Together they built up the family empire, together they were responsible for its success – although most people only knew the name of Jaap Blokker. Jaap was the face and chairman of the board of Blokker Holding, which in addition to Blokker also included chains such as Intertoys, Xenos, Big Bazar and Leen Bakker. But in the background, Jaap’s younger brother Ab was just as dedicated and equally important to the company.
Last Friday Ab Blokker passed away at the age of 76 after a short illness. Since 1975 he has expanded the family business – Jaap and he were the third generation – into a multi-billion dollar group. At its peak, it had nearly 3,000 stores and 25,000 employees. Over the past decade, he had to watch as the empire fell apart.
Jaap Blokker never experienced that again, he died in 2011, during the heyday of Blokker Holding, at the age of 69.
His death was decisive for the family business. Shortly after, it all went wrong. Ab got involved in a power struggle with Jaap’s successor, the then 37-year-old Roland Palmer. This cousin was the apple of Jaap’s eye, but Ab had much less with him. At the same time, the economic crisis painfully exposed that Blokker had not kept up with the times. After the first loss in Blokker’s history, in 2014, things quickly went downhill.
As of 2017, the retail chains have been sold one by one. What everyone within the company had always thought impossible happened: Ab and Jaap’s widow Els Blokker also sold the greatest pride of the family in 2019, the stores that have carried the family name since they were founded in 1896. The household stores are now owned by Michiel Witteveen and his Mirage Retail Group.
‘Mr J’ and ‘Mr A’
In 1975, Jaap and Ab Blokker took charge of the family business that their grandfather Jacob Blokker had founded in Hoorn. The company then consisted of 43 stores and 600 employees. In the years that followed, they opened one branch after another and took over entire retail chains: Bart Smit, Marskramer, Leen Bakker, Xenos. Until Blokker Holding had fourteen retail chains. Hard work and frugality characterized the family business.
Jaap and Ab Blokker – who were called ‘Mr J’ and ‘Mr A’ within the company, or, even shorter, ‘J’ and ‘A’ – were polar opposites. Jaap was outgoing and charismatic and liked to give speeches. He was known for his impeccable suits. Ab preferred to wear a regular sweater and he drove a very old car. Although they were the sole owners of Blokker Holding, they were dependent on each other, Jaap and Ab avoided each other. No one knew why.
Both brothers had their own domain: Jaap ran the head office in the Netherlands, Ab spent most of his life abroad. Twice a year he traveled with the buyers to China, referred to as ‘the Far East’ within Blokker. There he scoured the Canton Fair, China’s largest trade fair, for weeks, hunting for trade. Ab had a nose for trends and could negotiate like no other. He didn’t know embarrassment, he went on to the last cent. If the price could be lowered by buying more of the same teacups or pillows, Ab simply ordered a little extra.
In addition to purchasing, Ab was also involved in the stores in Belgium. Since moving to Belgium with his family in the mid-1990s, he has managed the Belgian Blokker stores and the Belgian retail chain Casa, acquired by him and his brother in 1988. Casa was Ab’s ‘baby’, the formula was by far the largest retail chain within the Blokker group after Blokker, with hundreds of stores spread throughout Europe.
Also read this piece: The last Blokker has quietly left Blokker
Ab was frugal, the people he worked with noticed. He just didn’t want to spend money if he didn’t have to. When Ab discovered while traveling that the adjacent Ibis hotel was cheaper than the accommodation he had reserved, he would still rebook. While traveling in China, Ab was also able to search endlessly for an affordable pair of shoes. For himself.
When Jaap died, Ab did not want to succeed his brother – he was a merchant, leadership was not in him.
Ab lived in total anonymity. Now Jaap was also not so generous with interviews: in more than 35 years of leadership, the chairman of the board of Blokker had given a handful of interviews. When he was named CEO of the Year in 2003, there wasn’t even a photo of him available. Later that changed somewhat, but Ab has always remained a shadow: there is still no image of him online. Only in the book that Blokker published in 1996 in honor of the centenary, there is one photo of Jaap and Ab, together with their father, around 1970.
Since Ab did not want to and Jaap thought that Blokker would remain a family business, their nephew became the highest boss. It was not ideal: he was young, had little experience in retail and had never been the boss of anything. And: Palmer had no shares. It constantly clashed with his uncle Ab – who owned half the shares. While Palmer wanted to innovate everything from the stores to the website, Ab preferred to stick to the old.
Ultimately, Palmer had to resign in 2015. Only: Ab also had conflicts with the next boss, Casper Meijer, who was not a member of the family. He thought it was a waste of money to invest in new shop fittings. He still didn’t really believe in online shopping. He would rather just put the money in trade.
But Ab seemed tired. In 2017, he quietly withdrew from the company leadership and left the supervisory board, causing him to lose influence. Not much later, the announcement followed that the group would be dismantled and sold in parts.
But Ab did not want to let go of his greatest hobby, buying things in China. He continued to travel to the Far East to do some shopping for his darling Casa. Finally, in April last year, Ab decided to say goodbye to Casa as well. He sold the chain to an investment company.
Ab Blokker leaves behind his wife Margreet and their daughters Francis and Barbara.