Jan Kees de Jager is a former CDA minister of finance. He is an entrepreneur in the ICT world, establishing ISM eCompany. After having been treasurer of the CDA, in 2007 he became State Secretary for Tax Affairs in the Balkenende IV cabinet. When the PvdA ministers resigned in 2010, he became minister of finance and he remained so until November 2012 in the Rutte I cabinet. He was heavily involved in the major problems in the eurozone, especially the Greek debt issue. In the spring of 2012, after the fall of the cabinet, he concluded the Spring Agreement, so that our country complied with EU budget rules. From August 2014 to March 2020 he held the Chief Financial Officer position at KPN. As a sober, direct and business oriented person he was one of the country's most popular ministers.
I wanted to start in your student days. You have studied at Nyenrode as well as in Rotterdam. How was this student life different?
There was a big difference. Nyenrode has an American model of living which is living on campus. This was completely different to living in rotterdam. The intensity was also very different. The bachelor at Nyenrode was extremely intensive and the speed was much higher. I only had the propaeduise exemption when I came to Rotterdam. In Rotterdam, economics was at a much lower pace and intensity, so I could do a law degree on the side and start a company.
What was student life like in Rotterdam? What were the fun places to go out in your time?
To eat, you had a couple of very cheap restaurants under what is now very hip, the “hofbogen”. There are now restaurants owned by François Geurts, but there used to be nice cheap restaurants there. You also had the last of the student discos. Plan C was also a disco at the time. Kwasimodo was the big student disco in Rotterdam, and of course Laurentius, the student organization that I was a member of.
How did you come up with the idea to set up ISM? Did you see a gap in the market?
We actually went looking for the gap in the market quite a bit. I was at Nyenrode with Karel and after which we went to Rotterdam but we both wanted to start something. I always say when you start a business, people make two big mistakes, there are a lot of mistakes you can make but there are at least two big mistakes most people make. 1: people are thinking from their own bubble, so someone who just had to look for golf clubs starts making golf clubs because they suspected there was a demand for them because he just had to look for them himself. So people start too much from your own frame and 2 is that you look at what is hot now but then you are actually too late. You have to see what will be hot in 5 years. We started in 1992, before the time of the internet, but I could see that interactive communication was a gap in the market. We wanted to do that on the computer, but our computers at home turned out not to be suitable for that, so we had special computers: Amigas. These were suitable for this and we used and placed them in stores with a touch screen to create such an ecommerce experience in stores. So also, for example, ordering books in the Bruna; you could only keep 700 books in most Bruna shops, but you could order 80,000 books through the information store we installed in the stores. When the world wide web came along, we were already in position to make the ecommerce experience a reality as our original idea was. This way we built the first ecommerce websites for, for example, Bruna or Bijenkorf. We also brought many of those retail companies to the ecommerce side.
A story came up about you and Karel van het Woud, with whom you had founded ISM in your house on the Aegidiusstraat. The story that came up was that when partners came along that you asked your neighbors to play a receptionist in order to be taken more seriously.
Yes, that's right. It was Aegidiusstraat 62 and it was a student house. There were female students on the lower floor, whom we used as receptionists when important customers such as de Bijenkorf or Bruna came along to make us look bigger than we were.
How did you grow ISM? Did you grow it organically or did you need venture capital or another form of funding?
We've never brought in investors, so we've grown organically financially. We did make a few very small acquisitions, which were relatively inexpensive. The two other companies that exist now also emerged from that, so Sana commerce and Easygenerator have now emerged from those acquisitions. We sold ISM to a German pan-European company. So we now have Sana commerce and Easygenerator left.
Because you have been living in Dubai for a number of years now, working entrepreneurially for Easygenarator, how is living and doing business there compared to the Netherlands?
Yes, there are a lot of differences. Dubai is growing very fast compared to the Netherlands. Dubai is a huge metropolis; it is 7/8 times the size of Amsterdam for example. 90% of the inhabitants are expat so there is a very international dynamic, it is very diverse. We can grow much faster here than we could in the Netherlands. I expect that we will be able to hire 100 people here this year, while the hiring policy in the Netherlands is a lot more tricky. We always think that the Netherlands is very interesting for expats, but this is not the case at all. It is a very closed country with its own strange language that nobody knows, a pretty closed group of friends as well. You often hear expats in Amsterdam say that they find it difficult to integrate. While Dubai has a huge attraction, all nationalities can apply. We processed 65,000 applications last year. We have hired a per mille of applicants and we expect to do even more in the coming year.
You started as an entrepreneur, then rolled into politics after that worked at a big corporate (KPN) and now an entrepreneur again. Which of these roles suits you best?
Entrepreneur! I started my first small business when I was 8 years old. In politics, as a state secretary and minister, I actually felt more like an entrepreneur and I couldn't imagine being only a politician. I really liked being a minister for a while and it was very instructive and interesting and I think I was also able to do a lot for entrepreneurs. At KPN, I also felt a bit like an entrepreneur at first by being involved a lot with innovation, which I have also tried in politics, so you can say that entrepreneurship is a common thread throughout my life.
You are of course also on the supervisory board of KLM and this may be a bit of a cheeky question, but could you tell me who will be Pieter Elbers' successor as CEO of KLM?
No and if I knew I wouldn't say it either but it's so early in the process that I dare to say that I don't know.
You were extremely popular during your tenure as minister. Former party chairman and current state secretary for finance Marnix van Rij once said about you; "He could have become Prime Minister quite easily, he was at least as popular as Rutte". Did you have that ambition and would you ever want to return to politics?
All in all, no, I can be very clear about that. The party asked me if I wanted to become a party leader. I was indeed very popular at the time. According to the polls, even more popular than the Prime Minister. But if you want to be party leader, I think you should also be a politician. As minister of finance, I could just do what was right for the country without thinking about an election and certain sections of the base and stuff. So I was much freer to propose measures. While you see that for politicians who are much more linked to politics, it is more difficult because they have to deal with all those stakeholders. So I never felt comfortable in a purely political environment, that's just not my thing. I didn’t believe being party leader was not something that would give me a lot of energy and then I don't think you should do it if this isn’t the case. It's nice that the current state secretary spoke those beautiful words about me, but something in me said that it wouldn't make me happy and that's why I shouldn't do it. When I got out of politics it was huge news at the time because I had also concluded the spring agreement and I had a lot of support from left to right but I just felt that I couldn't go for it 100%.
How did you experience that in the negotiations with the crisis in Greece? You were sometimes described in international media as blunt, did you have difficulty feeling that freedom there too?
No, not at all. I found that accusation rather bizarre in fact. The Greeks had, you might say, frauded their way into the euro. Subsequently they hold up their hands to northern europe and are then upset when I, as the "strictest" minister of finance, just made very logical requirements to them getting that money. I found it rather shocking that other European countries thought so easily about simply giving money to Greece. I still feel that way, when I think about it now I still find it incomprehensible. So no, I didn't care about that criticism because it may have been strict but it was fair.
As minister of finance, you also lived through the aftermath of the banking crisis. Now the state wants to sell its share in ABN AMRO, possibly as early as this year. How do you feel about this? Even if that would mean a loss for the state?
ABN Amro was, of course, nationalized before my time and was a necessity for economic stabilization, but ABN must become fully private again. That has always been the point of view and I support it. Of course you would prefer not to make a loss, but then you also have to look as a politician at regulations of state-supported institutions that limit the business model. If you, as a Dutch state, find that the company is now worth so little, you must also ask yourself why; how did we manage it? Did we curtail possible international ambitions or made other regulations that stood in the way of progress? It is always good to evaluate where the underlying value development comes from. If you look at ING for example, they have come out of the crisis much better if you compare the share price with ABN, among other things because they got rid of the burden of the state. They quickly regained their freedom, so it seems that they have been able to develop better after that. I think it would be good if the Dutch state would evaluate this discrepancy.
We are of course an investment association and therefore I am also curious what you invest in. Do you do this yourself or is it done for you?
It is a mix, namely a mix of mandated portfolio management, and I also use an international transaction platform to buy my own shares, I invest in peer to peer loan platforms. and also some real estate that I rent out, but in the Netherlands, I do not own any residential real estate anymore
As a last question, I wanted to ask you if you have any tips for students of B&R Beurs?
I give a lot of career advice to master students or just graduated from Erasmus university and I’ve noticed that a lot of people automatically look at the large consultancies or big corporates, but I think you can also learn an awful lot, if you are smart and agile, from scale ups. Start-ups have the disadvantage that there is less professional HR and learning and there is possibly less career opportunity. The advantage with scale ups is that there are enormous promotion opportunities due to the great growth. So a scale up with 100-300-400, or like my company Sana commerce which has 500 people or Easygenerator with 150, offers a lot of opportunities for young people. You see young people who graduated a few years ago today in very senior management roles that you would never see in a big corporate. So my advice would be; take a good look around and also look carefully at scale ups because they combine the professionalism of a big corporate with the agility, attractiveness and satisfaction that you get at the start-up. Another point, by the time you graduate, go have cups of coffee with people who are 5-10 years further in their career. For example from B&R investment groups, where you have a link that makes this person not mind taking out a half an hour or an hour for this, and also ask for different advice from different people. As a third point, keep investing in your own development and don't just look at jobs. Know that knowledge is transient and there are still many people who graduate with an outdated knowledge package, especially when it comes to data analytics and software; while the future CFO, analyst, investor or CEO are people who are very good at data analytics and understanding of data and its formation. I would also ensure that your knowledge remains current and relevant in the labor market, so read books about other forms of management styles, about new technologies, about how you can turn data into information and how you can adapt decision models accordingly. Lastly; one of the most underrated leadership qualities is curiosity. Coincidentally, I recently read a book about it called “A Curious Mind”, Bill Gates gave this book to a group of us at KPN and it describes very well how curiosity takes you further in the broadest sense and I believe that curiosity is also an important aspect of leadership so I would advise reading that too.
Great! Then I want to thank you for this talk.