On the stage of the Haarlemse Schouwburg, the crew of theater group Jakop Ahlbom builds the decor for that evening’s performance. “We want to create sustainable theater, the theater of the future,” says sustainability manager Daan Stigter. That is why Jakop Ahlbom pays 10 percent extra transport costs for the biofuel of the Pieter Smit Group, which has been transporting pop groups and theater companies for 43 years.
Transport is ‘a big pie slice’ in our emissions, Stigter explains. Jakop Ahlbom can be transported with fossil-free HVO fuel. That saves almost 90 percent of CO2 emissions. The crew travels in electric cars and rents an electric tour bus from Pieter Smit. Stigter: ‘We want to challenge Pieter Smit to go even further and replace HVO fuel with electrically powered trucks running on hydrogen or mega batteries. That’s the best solution.’
At the head office in Nieuw Vennep, founder Pieter Smit (68) and his 28-year-old daughter and successor Louise have their reservations. Ten electric cars from a fleet of more than a thousand trucks and vans can be charged in the parking lot. Louise Smit: ‘Grid operator Liander cannot lay the cables until sometime in 2025.’ Father Pieter: ‘That cabinet already costs 75 thousand euros. And when they deliver, we can pay another monthly fixed charge of 3,300 euros.’
He was shocked when he visited a car manufacturer in France: the development of electric trucks is going slower than he expected. ‘They produce 145 trucks there every day in two lines, of which only four are electric. And there is so much technology involved. The additional cost of an electric truck is four times higher.’
‘Electric trucks are currently unfeasible for longer distances in Europe. Only Ford produces electric vans with a weight of three tons and a range of 200 miles. But they are expensive and take forever to be delivered.”
Yet there is no way back, says Louise Smit, who has taken over the daily business operations from her father. ‘In the Netherlands, HVO fuel is an excellent alternative for transport, although it costs more. It is unfortunate that you still have to pay the same excise duty for diesel. Alternative fuel must become affordable.’
After Pieter Smit worked for four years as a theater technician for Hans Sleeswijk Producties, he started his own business in 1980 with two trucks. Bringing technology, logistics and transport together was his ideal. The company struggled through the crisis years, after which Smit went on tour for six months with a Canadian dance company in 1988. In 1992 he was part of the Dire Straits tour, after which his name was established.
Smit was one of the technicians on Michael Jackson’s last tour and marveled at his aura. ‘I saw his last shows in Spain and Portugal. I have never seen so many girls in ecstasy as at Michael Jackson’s concert. I always thought that moonwalk was fake until I saw him dancing. He could enchant a stadium with 70,000 fans.’
The head office has almost become a museum with dozens of framed posters of bands and theater companies that Pieter Smit has accompanied since its founding in 1980. He walks past posters of John Kraaykamp Sr., Robert Long and the countless productions of Joop van den Ende. ‘Joop was the man of the spectacle, he knew better than anyone else how to evoke the wow feeling in the audience,’ says Smit.
Smit also participated in the tours of major bands and artists such as Kiss, U2, the Rolling Stones, Ed Sheeran and Rihanna. Ed Sheeran also pays extra for biofuel. He never spoke to the world stars, the Pieter Smit Group did its work in the wings and during transport. Smit: ‘Perhaps it was part of my success that I never imposed myself.’
Big, bigger, biggest: a tipping point had been reached with U2’s impressive ‘360 degree Tour’ between 2009 and 2011, say Pieter and Louise Smit. ‘The biggest tour we did, we alone had 145 trucks deployed. U2 and Rolling Stones were bidding against each other at the time. With the Stones the audience sat on stage, U2 set up in a stadium about the bottom of the Eiffel Tower. That stage was that immense.’
Another ten years later it became clear that such concert series were quite polluting. Was ‘green touring’ actually possible? In 2020 calculated de Volkskrant shows that CO2 emissions during Coldplay’s world tour were equivalent to 25,572 return flights between Amsterdam and New York. Foreman Chris Martin decided to travel as little as possible from now on.
It is easy to say, says Pieter Smit: ‘What is the ecological benefit if Led Zeppelin only plays in London, as on their last tour? Then the fans get on planes to see Led Zeppelin perform in London.’ Louise: ‘Public transport is the largest contributor to CO2 emissions.’
Profile: Pieter Smit Group
Locations: Nieuw Vennep and five countries
Number of employees: 150
Annual turnover: 45 million euros
The Nightliner, the newest bus in Pieter Smit’s fleet and the figurehead of efficient and ecologically responsible touring, is located in the parking lot in Nieuw Vennep. The crew of American singer Beth Hart has just returned from Germany. Sixteen people can also sleep in this bus, although it is cramped. “We are not allowed to make that bus higher than four meters,” says Pieter Smit, laughing. ‘And all the windows can be opened. I hate hotels where that isn’t possible.’
Smit never considered selling his company, which has branches in five countries. The succession by daughter Louise is carefully supervised. From next year she will officially be the director. “Letting go is also a kind of grieving process,” Louise tells her father. ‘The company was the third child in our family besides my brother.’
Pieter: ‘I never thought we would become so big. I went to a Rolling Stones concert in America to see how the logistics worked there. The tour manager said to me: Pieter Smit, we know your trucks. I was very proud.’ Louise: ‘At a certain point a name becomes a brand, a household name.’ And laughing: ‘And so this company keeps my father’s name.’