Vander Kooy Recycles Career
GRAND RAPIDS — Looking at the company books and discovering $1 million worth of fraud can be a real wake-up call for a CEO. For Scott Vander Kooy, it was more than that. It was life changing.
“Looking at it now, I was certainly laid bare at the time,” said the 46-year-old president of Worldwide Christian Schools. This monumental moment occurred not in his current role, but in his previous position as CEO of a company that he founded and nurtured into one of the most successful electronics recycling operations in the country. Suddenly, without warning, everything he had created was at risk of dying. Accepting that was a very difficult personal lesson for Vander Kooy.
“I think if any businessman is honest with you, he’ll say that he deals with pride issues. Because you’ve created this thing and it’s sustainable and you’re employing people. My whole identity was wrapped up in what I did. Absolutely. If you said, ‘What’s most important in your life?’ I would have said, ‘God, family, business.’ But for me it was ‘Business, business, business.’”
The PC Revolution
Three years out of Calvin College, Vander Kooy was overcome by the entrepreneurial bug. He had been working for his father’s computer leasing business and decided that — although he loved his father — he wasn’t interested in being his employee any longer.
“Like most entrepreneurs, you just have this driving desire to create something. And it’s not typically about money that’s driving you then. It’s about crafting something awesome,” he said.
That something was a company called Comprenew Inc.
When the business started in 1986, many businesses still used hulking mainframe computers. One of these machines could cost several hundred thousand dollars. Most companies leased the equipment. Once the lease expired, other companies were in line to get a gently used, secondhand mainframe.
“Let’s say Amway theoretically had it on lease with Bank of America,” Vander Kooy explained. “Well, that lease was up and let’s say Steelcase wanted it. In between, it would come to us and we’d refurbish it. That simply means that we’d test it, we’d clean it, we’d change the colors — like an auto body shop — in some cases.”
That proved to be a lucrative business, though one low in volume and high in margin. But Vander Kooy saw a change on the horizon.
“We saw desktops just taking over,” he said. “That was like a wave and we rode that wave for a couple years.”
While riding that wave, Vander Kooy saw the mainframe leasing market — and therefore Comprenew’s refurbishing business — drying up. However, there was still an opportunity in those big machines.
“We started to see some old mainframes that literally had no commercial value, but might have some precious materials in them. And just because of their very size, you didn’t want these things to go into the landfill. So we started to do some disassembly of units like that.”
At the same time, the volume of leased desktop computers was growing exponentially. Instead of simply acting as a middle-man refurbisher, Comprenew got into the resale business. At that time, the company operated out of a building in Grand Rapids’ Boston Square neighborhood.
“So we would open up on Saturdays and we’d have all the PCs lined up. People would come in and buy the PCs and we’d take a cut and give the rest to the leasing companies,” he said.
That business soon began to take over. Comprenew moved to a larger facility in Rockford and grew to 42 employees. The company opened a second location in Columbus, Ohio. That plant handled the high-volume business, while the Rockford operation continued to work on the lower volume, higher margin business. It also handled the growing recycling business. The business continued to grow throughout the 1990s, reaching its peak in 1999.
At that time, the largest electronics recycling company in the country set its sights on buying Comprenew. The CEO of that company called Vander Kooy and made an offer.
“It was just out of sight. It was way overvalued, just an incredible offer. And so we accepted it contingent upon his ability to get the deal done in six months.”
While Comprenew’s competitor worked out the financing for the acquisition, Vander Kooy began thinking about his next move. He had declined an offer to act as CEO for the combined recycling firm. He was ready for a change, and one presented itself.
He was serving on the board of directors for Worldwide Christian Schools, a Grand Rapids-based Christian charity that establishes educational institutions in poor areas throughout the world. The organization was looking for a president. Vander Kooy told the board that he would like to take that job.
“I just felt a tug toward Worldwide. That’s the only way I can describe it,” he said. “I’m not an overly sensitive person, but I just felt a constant tug.”
However, after announcing his candidacy to Worldwide, the buyout offer for Comprenew fell through. He was forced to withdraw from the running for the presidency.
Months went by and the organization did not find a suitable leader. Meanwhile, Vander Kooy kept Comprenew’s operations moving along, despite the downturn in the technology industry. In the midst of all this, he still felt the tug.
After much discussion with his wife, Vander Kooy decided to take the plunge.
“She said, ‘You’ve just got to go for this job at Worldwide. Everything else will work out.’”
He re-entered his candidacy and was soon offered the job.
Up, Down And Inside-Out
“The day after I told the board that I was going to take the job, we had our director of accounting (at Comprenew) start to commit significant fraud,” he said. “And so here I thought we’d just ended the best year in our company’s history and I decided to pursue the Worldwide job, (but) something’s going on in Columbus that I’m not aware of — none of us are aware of until July 2001. That’s when I received a phone call from our bank that changed my life.
“There was a two-week period where we didn’t know where the bottom was. We knew that there was about a million-dollar impact. That’s all we knew,” he said. “So the next couple months were really rough. … That was a time of tremendous soul-searching and turmoil. I mean, ‘How could it be? What am I to do?’ I felt that I was supposed to pursue Worldwide, but was it responsible to follow that path?”
While Vander Kooy contemplated the future, he couldn’t help but dwell on what had happened, often blaming himself. At the same time, he decided to forge ahead with the Worldwide presidency, and work with his Comprenew employees to reinvent the damaged business.
“There was this part of life that was both very, very ugly in dealing with all that crud, and feeling like I had let people down, and that I had been irresponsible,” he said. “And on the other side of my life, here was this Worldwide Christian Schools job, which by that time I had gotten — and the promise of that and the leadership opportunities inherent in that role. And so for a period of time I felt like I was leading a double life. It was really weird.”
Comprenew closed its Ohio operations and dropped down to four employees. With a new outlook, the company continued to thrive in its recycling endeavors.
Bringing It All Together
In 2004, Vander Kooy decided to once again reinvent Comprenew. He decided to transform the business into a nonprofit trust and fold it into Worldwide Christian Schools. The organization was looking for a new revenue source, after selling off its successful thrift stores. Because of the success of the thrift stores, Worldwide was used to being a self-sustaining operation. Vander Kooy thought that the newly minted Comprenew Environmental Trust would allow the schools to keep operating under that funding model.
So far, that decision has been fruitful. It is also allowing Worldwide to become involved in endeavors it could not have previously. For example, Comprenew Environmental Trust and the Kent Intermediate Schools District’s vocational training program are working together on a sustainable business practices curriculum.
“Comprenew is going to be training kids from 25 area public schools,” he said. “And we’re going to teach them about creation stewardship and about environmental stewardship. That’s something that Worldwide Christian Schools couldn’t do on its own.”
The funds from the trust’s operations will also allow Worldwide to expand. Vander Kooy said the organization is working on new efforts to establish schools in “closed countries” such as China and Cuba.
“Education has tremendous value,” he said. “And there are lots of places in this world that don’t have access to any education. … We’d like to change that.”