The birth of a business school

While history records the birth of RSM as being in 1970, its inception was much earlier. In fact it was in 1966, 50 years ago, that the vision of a school purposefully created to educate new generations of managers came into embryonic being. To mark that landmark moment, RSM Outlook magazine invited Harrie Langman, the school’s founding dean, to share his personal recollections of those early days with RSM’s present dean, Steef van de Velde.

STORY & PHOTO BY RUSSELL GILBERT



Steef van de Velde: During your early career you held various management and executive positions in the shipbuilding industry. How did you come to be involved in education and the formation of what was to become RSM?

Harrie Langman: In 1963 I received a phone call from the dean of the faculty of law at the Netherlands School of Economics (NSE) in Rotterdam. Knowing that I’d studied law and economics, he offered me a full-time professorship in the law school to acquaint students with business and business economics. I initially refused, saying that I had a marvellous job with shipbuilders Royal Schelde. The dean countered with an offer that meant I could take on the role for just four hours a week.

Then in 1966, when Royal Dutch [the Dutch part of what was the Royal Dutch/Shell Group] was celebrating its 75th anniversary, the company decided to make a large sum of money available for the promotion of business studies in Rotterdam. Other large Dutch companies were invited to participate. To the surprise of many at that time a number of them did, and a considerable fund became available. A committee was set up to explore the feasibility of a business school. I was invited to join the committee and later to become the dean of the new Interfaculteit Bedrijfskunde (Graduate School of Management).

Why did they invite you to become dean?

Was it because of your business experience?

Yes, and my involvement in teaching. At that time most thought the idea of a business school was a folly and it wasn’t until 1968 that we were obliged to show the people who had made the money available that we were doing something serious with it.

When we presented our plans for a business school, the law and economics faculties at NSE were supportive but the people at social sciences were very much against it. They were afraid we would poach their students. There was quite a fight, but they eventually came round to our way of thinking.

We visited INSEAD, Manchester and London business schools, as well as a number in the USA, to find out what we needed to do. In all our planning the involvement of Delft University of Technology was considered important.

Why was Delft so important?

I had seen many engineers trying to make money from running their own businesses but without the necessary business skills to do so successfully. Delft had a number of professors with solid business experience, so their participation was very much needed. We eventually secured commitment from Delft’s faculties of civil, mechanical and maritime engineering, and general sciences. Their support along with the involvement of the faculties of economics, law and social sciences at NSE meant that the new school could be multidisciplinary.

However, this created a challenge: how to give students an understanding of all these disciplines so that the real work – the business education – could begin. The solution was to have different subjects as the theme for each semester. The first-ever semester was on marketing.

The supervisory boards of NSE and Delft were made up of prominent businessmen with the head of Unilever being chairman of NSE and the managing director of Royal Dutch heading up Delft. One day, not long before our new school was about to open, it occurred to them that they ought to let the Ministry of Education know what we were planning. A hastily arranged meeting was set up with Arie Piekaar, director general of science policy at the ministry.

After explaining our plans, Piekaar, probably thinking that this was a long way off, asked when the new school might actually happen. I thought then that everything was going to go badly wrong because the opening was set for the middle of the next week. Instead he said: ‘Gentlemen, we’ve been praying for something to happen since the end of the war – and it starts next Wednesday!’

What about the first group of students, what were they like?

They went through a selection process that involved them writing a letter explaining their reasons for enrolling. A professor of psychology tested them individually, and wrote to those who failed to get in offering to explain personally why they weren’t admitted. There were limited places available and we had many applicants. Most who didn’t get in were advised to try again the next year.

The first intake was a very highly motivated group. And we learned as much from them as we hoped they had learned from us. The staff were also very good, especially as they’d been asked to take on something that was completely different to them.

In terms of education, what were you looking to provide to students?

We wanted to give them good insights into how a business should be run. And to have the skills to become a successful manager or a highly valuable member of a company who could contribute, not just with knowledge acquired from their own field, but with sufficient understanding to operate with people who had different sorts of knowledge.

We had plenty of heavy industries in the Netherlands then and based on my experiences it was clear to me that sometimes managers were absolutely not qualified to run businesses that employed thousands of people. They needed educating.

From that very first class back in 1970, there are now around 30,000 alumni with careers all over the world and RSM is a globally recognised business school. That’s a remarkable achievement.

I feel very proud even if it was so many years ago. Perhaps the more important decisions behind the school’s success were taken later on, but we got it started at least. All we could do was try to foresee all the possibilities, study them seriously, get it started and learn as we went along, which I still think is the best approach with any new venture.

With your many years of experience, in industry, banking, politics and more, what advice would you offer to young people, perhaps those who have recently graduated and are at the very beginning of their own careers?

While your qualifications are very important, your personal characteristics are even more important. Try not to build your career on the backs of other people. Try to be a good colleague, don’t do things that you don’t like to do and always make time for your family.

Harrie Langman, thank you very much.

Harrie Langman

23 February 1931, Harrie Langman held dozens of executive and supervisory positions during a long and distinguished career and served as minister of economic affairs in the Dutch government from July 1971 to May 1973. He is now retired. Find out about RSM’s history here.

This article was first published in RSM Outlook summer 2016. You can download RSM Outlook here.

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RSM Outlook , 2016 Summer RSM Outlook