In conversation with Wessel Buddingh

Wessel Buddingh is CEO of Big Green Egg Europe. From the sustainable head office in De Lier, he is responsible for distribution to 44 countries. You don't become the market leader in the ceramic barbecue segment overnight. Irene van de Laar talks to the CEO about intuition, inspiration, coincidence and quality.
Karoly Effenberger

What was the starting point for the architecture and overall appearance of your office?

"I wanted to work around a tree. That was actually a requirement for the architect. My wish was a square building and a relatively closed building to the outside, but completely open and transparent to the inside. I like privacy and accessibility at the same time. Our office building resembles a magic box: you step into it and create your own Big Green Egg feeling. The fifties and sixties also come to the fore. I really like the Mid-Century style. We used a lot of natural materials and there is a lot of light. I benefit a lot from light, I believe that it leads to different ideas."

To what extent does this fit with the company's mission?

"We are constantly looking at the target group and opportunities with an open and broad view. The environment contributes to this. Internally and externally, it has to be right. Ultimately, the mission is to give people an unforgettable cooking experience with like-minded people. The Big Green Egg is the focal point, but in the background. We want to make the product the hero . To be honest, I'm not that concerned with a mission, or a vision, but it's useful for your company. Then everyone knows what we're doing it for. We're trying to create a fan base and we're doing really well."

How does Big Green Egg feel?

"For a happy, nice and free feeling. You come home, light the Egg and you're immediately in a different mode. You buy beautiful ingredients and get to work with your family or friends. A nice glass of wine or a beer. You have good conversations and the Big Green Egg does its work in the background. The result is always fantastic. That's why I started it at the time. Some people like it, others don't. He may not like his looks , but he does have something innocent. He's friendly. A friend to everyone and a connector. A connecting cooking pot."

When did you first smell entrepreneurship?

"My father had an architectural firm, which may have been the reason for the affinity. I was always looking at those books. He was also an entrepreneur, a completely different type, but that doesn't matter. I worked for a boss as a sales representative for two years. Learned a lot, it was a lot of fun, but I still wanted to start my own business. I was 22 years old at the time. I started importing bricks. Very sexy."

How did the interest in Big Green Egg come about?

"A customer from the brick trade, whose parents-in-law had emigrated to Atlanta, tipped me off about the Big Green Egg. He cooked on it every night. He said: 'I want that in the Netherlands too.' He went to the shop where his father-in-law had bought him. That turned out to be the head office of Big Green Egg. The idea was to introduce this kamado together in the Netherlands. Until his wife was pregnant and he didn't dare to bear the financial risk. In the meantime, my curiosity was piqued. On the spur of the moment, I booked a ticket to Atlanta. I met Ed Fischer, the founder of Big Green Egg. We hit it off right away. Those are those coincidental moments, sometimes it is granted to you. He thought that was nice, a boy from the Netherlands who wanted to sell it. I became an importer for the Benelux. Later, Europe followed suit. We are now in every country."


What can this outdoor cooker do?

"With a temperature range of 70 to 350 degrees, all cooking techniques are possible: grilling, baking, boiling, stewing, smoking and slow cooking. You can even bake a pizza on it. It's a product for life, and the ultimate remake of the kamado. The ceramics with NASA technology are indestructible. It's a bit more expensive than the competition, but you're set for the rest of your life."

Are you losing sleep over competition?

"The basis of Big Green Egg, the ceramics, is unique. No one can copy it. About ten years ago, when it really started to become a success, it kept me awake at night. Suddenly, two or three privateers came on the coast. Then you think: the hyenas are waking up. I found that annoying. Not anymore. You just have to keep going. It keeps you on your toes, including our marketing team. This market is big enough and they also have their advertisements, so help make the kamado cooking bigger. We also benefit from that."

When you became an importer, did you ever think: this is the golden egg?

"I never thought that. Every year a few more countries are added. In the beginning, it was really pioneering. I participated in a lot of trade missions in all kinds of countries. Then I drove with that egg in the back of the car to Sweden, Eastern Europe, France, Spain, et cetera. It's just a quest."

What were the pitfalls?

"There weren't any. I am someone who thinks: if you want to achieve something, you have to go out. You can make a business plan for how it should be in the ideal world, from which those pink clouds arise, but there are none. I just grabbed that egg: drive and ring the bell. That works best. Nowadays, of course, this is easy via social media. If you have a good product, you look for an influencer. If you're lucky, you'll go sky high. I eventually built up a distribution network, and that took twenty years."



You don't become the market leader of an exclusive cooking oven overnight. What was decisive for the success of Big Green Egg?

"I think the success has mainly come from sticking to our target group. We are often approached by retailers to do actions together. We never do that, we stay away from it. We have always sworn allegiance to the smaller suppliers of ingredients, such as Livar. They have pigs that are still really pampered. With Big Green Egg, we want to give the feeling that the product stands for top quality, including the ingredients. You don't get that from retail, but from the butcher, the greengrocer and the really good fishmonger. In addition, we built slowly. The marketing, sales, logistics and financial story are rock solid, but that has grown slowly."

Which role suits you better: entrepreneur or manager?

"Entrepreneur. I'm not a manager, nor am I a people manager. I'm someone who says: 'You get all the freedom, and if that doesn't work, we'll break up and I hope you develop.' We also work according to the Semco principle, devised by the Brazilian Ricardo Semler. You make your organization more agile, and give your people more autonomy and trust in their own responsibility. As long as you achieve the goals."

Do you have a talent for subordination?

"No, not in terms of entrepreneurship. I've been playing golf for a long time, and in recent years I've been a bit more fanatical. I think that's fantastic. When I see a professional, I'm not stubborn; Then I want to learn everything. The same goes for a top chef or a guitar virtuoso. I have immense respect for people who can do something very well. I can watch and listen breathlessly and think: I wish I could do that."


Big Green Egg has also embraced the top of the hospitality industry. How did you get in there?

"When I started Big Green Egg, I went to all the garden fairs, fairs and events. I'm a pretty good cook, but it's not my job. I then hired a very nice chef, Robert Lobensteijn. A tough appearance with ditto mohawk. At one point, Robert went to dinner with his great example Jonnie Boer of De Librije. They struck up a conversation, and Jonnie told them that he wanted to bring barbecuing, grilling and roasting back into the kitchen as cooking techniques. Robert gave a demonstration shortly afterwards. Jonnie Boer immediately ordered fifteen pieces. Within six months we were at the top of the culinary world. Gastronomy and chefs are our culinary showpiece. The great thing is: if one top chef embraces your product, the rest will follow."

Who is your inspiration?

"I do admire a number of entrepreneurs, artists, performers and chefs, but my father is my example and inspiration in many ways. He passed away thirteen years ago, but I think more and more about his life lessons as a parent: 'Have respect for people who use their talent, in whatever form', was one of them. And I definitely inherited or learned the dreamy from him."

What goals do you still have in mind?

"We are constantly looking to tap into new niche audiences within the general segment. About two years ago, we decided to focus more on the golf segment. Big Green Egg and golf have a lot in common. Working on technology and enjoying the good life, for example. We now have our own tournament in six countries. In the Netherlands, this is the Big Green Egg Open, part of the European Ladies Tour. The highest level in the field of women's golf and comparable to the Dutch Open. A special partnership. We never do something like this for one year, but always look for long-term relationships. Am I satisfied with how I've done so far? Yes, super satisfied. Germany and a few other countries are really going to break through, so it's all going to get much bigger. I think that's really awesome. I also try to bring some inspiration to the whole group. Then we have a quarterly session here at the office, then we do fun things and I try to give people something through music. After all, Big Green Egg is also a bit of emotion."


Visit Big Green Egg at MASTERS EXPO. From 8 to 12 December in RAI Amsterdam: MASTERS EXPO – The Colourful Edition. Order your tickets here.