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bobby dekeyser, 53, entrepreneur, spain

ageist EDITORS | may 3, 2018

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There is a phase of life many of us are entering where we begin to question the fundamental truths by which we’ve lived. We’ve spoken to enough people through AGEIST to understand that this phase hits us whether we’re empty nesters casting about for our next idea in a rented apartment, or titans of industry beginning the long search inward in a house on a Spanish island. 

Bobby Dekeyser is the latter. But what surprised me about our conversation wasn’t his superlative life — which I’ll detail in a second — but the fact that his journey brought him to the same juncture many of us have reached. 

Born in Germany to parents seemingly disinterested in raising him, he became his own disciplinarian and motivator. A steady, ambitious commitment to become the best goalkeeper on the soccer field resulted in him eventually suiting up for Germany’s behemoth football power FC Bayern Munich.  A devastating injury on the field merely served as the prequel for his next chapter in life: building a brand of high-end outdoor furniture from the ground up. 

He steered that company — Dedon — through dizzying highs and crushing lows. He walked away from it, only to fight his way back in when he saw it faltering following the 2008 financial crisis.

When his teenage sweetheart and the mother of his three children died suddenly in 2010, he chose to increase the speed at which he was living, rather than enter an extended period of self-reflection.

Then, a year ago, he stopped and sold everything but his family’s house on Ibiza, the island off the Spanish coast that had become his natural refuge over the years. 

“The first year was detox, because of the speed. I was traveling 10-15 countries a month, in three continents. And I thought it was normal, because it was the life I lived,” he told me. “It was a tough detox, because the alternative was there. Every day there was something from the outside, but I knew I had to resist and try and find a new way if I wanted to be close to myself, and not a showman.” 

And now, as he looks back on an impressive first half, he’s come to this realization: What happens when you stop living a life driven by fear, and start living one driven by the search to understand who you actually are?

 Photo: Rainer Hosch

Photo: Rainer Hosch

It’s not easy to include the richness of Dekeyser’s life in as brief a synopsis as the one above. Before we spoke via Skype, he sent me a translated version of his autobiography, Not For Sale, a meditation on the lessons he’s learned from a life of constant action on a path that was never clearly defined. 

“When I became a soccer player, it wasn’t because I liked soccer so much; I wanted to meet a girl,” he says. “So I made myself bigger than I was. I wanted to be the best player in the world. I pushed it because I was afraid. There was a lot of fear inside. With fear you can escape or you can attack. And I’m more on the attack side. I do things that are overdoing it. [But] most things worked.”

When they didn’t, he found clever ways around the problem. At the beginning, he struggled with the quality of his furniture. Attracting zero interest at a trade show, he saw an opportunity in the colorful wooden giraffes he used as set decoration that his sister had brought back from Madagascar. 

“Hardly anyone was interested in our furniture, but they loved the giraffes,” he wrote in his book. “ ‘Can we buy these giraffes? Where can I get them?’ I was asked dozens of times. Back in our Bavarian village, I immediately began searching for a retailer in Africa. ‘Giraffes are what they want? Giraffes they shall get!’ ”

The sale of those helped keep the company afloat while he improved the quality.  From the beginning he had no desire to create “a normal company.” It wasn’t so much the furniture he was into, it was building something with people he enjoyed spending time with. He placed enormous trust in his ability to read people. 

“Seventy percent of the time I was right, and thirty percent I was not,” he says. “But I never gave up the idea of trusting people. I trust people a million percent … And when the right people feel that, you can do whatever. I don’t see myself as a leader, I see myself as an entrepreneur who can inspire people. And if they want to be a part of it, they’re welcome to it.”

That inspiration has manifested itself on a more altruistic scale with his foundation. Beginning in 2009, when he was on a break from his company, Dekeyser started Dekeyser & Friends. The foundation finances projects by young difference-makers around the world. But perhaps its biggest undertaking is the Compostela Village Project, built in the Philippines to provide a better life for “scavenger” children and families who lived on massive dump sites near Cebu. 

As he’s withdrawn from the day-to-day of running Dedon, he’s involved himself more in the foundation. He’s gotten luminaries such as Jane Goodall and former German national team goalkeeper Jens Lehmann to lead projects. He learns lessons from them as well. 

“I feel insecure, and I like it because I’m a beginner,” he told me. “I had a discussion once with Bono, who was here. I asked him about this: ‘You seem secure, how do you do it?’ He says his secureness is in his insecurity. And I felt totally understood.”

Throughout his life, nature has provided a respite and he spends almost every day in Spain in the water. When his friends who are still very much striving visit him, he finds himself offering a different perspective than before. 

"The ego says you have to continue, you have to do more — at the end, what are you really doing?” he says. “You get bigger, it gets more anonymous. Certain things repeat, and you miss the time to develop yourself. Fifty is a great age to start a new life. It’s great to really confront it properly.”