Honorary ceremony for laureate mr Jeroen van der Veer
By Jan Valkier , Club Rotterdam (Rotterdam Business Community)
The chairman of Club Rotterdam, Ben Vree, offers his apologies because he, unfortunately, cannot be here today; I, as a fellow director, am replacing him. With due pride, I might say. Due pride because after my studies in economics at this fine university, Shell was my first employer, and I cherish very good memories of this instructive period.
On behalf of Club Rotterdam and the Bernard Mandeville Foundation, I thank you heartily for your lecture. The Foundation honours you today as an inspiring and socially involved leader of one of the largest companies in the world.
You developed your vision of leadership within Royal Dutch Shell, with which you were involved for almost forty years. You began there in 1971 as a technologist and marketeer. You finally became Chief Executive Officer of this worldwide multinational in 2004, a function that you performed for five years. However, 2004 was not the easiest time to begin as CEO since Shell was dealing with a crisis at that time about the size of its reserve stock. Right from the first moment that you took office as CEO, we heard a lot about your style of leadership and your vision of leadership. You spoke in clear language in a speech that you gave in Houston in May 2004. You said plainly that staff members had to work more and better together, had to remain tied to one function for longer periods, and had to be go about their work in a less egocentric way. The new key values were leadership, accountability and teamwork.
Your message was provocative and, in some respects, went against the current trends. By that, I have in mind things like your plea for people to work longer in one function in order to be able to develop a higher level of professionalism. This, while job hopping, at the time that you took office as CEO, was very much in vogue, and long appointments were often labeled as 'old fashioned.' You took a stand against appointments that were too short because, in your opinion, if workers spend too little time in the same function they cannot really become professionals and they are not accountable for their actions. You felt that an average period of four to six years or longer within the same function was much needed in a company like Shell.
The content of your speech in Houston boiled down to a significant culture shock for Shell. Looking back, we can conclude that you succeeded very well in your aim. Under your leadership, Shell struggled out of the reserve crisis in relatively short time and the company restored its reputation. You were also the driving force behind the institution of one central head office in place of a structure with two head offices, the sharpening of the focus on technology, the search for new oil and gas fields and the strengthening of the corporate culture. In short, as CEO you did not hesitate to stick your neck out --with positive results.
Towards the end of your term as CEO, you were confronted with a second crisis, this time affecting the whole world. By this I have in mind the global credit crisis, which originated in the banking sector. A crisis with consequences for everyone: citizens, companies and states. In an interview with de Volkskrant in 2009, you said about this that the credit crisis made it clear that the laissez faire model in which the market got a completely free reign does not work. You pled for more regulation of banking, with a state that sets clear boundaries on the freedom of movement of the banks. With this message you showed once again that you are not afraid to come out clearly with your opinion, even on social issues.
Your plea to place more restraints on the banking sector would likely have met with much agreement by the eponym of our institution, Bernard Mandeville. In his most famous work, The Fable of the Bees, Mandeville says, among other things, that a government should regulate more than it enforces if it wants to be successful. But, according to Mandeville, clear boundaries are also needed to prevent the pursuit of self-interest from being at great cost to society. Mandeville thought that for such situations there should be legislation that set boundaries to the unbridled pursuit of self-interest. And this legislation ought to be strictly maintained. Mandeville's view on this is now more relevant than ever, evidence the attempts of the American president Obama to develop stricter legislation for the banks in the United States. This means that your view places you in very good company!
In conclusion, you have a very clear and inspiring vision of leadership. This has contributed positively in many areas to the corporate culture and success of Shell and will doubtless continue to do so in the future.
You are now employing your proven leadership within diverse commissions and administrative functions. One of these is the function of vice chairman of an expert group of thinkers about a new Strategic Concept for NATO. This expert group focuses specifically on the question of what the core task of NATO is in the context of the changing balance of power in the world, the rise of security threats (like terrorism, cyber attacks and piracy), energy security, and the consequences of climate change. The report came out last Monday, and here too we clearly see your hand. To try to communicate the message clearly, specifically, to explain in three sentences what NATO stands for so that everyone can understand the mission of NATO. In short, you once again offer your view on complex questions in plain language.
In closing, I want to link your plain language to this university. Almost thirty years ago, I sat in this hall and we were taught accounting by Professor van der Grift. A man who could explain the rather boring accounting business in simple, child's language. That's why his explanation of how to read a balance has always stuck with me. He said, "We put the things we like to the left of the balance and the things that we don't like to the right." If only more people had listened to this simple explanation, they would have understood that debts come to the right of the balance and that debts are not fun. A credit crisis might have been avoided!
On behalf of the Bernard Mandeville Foundation and everybody present here today: bravo for your inspiring leadership and social involvement as an entrepreneur!