Marshall Land Systems’ Richard Vlegels has had an extraordinary life. From his first job repairing fishing boats in IJmuiden Harbour through to time in the Dutch Armed Forces, and a long career in sales for Xerox and Canon, Richard is now in charge of developing new business for Land Systems across Europe.
Richard and his family live in the Dutch countryside with two dogs, seven cats and four horses. Richard is an airline transport pilot licence (ATPL) qualified pilot - and last year, he even flew his plane over to Cambridge from the Netherlands.
Richard sheds light on his career and shares his insights into what makes a great salesperson, the differences in selling to the military, and some of the exciting projects underway in Land Systems right now.
Tell us about your current role at Marshall. What is it you do?
I'm head of sales in Europe for Land Systems. What this means is I set up new business and find new ways into the military market.
In my role, I'm closely aligned with the standardisation team. One of the things we’re doing is building a new type of container with deployable legs and self-levelling capabilities. It’s being developed in collaboration with a company called Expandable in the Netherlands.
How did you end up in a career in sales?
I wanted to be a pilot as a small child, but my father was a harbour worker and there was absolutely no money – but a lot of love and hard work.
My first real job was preparing fishing ships with steel lines and chains as a teenager - heavy work. From there, I completed my military service and was very lucky to become a sergeant in that time. During this time, I also finished my evening study to be an electrician.
I then joined a graphic arts company where I worked for many years to produce and print magazines. In parallel, I graduated from graphic arts high school. I then applied for a vacancy to sell graphic arts materials – and then learned sales that way.
I made a jump when I saw a vacancy at Xerox selling printing paper. After a while they asked me to work on the change from traditional printing to digital printing, given my graphic arts background. I did a lot of sales and management training, and then moved to Canon in a sales management role.
The work pressure got to me at a certain point, and I got pneumonia. My wife said to me, “What actually do you want to do?” and I said, “I want to fly.”
I then went on to get my private pilot licence and even spent two years on ATPL training as a commercial pilot in my 40s, but was advised not to proceed for a 737 or A320 type rating because the job chances at my age were nearly nil and it would bankrupt me.
What brought you to work at Marshall?
Before Marshall, I worked nearly five years throughout the UK for a company that supplies components for the defence industry. My colleagues sometimes said that I knew the UK better than they did because I travelled constantly from north to south – from Kirkcaldy to Plymouth.
I liked working in the UK, and wanted to change to sell an end product instead of selling a component. I already knew Marshall from selling rotary switches for the C-130 Hercules, so applied for a vacancy in the Land Systems sales team. As a pilot, the indirect connection with aviation also appealed to me!
That’s how I came to join Marshall in 2020.
What’s the coolest thing you’re working on for Marshall?
The ongoing NLSC (Netherlands Specialist Containers) contract has been great, but the nicest thing at the moment are the containers with deployable legs and the Role 2 Field Hospitals, which are new products under development by the product development team.
The fantastic thing about the deployable legs in particular is that you don’t need any heavy lifting equipment to get the container off the truck, so it makes armed forces very mobile with their containerised solutions - less labour and lower cost of ownership.
It will also give more flexibility as everybody has more trucks than they have forklifts. It will make the speed of operation much faster and mean fewer people are needed.
How do you adapt to working across so many different countries?
Every country is different and every culture is different, so you have to be really adaptable.
I'm lucky that I speak four languages, because you adapt easily to the language in new countries. For example, you would think Romanian is very difficult but if you're there for a few weeks, you already get the habit of what they're saying and you pick up words. That's the same in Poland.
What is the secret to being a great salesperson?
One of the most important questions I always ask a customer is, “What’s your pain?”
If you can understand where they’re having difficulties, you know where you can bring relief. Good salespeople spend more time listening than talking.
I also like multi-level selling. I don't aim to speak to just one or two high level people in an organisation. I want to speak to the people on the ground working. If you can do that and integrate with those people, you're absolutely in a better position.
This is probably a typical Dutch approach: I don’t care who is in front of me, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a general or a soldier. I’ll treat you with the same respect either way.
Final question: what are you most proud of in your career?
There is not one specific thing that I’m most proud of. I suppose I’m proud that I treat every person the same way with respect, regardless of position or role. I know how it feels at all levels in an organisation, as I’m a self-made man.