First panel discussion

First panel discussion

moderated by Twan Huys

  • Lodewijk Hijmans van den Bergh, Ahold
  • Pieter Van Oord, Van Oord,
  • Professor Hans van Oosterhout, RSM
  • Professor Abe de Jong, RSM

A fast-paced panel discussion featuring all panel members and with questions from the audience started with RSM’s Abe de Jong, Professor of Corporate Finance and Corporate Governance, and a business historian. He drew parallels between the Ahold of today, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) of 200 years ago which changed the rules of international trade, and family businesses. Decisions made by the globally-trading VOC required the agreement of 17 people from different chambers of commerce and trade, using an idea taken from communities of Dutch polder farmers that managed the centuries’ old battle to keep the sea out of low-lying Dutch farmland. It would be impossible to have ‘a CEO of dyke collaborations’, he said. This traditional Dutch ‘polder model’ could work again in the future, said Prof. De Jong. Co-operative and collegial leadership was the secret of success for the VOC, and also for Ahold in its beginnings and again now.

RSM’s Hans van Oosterhout, Professor of Corporate Governance and Responsibility, said many businesses had learned from Ahold’s 2003 crisis, which had led to changes for public listed companies and corporate governance. “And now our system leads the world for corporate governance,” he said, and asked if it would be possible for listed companies to retain the type of infrastructure found in family businesses. Family businesses take a longer perspective and are more likely to make riskier investments, he told the audience, but considering succession was also critical to their survival. The Netherlands’ family businesses could learn from the way that Asian companies ensure family business succession, he suggested.

American family competition

The first question from the audience was addressed to Ahold’s Lodewijk Hijmans van den Bergh, who was was asked how the competitive spirit of the Dutch company compares to that of Publix, a fast-growing employee-owned supermarket chain in the USA. The CEO said: “There are different ways to be successful and space for more than one type of organisation. Publix is a good competitor and keeps us on our toes, but we can beat them if we want. That’s what competition is about.” Ahold, formerly a family company itself, was able to grow because of its access to essential capital. Some family businesses get capital from banks, he said, but getting capital is also a reason to become publically listed on the stock market.

Opening international doors

The panel was asked by an alumna of the school how they thought RSM should keep improving and innovating in a fast-changing and internationalising world. The panel turned the question back onto the questioner; she quickly suggested working with east and west – for example the knowledge co-operation between Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Chinese universities, plus open courses and ‘making real connections’. Ahold’s Lodewijk Hijmans van den Bergh, who is also a member of RSM’s Advisory Board, said there is a lot of talk about this within the school, but concentrating on quality was essential.

Pieter van Oord emphasised the importance of relationships between universities and companies; the company has such relationships with the technical universities of Delft, Twente and Eindhoven and their students of engineering. The industry goes so far as to support the work of professors, he said.

The Van Oord company employs 50 nationalities ‘so they all have different university backgrounds’, said Pieter van Oord, who added that the Netherlands was still doing really well in terms of the marine construction industry. “Lots of Indonesians want to come to the Netherlands for their education, but it can be difficult for them to come – they need support from a company,” he said.

Panel moderator Twan Huys asked if ‘closing the doors’ to foreign students was a political issue. “Do you think the political system should open the door to talent for universities in the Netherlands?”  

Prof. Hans van Oosterhout said: “I think so,” and Prof. Abe de Jong spoke of RSM’s search for the best international staff to teach its international students. “Quality and internationalisation are crucial for us.”

The shopping experience

Ahold’s Lodewijk Hijmans van den Bergh was asked what innovation would be expected so that consumers engage with the Albert Heijn shopping experience, now that customers were no longer known by name to the shopkeeper. Hijmans van den Bergh said the world is becoming more customer-centric; customers have so much choice. At the same time there are all sorts of ways of engaging with them. “We can try to get information from customers so we can give them what they want. That’s the point of having good people in a big company; you can still keep in touch with your customers, because the staff in the store will help you the way you want.”

Still red tape across European borders

An audience member pointed out that giant companies like Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook are all American, and none are family-owned, and asked the panel what should be the role of scale in creating the future, and on what scale should innovation be. In a general discussion about innovation, the panellists broached the role of the European Union. Lodewijk Hijmans van den Bergh said that he was surprised how much red tape Ahold had encountered in trying to supply its stores in Belgium through its supply centre in Tilburg in the south of the Netherlands. “This is an impediment to creating scale,” he said, and commented that while talk of the EU was often on a big and emotional scale, freedom of business across inter-European borders was something that the Ahold group did every day.

Family business culture in a big family firm

In response to a question about how to keep the family business culture going in a big family firm, Pieter van Oord said keeping the ‘family culture’ is indeed important as companies grow. “Van Oord cares about people,” he said, and admitted that some long-standing employees say it was better in the past ‘when the company was smaller and everyone knew each other’. “Working in smaller units is often easier and nicer, but as a large company, Van Oord does a lot of [work on its] communication. We use every sort of communication and media for this - we like to keep the family culture,” said Pieter Van Oord, and added that giving people the sense that they’re working for a winning company was also helpful.

An international workplace needs international recruitment

In answering a question about what constituted a good mix of different types of contract to maintain a family-business feeling, Pieter Van Oord took the opportunity to address another issue. “I still have a tremendous number of vacancies, more than a hundred, mostly for engineers,” he said.

Twan Huys asked Van Oord if he could hire from anywhere in the world – not just from within the Netherlands – would the recruitment problem be solved? Pieter Van Oord replied that if the company was to recruit only from within the Netherlands, then it would be 50% smaller. “We need an international workplace and there are not enough engineers in this country,” he said, and advised students that including ‘any bit of engineering’ into their studies would improve chances of getting a job with his company!

“In my experience, your university years are only a very small part of your career, and your real career starts after university – if you are open to education after university,” he said.

One in five has worked for Albert Heijn

In answer to the original question about the mix of employment contracts, Ahold’s Lodewijk Hijmans van den Bergh told the audience that with so many people in its employ, Ahold used a mix of contracts which varied from country to country. The USA business tended to hire more permanent staff, while there are a greater number of flexible contracts in the Netherlands. He announced an astonishing fact; approximately one in five Dutch people in the Netherlands has worked for Albert Heijn at some point. “I think a mix is healthy; it’s all about diversity, not just in terms of contracts but also in terms of people you employ,” he said.