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The powers in the boardroom: Maarten van den Bergh

The Times: The powers in the boardroom

“Van den Bergh was appointed group managing director of Royal Dutch/Shell in 1992. He left suddenly in 2000, saying he had grown tired of the endless travelling. His views on this year’s furore over Shell’s oil reserves are not known. It is not a subject that goes down well with Shell alumni.

Oilman who made slick transition to bank boss

By Jon Ashworth

October 18, 2004

The world-travelled chairman of Lloyds TSB who made the switch from energy to high finance

THERE are some corners of the world where cynicism has yet to take root. Or perhaps it is simply that the locals do as they are told. Either could explain the spectacle that greeted Maarten van den Bergh during a visit to South Africa in the late 1990s.

Nelson Mandela had persuaded Shell to build a new school near his birthplace in the Eastern Cape. As one of Shell’s most senior executives, Van den Bergh had been flown in for the inauguration.

As Mandela’s entourage came into view, children lining the road waved little We Love Shell flags. For the Dutchman more accustomed to environmental protests, it was a moment to savour.

But it did not last. After greeting him warmly, Mandela publicly berated Van den Bergh for not building a health clinic as well as a school. “It was wonderful,” says the Dutchman, grimacing at the memory. “He speaks his mind.”

Van den Bergh endured far worse in 33 years with Shell. He rose to become president of Royal Dutch Petroleum and vice-chairman of the committee of managing directors. He was around in 1995 when Greenpeace thwarted plans to sink the Brent Spar oil platform.

On leaving Shell in 2000, two years short of his 60th birthday, Van den Bergh reinvented himself as a banker, filling Sir Brian Pitman’s shoes as chairman of Lloyds TSB. He has brought a calm assurance to the role, balancing three days a week with the bank with board positions at BT and British Airways.

Born in New York but raised in the Netherlands, Van den Bergh still speaks with an accent and is articulate and lively. He has the self-assured air of a man who has travelled widely and seen it all.

Some sneered at a non-banker taking the Lloyds TSB job, and Van den Bergh admits that it was “a bit of a surprise” when the headhunters approached him. But he says it has worked out well.

“Sir Brian Pitman was an extremely talented and highly professional banker,” he says. “But I don’t think in the chairman’s role you necessarily have to be a banker. You have to be an experienced business person — understand how the world of business works.

“It’s been really fun to come out of an environment which you knew so well into something totally new and still have the feeling that you make a contribution. Financial services is, to a large extent, a retail business, whereas Shell is a high capital expenditure business.”

Van den Bergh is a scion of the famous Dutch family whose margarine empire was subsumed into Unilever. His father was the last member of the family to have a seat on the Unilever board.

A job with Unilever was his for the taking. But Van den Bergh wanted to carve his own path. “I always had a strong feeling that I would like to do it myself. You can look back and say: ‘this is all my own work’.”

Van den Bergh studied economics at Groningen university in the Netherlands. As he neared the end of his degree, four offers arrived in the post. One was from Unilever, one from Shell, one from the IMF and one from the World Bank.

“I was rather keen on the IMF and the World Bank but they took a long time to process the application,” he says. “I got a letter asking me to an interview at the IMF, but it came four months too late. Shell was rather quick off the mark.” He saw Shell as a ticket to travel the world, and was excited when he was asked to learn Japanese. He was told that the training would take place in Rome, Paris or Lausanne.

What they didn’t tell him was that Shell also had a language training centre in Sheffield. He spent a year there, followed by six months in computer sales near Manchester.

In 1969, the young executive was shipped out to Japan with his wife and baby daughter. They spent nearly five years there. “It was a wonderful experience,” he says. “Japan was still quite oriental and there were no English signs up. But, speaking Japanese, we had a wonderful time. We were among the few expatriates who could travel around the country without being dependent on English.”

He smiles at the memory of driving round in his “very good” little Datsun. “This was exactly the time that Japan was moving away from imitation toys and things like that into real economic growth, building shipyards and steel mills. The country was really starting to take off.”

Young western executives often ended up in the port city of Yokohama, round the bay from Tokyo. “We were very junior, so we lived not in Tokyo where the senior people were but in Yokohama, which since 1853 has been a bit of an expatriate colony,” he says.

“All the youngsters of the international firms were living there and they were all having children, so it was a very nice, relaxed time.” His second daugther was born there.

Van den Bergh became treasurer of the international school for expatriate children. This proved more stressful than his work at Shell.

“Inflation was very high. Raising the fees at the international school in mid-term — and being hated by virtually every expatriate in Tokyo — were bigger worries than I had with my company at that time.”

It was the start of a long association with the Far East. He was area co-ordinator for the East and Australasia from 1981 to 1984 and chairman of Shell in Thailand from 1987 to 1989. Van den Bergh and his wife, Marjan, are still regular visitors to Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. “It is a part of the world that I dearly love. I used to be an adviser to the Hong Kong Government and am still an adviser to the President of the Philippines.”

His daughters both work in London, one in fund management, the other with Ernst & Young, the accountant.

Van den Bergh was appointed group managing director of Royal Dutch/Shell in 1992. He left suddenly in 2000, saying he had grown tired of the endless travelling.

His views on this year’s furore over Shell’s oil reserves are not known. It is not a subject that goes down well with Shell alumni.

Van den Bergh’s office at Lloyds TSB is a bright, modern eyrie with views of St Paul’s. He wants to be seen as accessible to the bank’s executives, saying they are free to knock on his door at any time.

Leadership, he says, “is about having experience you can pass on, knowledge you can pass on, and, very importantly, the ability to motivate and inspire other people: ‘the door is open, please come in, what can we talk about?’ I think it should be done in a fairly informal way if at all possible.”

He commutes three days a week from his home in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey and is usually at his desk by 8.15am. He leaves about 6pm. Evenings and weekends are taken up with cocktail parties and banking conferences.

Van den Bergh is well rewarded for his efforts. He earns about £450,000 a year as Lloyds TSB chairman. Non- executive directorships of BT and BA pay him £40,000 and £30,000 a year.

“Everybody would like to feel properly remunerated,” he says. “When you get towards the end of your career, it’s very nice if you can meet all your desires; if you can take good care of the education of your children; if you can help them with their mortgage.

“The other side of the coin is, I would much rather have a nice job than have more money. Job satisfaction is much more important.”

Shell executives who worked overseas used to have their retirement age reduced accordingly. Van den Bergh could have retired years ago.

“I’d get terribly bored doing nothing,” he muses. “I don’t think that I would ever retire completely. It is very nice to use your mind.”

THE POWER 100

Name: Maarten van den Bergh

Born: April 19, 1942

Residence: Walton-on-Thames, Surrey

Marital Status: married, Marjan, two daughters

Education: University of Groningen (Drs Econs)

Career: joined Royal Dutch/Shell in 1968. East and Australasia area co-ordinator, 1981-84. Deputy group treasurer, Shell International, 1984-86. Chairman, Shell in Thailand, 1987-89. Regional co-ordinator, Western hemisphere and Africa, Shell International, 1989-1992. Group managing director, Royal Dutch/Shell, 1992-2000. Vice-chairman, committee of managing directors, and president, Royal Dutch Petroleum, 1998-2000. Joined Lloyds TSB as deputy chairman in 2000. Chairman since 2001

Other directorships: BT and British Airways

The powers in the boardroom

October 18, 2004

The leader in ten questions

Q. Who is, or was, your mentor?

A. I’ve never worked with a mentor. Moving around so frequently it wouldn’t be easy to have a continuous mentor. I’ve just joined a scheme which has been set up here in London to act as a mentor. The person who I’m going to mentor is coming in next week for the first time. I do think it’s a good idea. It means that outside the formal lines of communication and reporting you can chat to people and hopefully try to get some of your experiences in life over to the person and try to help them by doing so.

Q. Which businessman or woman do you most admire?

A. I’ve met many very interesting people, but I would like to focus on Willie Purves. He really has done an outstanding job in getting HSBC to where it is today. The purchase of Midland was an imaginative choice. Hong Kong was coming up to (the handover in) 1997, to think about going back here and buying a bank like Midland which could then be integrated was a very clever idea. It gave him large cashflows, dealt with the worries of ’97 coming up. He’s also a very nice person, a very able person. We both sat on the Shell board for a number of years. He and I were both advisers to the Hong Kong Government after the handover.

Q. Do you read books on management? If so, which has influenced you the most?

A. No I don’t. When you’re younger, when you start in business, you have the time to do it. Once you’ve been in business for a very long time there is the feeling that you’ve “seen it all”. And time is precious, and the little time you have available I like to spend with my family.

Q. What is the most important business event, good or bad, to occur in your working life?

A. I have two answers to that. My first (overseas) job was in Japan. It was a wonderful experience. Japan was still quite oriental, but, speaking Japanese, I was among the few expatriates who could really travel around the country. This was the time that Japan was moving away from imitation toys into the real economic growth. Second, my move to Lloyds TSB. If you work 33 years in one company, it’s really fun to come to a different environment. It’s been really fun to come out of an environment which you knew so well into something totally new and still have the feeling that you can make a contribution.

Q. Which is more important: what you know, or who you know, and why?

A. It’s what you know. Perhaps 20 years ago “who you know” was important in the whole world of contacts. But business is so international now that what you know is much more important. It’s the experience you’ve had. There are no short cuts anymore.

Q. What does leadership mean to you?

I read a wonderful sentence in The Economist: “Voters don’t always know what they want until politicians tell them. That’s what they call leadership.” My story is slightly different: it’s about having experience you can pass on, knowledge you can pass on, and, very importantly, the ability to motivate and inspire other people: “The door is open, please come in, what can we talk about?” I think it should be done in a fairly informal way if at all possible. I think the last point is to get people to work together. If the board doesn’t work well, I’ve got a big problem.

Q. If you could change one thing about the business, financial and commercial environment, what would it be?

A. I’m very worried about regulation. You’ve heard it many times before, but it is really becoming quite a significant burden on us. In this company alone, there are 255 people who somehow are working on Sarbanes-Oxley and things like that. For a company to look at its risk exposure is extremely interesting, and we’re learning a lot. But it is costly and it sometimes goes much too far.

Q. Does money motivate you?

A. It is silly to say it doesn’t. There are two sides to this whole issue of money. First of all, everybody would like to feel properly remunerated. Also, money does help, doesn’t it? When you get towards the end of your career, it’s very nice if you can meet all your desires; if you can take good care of the education of your children; if you can help them with their mortgage. In that sense, money is important. The other side of the coin is, I would much rather have a nice job than more money. Job satisfaction is much more important than money, but to say that money is not important is not true.

Q. What gadget/piece of technology can you not do without?

A. The first one is my sprinkler system at home. It saves me an enormous amount of watering. But the serious one is my Rex personal organiser. It’s the size of a credit card, but I can store telephone numbers on it and synchronise it with my computer. It’s not manufactured any more. You can buy it on eBay.

Q. How do you relax?

A. Walking in Switzerland. It’s very green, very pleasant. We spend a lot of time in Gstaad and this summer went to St Moritz, where we haven’t been for a long time. We take the train five or ten miles down the road, then walk back. We come back totally relaxed.

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