Leadership transition between CEO's: Bernard passes the torch to Wim

After forty years with Unilin, of which 14 as CEO, Bernard Thiers hands the reins to Wim Messiaen. They know each other well.

03 February 2024

“Wim is the perfect man for the job”, says Bernard. What can we expect from Wim and what are Bernard’s thoughts on the matter? We talked to the both of them.

Big shoes to fill

Bernard, you were CEO for 14 years. How do you look back on your tenure?
Bernard Thiers: “I’ve always done my job with great dedication and passion. I’ve worked for Unilin for forty years and if I could, I would gladly add another forty.”

What were your personal highlights?
Bernard: “Looking back now, the moments of growth and takeovers are always the most gratifying. They come with challenges but they also bring boundless energy. Nothing compares to the adrenaline I feel at such moments.”

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned?
Bernard: “That growth is essential. When a business stops growing that’s a problem. Growth is what drives a company and it makes everything easier. It also means you constantly have to be looking for ways to perpetuate that growth.”

Wim: “I believe in that just as strongly. In my previous roles I also placed great emphasis on investment and growth. I will resolutely continue down that path at Unilin."

Wim, you have some big shoes to fill. How do you feel about that?
Wim: “Bernard is leaving us an amazing company with a strong business culture and a relentless drive for innovation. It has an exceptionally strong foundation, for which I am very grateful.”

In your opinion, what are Bernard’s greatest accomplishments?
Wim: “The genuine innovation that takes place here. Innovation is increasingly becoming a hollow concept but Bernard has turned it into one of the company’s major assets. He has always placed great emphasis on product development and defended the intellectual property rights, making Unilin the undisputed market leader in several industries. That is the great achievement of Bernard and his entire team.”

Bernard, now you are leaving it all behind. How does that feel?
Bernard: “Frankly, I don’t think about it all that much. It is odd to no longer work for this company after forty years. A completely new world awaits, one with more time. On the one hand I’m looking forward to it but it’s a really crazy thought.

Will you be closing the door forever?
Bernard: “Not forever. Wim can still call on me for advice if necessary. Time will tell in what shape or form.”

Three month tour

How did the transition go?
Wim: “Smoothly. In the last three months I had the opportunity to do a deep dive and visit all divisions, both in Belgium and abroad, to talk to employees and meet with our biggest customers. I visited three continents and a series of countries and sites. I’ve spoken to more than two hundred employees across the globe. Actual conversations, not idle chit-chat. On February 1, I took over. Bernard will still help me in the first month to make the transfer as smooth as possible."

What have you learned?
Wim: “I think it was a unique opportunity to gain a detailed insight into the operation of the company. I met very strong teams across the globe that share an entrepreneurial spirit and a great love and passion for their work. That is also obvious from the breakneck speed at which Unilin innovates. This is only possible with a motivated team.”

The Future

Wim, what are your ambitions and objectives?
Wim: “I understand it’s a question that occupies people’s minds but in truth it’s still early days. I do have a number of ideas but it’s too early to share them. One thing I want to place maximum focus on is zero harm. It’s a goal I want to keep investing in.”

Do you have similar leadership styles?
Wim: “I’d say pretty similar. I don’t expect a significant departure from how Bernard handles things but we obviously have our own individual character, background and experience.”

Bernard: “We are not clones. I’m sure Wim will put his own stamp on things but we do share the same values.”

Bernard has always put great stock in sustainability. Does that go for you as well, Wim?
Wim: “Absolutely. Sustainability, in the broadest sense of the word, is extremely important to me. Sustainability is not an obligation. On the contrary, it can provide you with a competitive advantage. Unilin is already fully committed to ecology and circularity but the outside world isn’t always fully aware of that. I think it’s a message we could put in the spotlight more often and, needless to say, one that we should place even greater focus on in the future. But sustainability is also key from a social point of view. Everyone must feel comfortable at work and be given the opportunity to keep learning.”

Bernard, if you could give Wim a single piece of advice, what would it be?
Bernard: “Listen. To your employees, to the customers and to our shareholders in the US. By that I don’t just mean ‘hearing what someone is saying’ but also trying to find the meaning behind those words. It sounds simple but truly listening to people is not always easy. It’s the only advice I have for him — not that Wim needs much advice (laughs).”

Wim, what are you looking forward to mostly?
Wim: “I’m champing at the bit to jump right in with all our talented employees. The global economy may be dodgy but Unilin is still doing well. So well, in fact, that our parent company Mohawk has given us their blessing to keep investing substantially in 2024. That is a wonderful recognition of the quality we provide and how well the business model works. Together I want to keep that momentum going.”

Wim Messiaen in a nutshell

Age: 55 y.o.
Born in Ghent but lives in Overijse (Belgium).

Wim boasts over 30 years of management experience in an international production context. He has worked at, among others, Domo (technical materials and sustainable plastic-based solutions, also flooring back in the day), Etex Group (international manufacturer of building materials) and VPK Group (sustainable packaging solutions).

  • Why did you choose Unilin?
    Unilin is a leading company. It has fantastic diversification both geographically and in terms of product offerings. All divisions are driven by innovation.
  • What are you most proud of in your last job?
    At Domo, Etex and VPK I was able to make an active contribution to their international expansion, always with respect for their local anchoring. All three are industrial gems that are involved in housing and sustainability and Unilin fits that mould perfectly.
  • What have you learned in recent years?
    It’s all about people and their motivation, drive and skills.
  • What type of leader are you?
    I want to be approachable, pragmatic and (hopefully) inspiring.
  • What do you do to relax after an exhausting working day?
    I put on my walking shoes and go for a walk or a run. At the weekend I like to work in the garden
  • What books do you like to read?
    I prefer non-fiction about the economy, renewable energy and battery technology.
  • Are you competitive?
    Yes, I want to get ahead and I’m ambitious, both on a personal and professional level.