As discussed in a separate article, Materialise (Nasdaq: MTLS) founder Fried Vancrean is retiring from his position as CEO, to be replaced by Brigitte de Vet-Veithen, who joined the company in 2016 and most recently served as Executive Vice President of Materialise Medical. This marks a fascinating juncture in the additive manufacturing (AM) landscape as we witness a leadership transition in a publicly traded company which has been guided by its visionary founder for 33 years. The company serves as a foundational element in the 3D printing industry, with its software widely utilized. But what does the future hold for this Belgian firm listed on the Nasdaq? I had the opportunity to speak with both Fried and the incoming CEO, Brigitte, about the shifts underway at Materialise.
“I had big ambitions to be an independent company in the market, a company that is built to last. We work in terms of five-year plans where we hold ourselves to big goals. In 2019, we made our current five-year plan. Even then, I told management that this would be my last one,” Vancrean told 3DPrint.com. “We’ve been working on a succession plan since then for the 1st of January 2024. It is also the right time to hand over the baton now, so the new CEO can make her own five-year plan with her own management team. In that sense, we can embrace long-term continuity, the values, and goals of the company.”
He continued, “I’m getting older and going forward, I know I won’t have the energy that one needs to run the company. Over the past five years, I’ve also experienced some challenging personal moments that went beyond COVID. In that sense, it is a relief to transition to working part-time now. It is the best of both worlds. I’ll still be involved but not as the leader. Now, I will move away, as will my wife Hilde, but we will still be involved. Not as executives, but on the board. Also, as shareholders, we are committed to Materialise, its values and future, and we will maintain our holdings. It is a turbulent time in the world. But, for example, in 1993 all of a sudden there were [fused deposition modeling] and [selective laser sintering] as new 3D printing technologies, not just [stereolithography]. Then the Gulf War happened. There were gigantic challenges then; we as humans often forget how much has happened and how much there is left to be done. We, however, still believe in 3D printing applications for a better and healthier world.”
Vancrean aims to continue inspiring Materialise’s staff and instilling the company’s values even as he steps back. While he will remain available to the firm, he is firmly passing the leadership baton to de Vet-Veithen. I know some might think this transition could be an opportune moment to break up Materialise, perhaps selling the software to Autodesk, the service to CORE Industrial Partners, and the medical segment to another buyer. However, Vancrean contends that, although a split is never entirely off the table, it currently doesn’t make sense. The synergy gained from keeping all three sectors together is significant.
Vancrean believes that a split is particularly illogical at this time due to the evolving software landscape. There are now multiple cloud environments, including those based in China and the United States, each with distinct rules for the UK and the EU. Vancrean argues that scaling business-to-business software is actually more challenging now than it was a decade ago. During the era of the Wintel platform, one could build stable applications for many different businesses in a scalable manner. However, with the proliferation of various cloud services, the digital backbone has become more complex, demanding robustness and advanced capabilities. Moreover, as 3D printing transitions from prototyping to production, more application-specific code needs to be implemented. He points out that “data flows are much more complex from 3D printers to all of these applications and environments.” According to Fried, this complexity reinforces the argument against splitting the company. Keeping the various units of the firm unified allows for a singular, strong digital backbone that can be deployed across different environments, applications, and cloud platforms. This unified approach enables the company to leverage its experience and capital across multiple domains.
Another pressing question is whether to pivot the company solely toward becoming a medical device firm, allowing other segments to either decline or serve the medical division exclusively. De Vet-Veithen offers a clear perspective on this issue. She was selected for her executive capabilities, not merely because she leads the medical business. She contends that by focusing solely on the medical sector, the company would miss out on numerous other opportunities.
De Vet-Veithen began her career as a management consultant before spending a decade at Johnson & Johnson, primarily in senior sales and marketing roles that included EMEA leadership positions with P&L responsibilities. She then led business transformations at multiple companies, helping them to either change their business models or accelerate growth. Wanting to make a more lasting impact, she chose to join Materialise. Captivated by the organization’s values and culture, she successfully led the medical division to growth and success. De Vet-Veithen doesn’t plan to make any drastic changes on January 1st when she assumes her new role.
“I would like to maintain continuity with the past and a focus on being built to last. We don’t want to alter the mission and vision of the organization,” de Vet-Veithen told 3DPrint.com. “However, with the focus shifting away from prototyping toward industrialization, we will have to change the digital backbone that customers use. We will need to integrate AM with traditional manufacturing. In the medical field, we have fantastic examples of how our software and new technologies such as AI are making 3D printing more cost-efficient. We aim to bring this cost efficiency and reduction to more customers. We want to grow the entire [AM] market by making AM businesses more efficient.”
A transition from a founder to a new CEO is always a sensitive period. However, I see many of the same qualities in de Vet-Veithen that I do in Vancraen, including tenacity, humanism, and precision. She appears to be a strong cultural fit, deeply familiar with Materialise’s culture and values. I also believe that the company could experience renewed vigor and growth under her leadership.
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