BAM Connect Stories - Episode 2 - Recycleart

I'd like to start by asking you about your family, how you came to live in Romania, how you started your business, and where you got the idea for this.

I'm happy to be in the second episode of our podcast. I say "our" because we both use the BAM Connect platform, but it's also good to tell my story this way. In 2008, my wife and I moved to Romania to start our missionary journey. At the time, we had just gotten married, so we promised to stay for at least a year, but we are still here because every time something new came up, we felt like we were meant to live and work in Romania. Right now, we have three kids. The oldest is ten years old, and the youngest is two and a half. We started our journey here in Romania with the dream of opening a day center for street children, street teenagers, and homeless people. After a few years, we were able to make our dream come true: we had a group of people who helped us reach out to people on the streets and in poor neighborhoods. After that, I felt called to start a work project with the dream of creating jobs for people like that who weren't close to the job market. Around 2014 or 2015, we started a project called Roman Wood Works, which was the first name we had. We started to take apart pallets and make things out of them with the help of people who came to our center, but we always wanted to grow and become a business instead of an NGO. Over the years, we've gone through different phases. We started out as a social workshop, but we gradually turned into a business. We set up the Roman Works Association as a non-profit organization, and then, a little over a year later, we set up a company structure because things were growing and changing. We now have five employees, and our company is called Recycleart Design Group.

Tell us a little about the products and services you are creating at Recycleart.

At the moment, our products are custom-made projects for interiors or terraces in homes, restaurants, cabins, and small vacation homes in the mountains. People want rustic furniture, and that's also a key word in everything we do: it's rustic and made from massive wood. People see pictures on the internet and come to us and ask, "Can you make something like that?" We build kitchens, tables, beds, and wardrobes. Whatever the client wants, we try to design, build, and install everything on site. Everyone who comes here is from Romania. At the moment, custom projects are the most important part of what we sell. We also have a web shop where we try to sell products that have already been designed. This is because when a client tells us what he wants, we always have to change to meet his needs, which takes a lot of work and time. We also want to have a line of products that we can sell to customers. At the moment, we are mostly focusing on beds made from wooden beams.

Let's talk about this custom-made rustic furniture. Who are your most important clients? Where do you sell these items?

People with a vacation home usually have a little more money and can buy a second home, and they want to make it special. Companies in the hospitality industry, such as restaurants and hotels, are a large part of our customers because they want something special for their guests; they don't want to buy something that is everywhere in the market; they want to be unique, and that is exactly what we offer: a unique design; and we also have privileged customers who simply want a beautiful house.

Can you give us an example of your most recent large customer?

Our biggest customer is a hotel from a town nearby, which outfitted all their rooms with our beds, their restaurants, bar, and terrace with our products. And they were all custom-made for them.

You mention something about five people that are working with you now. You started the business to help them, and provide a job for them. How did you find them, how did you connect with them, how did you employ them, how do you serve them, how do you help them grow?

The first desire started when our business partner visited our day center, Coming Home, and he saw the men and boys sitting at a table and making a drawing, and they had nothing to do. From there came the desire to create a project where we can create work for people with the distance to the labor market or who are not the most productive people and we found them in our organisation. Through the years, we learned a lot. You cannot force somebody to work. The people have to want to work and have a basic level of discipline. Through that, we started the project, and for one or two years we worked there with them, but the major breakthrough came when we found our business leader, who is now running the business. He is also the man behind the Recycleart brand.

Let’s focus on the Horeca customer that you mentioned before. Thinking in terms of value proposition, what problem do you solve for them and what solution do you offer them?

We want to produce quality products for a reasonable price by reusing wood and working with vulnerable men. That is exactly what we offered to that restaurant, they wanted something unique but at a reasonable price.

How do you integrate your mission with this business?

Our mission is, first of all, to create jobs. By offering people a job that they can do, we solve a problem. We are creating jobs in rural areas. Our workshop is in a village at the moment. In a normal village, it is sometimes hard to find a decent job. We have a house next to the workshop, and in that house, we build rooms. It is a transition room or a transition center for people who have become addicted, in collaboration with a local charity. They were in therapy with this organization called Bonus Pastor. They are not ready to go back into society again, or they don’t have a place to live. They can live in our house; they can work; we pay them a salary; they pay a portion of that salary as rent; and we assist them by providing a daily rhythm.

We are moving now to channels to see how you reach out to your customers.

At the moment, primarily through Facebook, which is a direct liability for us. When we started to work together with Recycleart, and became the Recycleart brand, the Facebook page had 4000 likes, because of the beautiful pictures that my colleagues know how to make and how to present and that was catching the eye of a lot of people. Now we have over 20,000 likes only because we make nice pictures of the projects and people see it and contact us like, "I see this project, can you do this for me?" So, mainly, we reach customers through social media, through Facebook. We know that it is dangerous to depend on only one channel, and we have built a web-shop, it is online, so that is also our desire to make it a good channel. We also need to use Google Ads, so we have started a collaboration with a marketing agency that can help us. And of course, we have dreams, we want to open a showroom in the future. We want to work on our own products, with our own designs. Another ideea that we tried, but untill now it is not working out, was to export to Nederland because I am Dutch, I speak the language. We have tried some collaboration, but at that moment it was not working out, I believe it will sometime. We also have a big e-commerce website in Romania, like Amazon for Romania, called Emag, and last week I uploaded our products into the Emag marketplace, so they became for us a platform where our beds are presented at the moment.

Let us know something about your relation with beneficiaries.

Yes, we have different relationships; of course, with customers through online sales, we are not interacting that much. On our website, we communicate why we exist and what we are doing, but we also have a lot of personal contact through the phone and messenger. And... we have bigger projects where we are going to install the projects ourselves. We invite people to be part of their own project, they come with an idea, and we bring their idea to life. When they are here in Târgu Mures or in the nearby area, we go there, we measure, and we try to be next to the client in that process, and we try to speak about our mission as well. We are not doing this only to make money; we try to impact the community in the village where we are working and we build relationships with the NGO’s that we are working with.

Does your story add value to the product that you are selling for your customer?

Yes, there are people who want to; it’s still a struggle for us how to bring this story out because, in one way, we want to be a real business; we want people to buy our products because they like them. On the other side, we have a great story, and some people buy our products because of the story.

Which are the key activities that you are doing to be sure that you deliver these great products to your customers?

Our working program for the workshop is from 7 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon. It is this program because our employees requested that, so they could have time for gardening and other activities in the afternoon. That means also for us, if we want to work with them, or have a day work in the workplace then we have to wake up early. In the mornings, we have to work on the products and the bigger projects, and everybody knows what to do. My colleague and partner is the one leading production and giving work and organising that everybody is working on its part. We have for example on men that is building the structure, the row structure, we have one man with good skills as carpenter and he knows how to finish things, how to put the doors on the kitchen cabinets for example, but he also have a steady hand in cutting wood with the chain sow, one of our workers is a handy man, he can fix anything, if is metal or wood, he can make it. If machines are braking down he knows how to fix it, he knows in the city from where to buy the parts. We have one guy who is good at finishing the products by sandpapering and spray painting or painting by hand. Everybody plays his own role. We have days when we need to install, so two or three guys are going to Timișoara or Bucharest to install the kitchen or bring the tables. These are the workshop activities, and of course, as leaders, we work on social media in the evenings, uploading pictures and connecting with clients.The good thing is that everybody plays their own role, and we trust each other. We pray together as leaders; we pray for the problems we face; we pray for all our employees; and if we see that somebody is struggling, we bring him into the presence of the Lord; we pray for a blessing over the business, and until now, we can say that we have seen multiple times when God has helped us and sustained us. That is also what we do, we tell and pray to God, "This is not our company, it is Yours. We need profit, we need to take care of our families but in the end it is Yours, so we trust you and please help us and give us wisdom in everything that we do."

You mentioned previously a center for transition for people who are addicted and a center for education for kids. How do these activities relate to the business?
The education center is separate in another NGO that I run together with my wife, that’s the reason why we came in Romania in the first place. It is called Coming Home. It is also the organisation from which this work project started, you can say that is the founding partner. It is connected, but in day to day activities, they are not connected any more. The transition home is fully connected with the workplace and with what we do, because there are living men who also need to work on the day. The home is next to the workshop so is in the same building. May be a nice thing to add here is that we produce in the workshop a lot of sawdusy, so together with the partners we bought a press, a sawdusy press, and now we are making fire wood from that for our own need. But the agreement is as well that half of the briquettes we donate to people that need it. Then we can go back to Coming Home and say, "Hey, you are working with poor families; we want to give a bag of firewood to poor families, can you help us?" We believe that if you love people, you need to have a relationship with them.

Who are you key partners for this business?

First of all, we have our founding partner, which is Coming Home, as I mentioned earlier. Another founding partner is a local company. An international company but has a factory here in Romania. It is called Turbocam. The general manager of Turbocam Romania became a good friend and partner. Together with him, we started this project, he gave me the idea and the courage; they helped us in the beginning with finding a place, renting a place, and buying a place, and I was giving my time and my organizational skills. They came with some funding but also with knowledge about how to start the company, how to organize the company, and how to arrange the paperwork. When we have problems repairing machines, they have all the know-how. For us it is a very good partner, without them, we would not be where we are now. In the beginning, we used their truck to deliver our products, and later their truck became ours. This is our founding partner, who is very important. We have the NGO that we are collaborating with because we understand that we are good at providing work and running the business, but we are not so good at knowing how people work. If they need attention, or therapy, we are not therapists, so we need their professionals. So, we work with non-governmental organizations like Bonus Pastors and a nearby camp called Timulazu, where young people who had problems as kids are trying to fit into society, and we give them a place to work. We have partners in the production level, we are called Recycleart, so there is the word 'recycle' in it. We have, for example, some companies that are using wood to transport their products, glass, windows, and they use that wood one or two times and then throw it away. We buy that wood for half the market price, and we use that wood in our products. That way, we are recycling. For example, we build a kitchen, and the whole structure is made of new wood, but on the doors we use recycled materials.

Let's move on to speaking about the capital that you need to start a business like this.

Also, that worked for us through relationships and trust. We never received capital money in our bank account, like, "Okay, here you have money, this is what we invest, you need to pay it back. We received most of our tools and the building that we are in as donations from our partners, as I mentioned earlier. They provided for all our needs, and with that, we started working, and at a certain point, about two years ago, it was the first time that we started to make profit, but that was after five or six years. Now we are investing the profit we make. It is a year and half now since we are having a legal company structure. We no longer needed outside funding. We didn't rush things; we waited, we were faithful every day, we worked for years; I'm not a carpenter, but I was involved in the production and came home with dust in my hair.

Which are most important costs to run your business?

Salaries and, of course, materials required for the products are costs that you do not need to incur if you are not selling. Our fixed costs, which we have a commitment to, are our salaries. If you have five people on the payroll, this is quite a lot. That is also why I am not working there on a daily basis. In the beginning, I was, but if you see that the company is becoming healthier, you also need to run your company in a healthy way. That means if I work there for five days in a week, I need to cover my salary from the place where I work, or I should let somebody else do it. I keep on helping the company, and I keep representing the company, but my salary is not coming from Recycleart. My colleague, the one who built Recycleart as a brand, is living from it, so one of my personal goals is to support him as the business leader and let him grow.

Does your mission board from the Netherlands understand what you are doing here?

Yes, our board has always understood what we were doing, they supported our mission, and trusted me and us with it. I see that those who have visited Romania and participated in both the work projects and the coming home projects have a good understanding of the big picture and how things work. But those who weren’t; they only see the pictures online of beds and the most beautiful products, and they say, "Daan, you are a missionary, but what are you doing? Are you running a business, or are you a missionary?" Sometimes that is hard to explain. There are enough people who support what we are doing and who trust us. Trust is something we always receive from every member of the board, which is huge and for which I am extremely grateful.

Thank you for your time, and thank you for our friendship. I am very happy for this. I learned a lot from you as an entrepreneur and missionary. You combine these two very well.

Recycleart and the whole journey helped me to understand Business as Mission better and to be an inspiration for others. I hope also that through the BAM Connect platform we can bring that message and spread that message in Romania and in the world because God uses businesses and entrepreneurs to build His Kingdom and to bless other people.