The story of a big match

The early involvement of the communications function lays the groundwork for successful mergers



On a Friday in early December 2007, trade on the Amsterdam stock exchange in shares of the international staffing services company Vedior was briefly suspended: the price was moving up rapidly following rumours that Vedior was in discussions with a mysterious major competitor about a merger or takeover.

The communications teams of Vedior and Randstad, a worldwide temporary employment company who turned out to be the rather unexpected other party, would come to remember the weekend that followed very well. From that Friday until the following Monday night, the team members barely saw their beds as their top management, and their advisers, hammered out the necessary details before the stock exchange opened again. In a hastily-convened press conference early on Monday morning, the world learned the details of the deal.

A surprising involvement?

The involvement of Randstad in this deal was a surprise to many industry pundits. At first sight, many journalists and analysts noted the striking difference between Randstad, who had a clear main brand strategy and a strong, unified and long-standing culture, and the Vedior Group, which consisted of hundreds of diverse businesses operating under their own brands and cultures. Also, Randstad prided itself on its capacity for organic growth, while the Vedior Group had been very active in midsized acquisitions and disposals. Integrating the two was assumed to be a major communications and branding challenge.

Both were roughly the same size, so it would not be matter of a large unit simply absorbing a small one. There had been speculation about a possible combination involving the Vedior Group and some other company, but most pundits had focused their attention on other contenders.

However, they should not have been too surprised. Under the new leadership of Tex Gunning, a former Unilever top executive with a strong reputation in marketing, Vedior had in fact already embarked on an internal journey of streamlining their brands and cultures into larger chunks. Another major factor was that the business portfolios of the two groups were a very good match, both geographically and from the perspective of a services portfolio.

The combination plugged some major holes in Randstad’s geographical coverage (particularly in France) and it created one of the largest global contenders in the general staffing segment, as well as in the fast-growing and profitable professionals segment. It is the largest merger in the industry to date. A new global leader emerged, next to the two incumbents, creating a massive gap between it and the next company, which was much less than half the size of the top three global leaders. And in this business, scale matters.

How communications and branding tackled the challenge

The most important success factor was our early involvement in the project. In Randstad, a small number of insiders had been preparing months before the start of talks. Furthermore, Randstad had a competitor-measurement system in most major markets, so detailed reports of the position, image and reputation of the larger Vedior Group labels were easily available. Complete sets of drafted press releases and communications materials in response to several possible scenarios were prepared for the stakeholder groups, all carefully filed under special code names.

Branding was also high on the project team’s agenda, as it was a primary strategic work-stream from the very beginning. A number of strategic brand decisions and actions were agreed long before the closing of the deal.

For example, a primary merger objective was to create a strong position in France under the Randstad brand. Extensive research confirmed that this could be done. As this was going to be the largest campaign by Randstad that year, and given the fact that the Vedior’s French business was several times larger than the existing Randstad team, Vedior’s French communications and marketing teams were asked to create the new international Randstad campaign in collaboration with their agency.

They were very surprised but intrigued by this request, and they subsequently learned all about the brand and did a fantastic job, so much so that today, when we take a taxi from the airport, we no longer have to explain the way to our head office: one taxi driver even complained to us that his children kept singing the theme-tune of our television commercial whenever they passed by the building. These campaign materials have since been adapted for use in many other countries, most recently in the UK. 

Securing alignment

Faced with the difficulty of aligning the interests of investor relations, communications and marketing amongst themselves and with the other process owners, we chose to work with a small home team from the very beginning. This team worked very closely with the executives involved. Our CEO, Ben Noteboom, and CFO, Robert-Jan van de Kraats, had both been active champions of an integrated, holistic and fact-based approach. Investor relations, internal and external communications, and marketing presented a unified view from the beginning, and that made it much easier to focus on the “how” questions, rather than the “what” questions with the many other parties involved.

In such processes, it is very important to be able to make use of speed, momentum and initiative. If we had not been able to work together so well, or if we had not completed so much preparatory work in advance, developments such as the leaking of the deal on that Friday in December could have thrown us completely off track.

The early and close involvement of the marketing department was also a critical element. Compared to a standard communication department, marketing departments have access to tools, skills and systems that can easily cope with the communications challenges at hand. The Randstad web platform for branding, with its photo database, style manuals, research base and case studies, proved invaluable in educating the many new colleagues involved. The skills to produce and distribute brochures, mail, videos, branch materials and many other items made life in the communication department much easier.

A large role in the process was allocated to our new global intranet. As Vedior’s intranet technology turned out to be much more flexible and modern than Randstad’s, this became the basis for the new Randstad@Work. In line with our philosophy, we made sure that it opened on the day of the formal closing.  

The culture issue

Our experience is that we needed to adhere to a limited number of key principles. Starting with an objective fact base is key. The second key insight is that one should not try to blend two existing cultures into a new mixture: the result is usually less successful than any of the two original cultures in their pure form. Then, any internal programme should have a visible internal leader from the start. Any external experts and advisers should stay off-stage. This also means culture is not an add-on, but an integral design element in the whole integration process. It means, for instance, that you have already selected and announced many of those leaders before the closing of the deal.

The internal programme was one of most complete we have ever done. It started with carefully orchestrated ‘getting to know you’ sessions between key management, moved on to securing alignment on the fine-tuning of Randstad’s future core values, and used a whole array of other central and local actions. It culminated two years later in 22 global events for all employees (all on the same day and following the same format) celebrating the 50th anniversary of Randstad.

For this last event – which also involved 22 synchronised stage-size hologram projectors – we received the 2010 European Excellence Award for internal communications. According to our internal surveys and benchmarks with other companies in other industries, we have a high and rising degree of pride in the new Randstad. We have a young, predominantly female and very professional workforce, most of whom were students just a few years ago. In most cases they have reacted very well to the many changes. For example, in Australia we had employees spontaneously painting the logo on their faces!

Synchronised changes

We know that conventional thinking often prescribes a long internal change management programme in preparation for major projects such as a rebranding. However, in our case, we chose to design a programme that would get the majority of our ‘new’ employees into their new brand situation within a year. That meant that we would need to change the brands and the house styles of more than 100 companies, varying in size between 50 and 3000 employees, and in some 40 countries.

Psychological advantage

Within the largest units, the programme started almost immediately after the closing. The major strategic staffing units were rebranded into Randstad or Tempo-Team, depending on the best fit with the local market and the existing strength of the Randstad main brand in the country. This happened during the cultural and internal communications programmes, so many people felt the change at once. Managing that was a challenge, but the psychological advantage was that the external and visual actions matched the internal messages and all the changes were happening at a time when people were expecting them: after all, when a merger deal closes, everyone expects change!

We centrally sourced items needed for physical rebranding, so in the course of two years we used the capacity of our suppliers and our marketing and property people to produce and place literally thousands of new light boxes, branch interior designs, paint jobs, brochure lines and the like. Because of the economies of scale inherent in these processes, we were able to cut costs in such a way that we managed to fit almost all the actions and the incidental new campaigns within the existing and pre-arranged marketing budgets. After two years, we had executed about 130 brand change projects.

Of course, not everything went exactly according to plan: in France, we had a significant delay in the integration process due to the length of time it took to complete the consultation rounds with the various social partners. But in general, most actions stayed on schedule. As every change project increased the strength of the main brands (Randstad and Tempo-Team), the brand awareness in our top 12 global markets kept rising, also in comparison to our competitors. 

We also had another unexpected benefit to this ultra-fast approach: towards the end of 2009, the market turned sharply for the worse. It was fortunate that we had the major moves and investments behind us, as they would have been harder to start in the middle of one of the sharpest decelerations our industry has seen in many decades, if ever. 

Looking back on the main insights

If we were to pick out one main lesson learnt from this process, we would say that early involvement and meticulous preparation were essential, and that if we could do it over again, we would try to do many things even faster. It was absolutely necessary to involve our new colleagues in self-delivering the many projects from the day of the closing. Never allow an outside adviser or consultant to lead a sensitive project! The recession almost distracted us, but this process is like the flight of a rocket: once you have committed, changing course is very risky. We are incredibly pleased that our executive board had the wisdom to stay the course. 

Frans Cornelis

Frans Cornelis is managing director, group marketing and communications at Randstad Holding, the temporary employment company. He took up this position in 2003, joining from KPN, the Dutch landline and mobile telecommunications company, where he was corporate marketing director.

Machteld Merens

Before joining Randstad in 2007 as manager group communications, Machteld Merens worked as a consultant, first at Coebergh Communicatie & PR in Amsterdam, and then as a financial communications consultant at Hill & Knowlton.