Dutch company elite by far the most international in Europe
During discussions about the take-over of ABN-AMRO bank, the Dutch suddenly found themselves faced with 'national economic interests’. The take-over of one of the national icons by non-Dutch companies prompted all kinds of emotional reactions.
‘The main question, however, is what makes a company Dutch?’ asks Kees van Veen from the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Groningen. ‘Is it just the shareholders or do the top managers count?’ One of the conclusions reached by Van Veen, who is researching the compilation of the Executive Boards and Supervisory Boards in major European companies, is that the Netherlands is leading the way in terms of the number of foreigners sitting on its boards.
So when is a company in national hands? The role of shareholders in the Netherlands has been reinforced, and the removal of various protective constructions means that the Dutch share package has simply become a constituent part of the global capitalist system. Nothing Dutch about it any more. However, two other relevant parties are still up there at the top: the Supervisory Boards and the Executive Boards.
Second to Luxembourg (a country with very few major companies), the Netherlands has far and away the most internationalized Executive Boards. This was one of the findings in Van Veen’s study of 363 major companies in fifteen European countries. ‘It brings us back down to earth and puts a new angle on the debate’, he says. ‘Nearly half of the members of the Executive Boards of the 25 AEX companies are of non-Dutch nationality. The difference with number 2, the United Kingdom, is considerable: twice as many. And after Germany and Belgium, the numbers drop sharply to 2.5 percent in Spain. The data we are currently collecting on Supervisory Boards shows a similar trend.’
A country of auxiliary branches
The tide does not seem to be turning. Van Veen: ‘But we should be asking ourselves if this is really a problem. As long as this aspect of the globalization process remains unavoidable and irreversible, does it really matter in the long term who is running which company? We are simply leading the way for the time being.’ Yet the Netherlands is way ahead of the other countries. If in the future more closed company elites from other countries were to start systematically monopolising positions of power, or our national interests were in some other way to become seriously compromised, our current position at the forefront may prove to be less well-advised, according to Van Veen. ‘This would make us a country of great auxiliary branches, but with little access to the economic centres of power.’
Lonely frontrunner on the global stage
The Netherlands is also a frontrunner at the global level: international research into the eighty largest multinationals revealed that the number of foreigners on the various boards has increased over the past fifteen years. Van Veen: ‘But this often involves small numbers per board and does not reflect the speed of the changes that have taken place here in the Netherlands.’ Asian companies turn out to have almost no foreign board members and North-American companies just a few. Europe is clearly well ahead, and within Europe, the Netherlands is the lonely frontrunner.
In search of causes, various company-level and country-level factors seem to play a role. For example, the extent of foreign operations varies per company. ‘This is certainly important’, says Van Veen, ‘but the impact is not as great as one would first imagine. The length of time that a country has been part of the European Union can also make a difference, but again, this is only marginal.’ However, cross-border partnerships such as between SHELL and Unilever in the past, and mergers such as recently took place between CORUS and Air France-KLM, do seem to be important. ‘These companies subsequently partake in complicated and lengthy internal games in which the nationality of managers and supervisory directors plays a role, but which have very diverse outcomes,’ explains Van Veen. ‘For some companies, this is the starting point of a real international structure, for others it is merely a temporary blip, soon to be followed by a return to managers from their own country of origin.’
Kees van Veen is Assistant Professor in the International Business and Management Department of the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Groningen. The compilation of top management and Executive Boards in Europe is amongst his specialist fields.
Eelco Salverda | alfa