He felt that people appreciated how open he was about who he was and what he was about and that they, in turn, were open and honest with him. Of course, being showing genuine interest in others played a big part. In general is it clear that if the interest you show is feigned, it will damage the relationship you were trying to build, Rolof explained. To make it work, you genuinely have to show an interest in people.
“Again, this is something Jesus did as well. He treated people as people, rather than as members of a certain group or someone he needed something from.”
Of course, not all of Rolof’s experiences were entirely positive. Rolof mentioned one case where a man yelled at him that he would burn in hell for his faith but, though he found the event very regrettable, it was an outlier in a list of otherwise positive experiences. One event that stuck with him involved a trip to Darfur. A Muslim man asked Rolof why he’d come to Darfur and why he wanted to help. When Rolof responded that he’d spent years praying for a way to help people there, the man put his arm around Rolof’s shoulders and said he believed that God had brought Rolof to Darfur.
It struck Rolof that, despite the fact that their faiths differed in a number of ways, there were also things like this which they felt very similarly about. This hardly the last time it happened either. Over the years, Rolof found himself often comparing his own religion to others’ and more often than not he realized that they held a lot in common.
Regardless of if what they believe differs from what Rolof believes, though, he said that he considers it a wonderful moment when people say they’ll pray for him.
“I still feel like the Christian faith I grew up with suits me best, but over the years I’ve changed how I look at this. I now think there are many paths that lead to God, all of which have their own merits. These people just took a different path.”
- Rolof and Nelson Mandela
While Rolof’s faith played a big part in wanting to connect with people and work together with them, another source of inspiration here was Nelson Mandela. Rolof was struck by how, despite everything they’d endured, Mr. Mandela and his supporters were determined to work together and make the world a better place.
Cooperation has become extremely important for Hospitainer as well, as we rely on our partners for materials or equipment or even, in the case of certain NGOs, to actually employ the Hospitainers once they are delivered. Not to mention the times we’ve received orders directly from both the Dutch and foreign governments.
Of course, Hospitainer strives to remain an independent and neutral party regardless of where our products are shipped to. Though we work with many different people, we do not choose sides. We only want to ensure our products are properly shipped and set up so that they can provide medical care to those in need as soon as possible. Unfortunately, this is often not as simple as it sounds. Rolof lamented that, in certain situations, neutrality is seen as provocative in and of itself.
For example, it’s not uncommon for hospitainers to be active in areas where conflict is prevalent. Innocent people often tend to get caught up in the fighting, after all, and those who fled their homes are often also in need of medical care. However, if people who are associated with party A are treated in our mobile, modular hospitals, party B might assume we support the other party, even though party B’s members have also been treated in these hospitainers.
It’s not always a matter of conflict and opposing sides, though. Rolof mentioned that, though serious problems were thankfully very rare, there were a few instances where certain parties tried to present Hospitainer’s activity in the area as support for them.
“I’ve noticed it in interviews, mainly. Usually, when it happens, I try to present Hospitainer as apolitically as possible and I heavily emphasize that we are there to provide aid to whoever needs it.”
The mere suggestion that Hospitainer might support one particular party over others can be enough to change how those other parties view and treat us. If Hospitainer is viewed negatively, it can make it much harder for our hospitals in the area to operate. As such, Rolof explained, it’s often best to make our position known early on.
“We’ve found it’s best to loudly state our impartiality right at the start, just to make things clear.”
Rolof explained that ensuring our impartiality is clear is one of the reasons why Hospitainer is careful in who it works with and who it accepts as partners. Of course, that doesn’t mean we plan to stop finding new people and organizations to partner up with. Rolof emphasized that he not only wanted to expand Hospitainer’s network even further in the future, but that he also hoped to work together more often with our existing partners like Doctors without Borders, the Red Cross and many others.
- Rolof and the Future of Hospitainer
As we went into a conversation regarding the future of Hospitainer, Rolof was presented with a question. What would he change if TEDx called him up tomorrow to give an updated version of the presentation he gave 5 years ago?
After some thought, Rolof decided that there were certain things he wanted to add to the presentation. For example, Rolof indicated he wanted to expand on his personal experiences with Ricardo Semler’s style of management and what did or didn’t work for him and why. However, the main change he wanted to make to his presentation was to add a number of women to the list of people who inspired him.
Rolof said that, looking back on it, he couldn’t think why he hadn’t done so originally when he could think of several inspirational women off the top of his head. Rolof had a number of women he felt should be on the list, which ranged from well-known figures like Mother Teresa to a catholic sister whom he’d met personally and who impressed him with her bravery as she collected sick and injured people from extremely dangerous areas on a daily basis.
“Honestly, they should have been on the list in the first place, especially when you consider how often women are a driving force behind cultural changes.”
Rolof also said that, if he were to give another TEDx talk, he would want to pay some attention to Hospitainer’s plans for the future. There was no shortage of those, after all.
Preparedness was a big factor Rolof talked about when it came to his plans for the future and he explained that he wanted to have a number of speed kits in stock. A speed kit is essentially just a completed Hospitainer which can be packed and shipped at a moment’s notice. It’s hard for Hospitainer to predict if we’ll get any rush orders, after all. We often get those after a calamity strikes and we can’t predict when or where that will happen. The sooner we can ship a container after a calamity, the sooner it can start offering aid to those in need.
The main reason Rolof wanted to ensure a rapid response was due to an experience involving a rush order. The order asked for several containers to be shipped to Mosul, which had recently been liberated. The hospitainers would be used to help treat the many women who had lived in the city and been abused by ISIS. Despite the fact that the hospitainers were shipped very quickly, though, they were stuck in the harbour for 3 months as their paperwork was processed. Rolof said he hoped that focussing on the speed kits could prevent a similar situation from occurring again.
While expanding our stock and making sure we have plenty of our existing products ready is important, Rolof said he also wanted to keep innovating and creating new products. He mentioned products like mobile showers (Hospishowers) and other equipment, but also larger projects like two entirely new hospitainers.
The first of these is a container with a fully equipped operating theatre which is planned to be almost entirely autonomous. While it would most likely have a backup generator for emergencies, the hospitainer will be much more reliant on solar energy to power its systems. Furthermore, it will feature improved air and water filtration and even produce its own oxygen and thereby remove the need for oxygen cannisters. Not only would this reduce waste and emissions, making it better for the climate, but it would also allow the hospitainers to operate in areas that are currently still problematic.
Even for a mobile hospital, some areas are hard to reach and it can be even harder to get supplies shipped to these. Oxygen cannisters, air and water filters and fuel for generators are all necessary for our mobile Hospitals to operate, after all. By making this container more autonomous, it becomes more feasible to help people who live in these areas.
The second new hospitainer is a modified version of our primary healthcare hospitainer. Our mobile hospitainers are designed to integrate seamlessly with Hospitainer’s modular field hospitals. This new model, however, will be even more versatile. Rolof explained that the intent is to make a mobile hospitainer which can integrate not only with our own hospitals, but also to connect to local clinics and act as an extension. By doing so we can support local clinics and, because this is still a mobile hospital, we can reach those who live far away from the clinics as well.
As a pilot, we plan to donate one of each of these containers to Congo when the designs are finalized, and production has finished.
It’s not all hardware that we’ve been working on, though. Hospitainer is also working on the Hospitainer Information System (HIS). This system would allow our mobile clinics to access a database of digital patient records, which will make it easier to keep track of recurring issues patients might experience. Not to mention that we’re also looking into ways to make it easier for the people operating the Hospitainer to communicate over long distances.
Speaking of local clinics, Hospitainer also plans to continue with the Healthy Villages initiative. Starting from a small local clinic which can provide primary healthcare, Hospitainer will strive to find partners that can help improve the community’s clean water supply, power grid, agriculture and education. Hopefully, by working with the right people, we truly can create a healthy village.
Finally, one thing Rolof was very enthusiastic about was the fact that we now have both the company Hospitainer and the Hospitainer Foundation.
What’s the difference?
Well, the foundation essentially allows Hospitainer the chance to separate its business-focussed side a bit more from the side focussed on charity and humanitarian aid. Plus, this allows people to donate directly to the foundation so we can use those donations to help those in need. Hospitainer has always strived to be charitable as a company, as mentioned in Rolof’s interview, but the foundation gives us new ways to do so. Plus, not everyone can buy a mobile hospital located in a 20ft shipping container. Most don’t have the space to store something like that. Now, however, they can contribute by donating.
Rolof already had a plan to raise awareness of what Hospitainer is striving to do and the problems we face. He explained that he wants to allow the foundation’s major donors to experience what it’s like in an area ravaged by war or natural disasters. To give them a taste of this, they would spend a few days in the desert with a truck equipped with a survival container. This would allow them to have some fun with off-road driving through the desert, but also show them the harsh realities of what life is like for many of the people Hospitainer strives to help.
This was hardly the extent of Rolof’s plans either. There were many more, but sadly a lot are not yet at a point where we can really talk about them. We hope we can tell you all about them soon, though. Regardless, Rolof said he was excited about the future of both the company and the new foundation and so are the rest of us at Hospitainer.