Luck van Leeuwen

Interviewed by Charles Hermans, 7 June 2010

“His stepfather was called Lucky Strike. What’s in a name? My name is Luck and I’m a very lucky man.”

Luck grew up in the Bollenstreek (‘Bulb Region’) with three brothers and two sisters. He attended secondary school in Haarlem. After this, he joined an air-defence unit for his national service, which discharged him in 1955 with the rank of second lieutenant. He was one of the younger participants in the commissioning course: most of the others had already studied. This is also where he heard good things about the Economics degree programme in Rotterdam. However, just before his discharge, he contracted tuberculosis – a disease that was still difficult to treat at that time. While he had never considered studying before, he decided to make the most of the situation. Since he had already planned to establish a company in the heart of the Bollenstreek, a Business Economics degree was sure to come in handy. And that’s how he started his student years: lying in a military hospital bed.

One of his buddies from national service, who was already studying in Rotterdam, sent him course stencils, and occasionally lecture notes that he had taken himself. When he was discharged from the hospital in April 1956, he had already passed part of the programme, and in September, he rounded off his first year. His friend hadn’t passed, however. He kept in touch with his old army buddy until the latter moved abroad. Luck moved to Rotterdam. The doctor had instructed him to be in bed by 8 p.m., and the only drinks he was allowed were big glasses of milk. And Luck carefully adhered to this regime, since he was mortally afraid of a second bout of TB. That is why he never became a member of a student association – even though he would have liked to. He had only one goal in life, and that was to graduate as soon as possible. Which he did: in May 1960!

So actually, Luck was a bit of an ‘odd man out’. While due to circumstances, he had limited contact with his fellow students, it was a different story with his lecturers. For example, he has quite a few stories about Theo Scholten, the later Board Chair of Robeco and the man behind the sculpture museum Beelden aan Zee in Scheveningen. And he recently caught up with Professor Eizenga after reading an article about him in NRC Handelsblad. Professor Eizenga closely recalled how Luck visited him in his Doetinchem home in 1957 for an examination about the finance sector. He also has strong memories of Mr Brezet. His key mentor was Professor Brands, who taught Balance and Results. By now, Luck had married Marianne, who was two years his junior and the love of his life. At the age of 13, he had already announced that he intended to marry her. Naturally, she had warded off his advances at the time – and repeatedly afterwards – but she finally acquiesced while he was put up in the hospital. They soon got engaged, and eventually married in 1959. When Professor Brands offered two jobs – even while Luck was still pursuing his doctorate – at either HTM or Stad Rotterdam, Marianne opted for Stad Rotterdam. “At HTM, if you’re lucky you may get a free season ticket. But when you work for an insurer, they might even give you a car.” That clinched the deal. And indeed, he did get his car later on.

He started at De Waerdije: a Stad Rotterdam subsidiary and the first insurance company in the world to offer life insurance policies based on securities investments. He worked both as a rep and in the back office: he got to know all the ins and outs of the business. Nevertheless, in this period, he still managed to – in the words of Professor Brands during his formal graduation ceremony – “really round off his studies”. Of course, what Brands was talking about was a doctorate. Marianne had gotten quite worked up about this at the time. In 1965, aged 32, he obtained his doctorate with a dissertation about the stability of life insurance policies in terms of value and prosperity.

Stad Rotterdam, Europe’s oldest insurance company, went public in 1962. He supported this IPO as an assistant. In 1968, his in-depth knowledge of the business – and his familiarity with every department in the company – earned him a seat on the Executive Board, which he chaired from 1979 to 1994. Fifteen delightful years. One of his key points of departure was that a staff member shouldn’t switch jobs every two to three years. Rather, it was worthwhile to stay in one place for longer in order to develop one’s expertise. His company enjoyed strong autonomous growth, with only a gradual expansion every now and then through acquisitions like Woudsend Verzekeringen, De Amersfoortse and De Europeesche. And he furthermore worked from the principle “small is beautiful”. The companies acquired by Stad Rotterdam always retained their own name, business location and style. But his successor could no longer stick to the principle of “small is beautiful” when majority shareholder ING informed the insurer that henceforth it wouldn’t be treating its interest in Stad Rotterdam as a permanent investment. After heady negotiations, in 2002, Stad Rotterdam was acquired by its other major shareholder, Amev – the future Fortis – in the understanding that the best defence is a good offence. The new shareholder did very well out of this move.

You didn’t find that many academics working at Stad Rotterdam. He confesses being “jealous” occasionally of the company culture at firms like Unilever, which did have a lot of academics on its payroll. In 1968, he did take the – in Luck’s own words, “curious” – step of becoming a member of the think tank of the political party Christian Historical Union (CHU). This gave him ample opportunity to debate economic issues – something that he felt a strong need for. In 1977, he was appointed Chairman of CHU, and immediately became involved in the formation of the Van Agt-Wiegel cabinet. He became a seasoned political negotiator in as little as two months. Luck was present during the founding of the new party Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) in 1980. He ultimately retired from politics in 1999 as a senator for this party.

There was another interesting field left for Luck to explore: he still felt the lure of academia. On the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Van Lanschot Bankiers in 1987, the private banking firm allocated funding for an endowed chair in ‘non-monetary financial institutions’ at the University of Tilburg. As an insurance expert with a doctoral degree, this chair suited Luck to a T. He greatly enjoyed occupying this chair from 1987 to 2001.

Stad Rotterdam, politics and his work as an endowed professor were major parts of the final years of his professional career. Luck entered retirement in 1994. This freed up time for the membership of various supervisory and advisory boards, and to enjoy leisure pursuits like golf together with his wife Marianne. He also enjoys being around his eight grandchildren – one of whom – a grandson who is also an avid cyclist – was named after him. Luck isn’t the name on his birth certificate though: his actual name is Leendert Marten, after his grandparents. However, his stepfather wasn’t fond of those names, and said: “I smoke Lucky Strikes, so why don’t we call you Lucky?” And the rest is history.

As far as Luck is concerned, it’s not actually that important what you study – as long as you cross the university’s threshold. It’s all about a specific way of thinking. While he initially decided to take up Economics more or less by accident, this chance decision nevertheless turned out to be very rewarding. During his time at the Nederlandse Economische Hogeschool (NEH), he enjoyed excellent, practice-oriented education offered by an enthusiastic team of lecturers. No other city holds the same appeal for him. And if he had to decide all over again, he would immediately go back to Rotterdam to enrol in the Economics programme. Asked whether he wouldn’t have liked to study abroad, he says that he would definitely have liked this opportunity for a year or so, but that completing an entire programme would have been too much of a good thing: the different culture at foreign universities prepares you less well for working in the Dutch private sector.

Luck is an active board member of the Erasmus Alumni Vereniging (EAV) Economists’ Circle. This circle provides economists of all ages with opportunities to meet and exchange experiences. He is a proponent of a Mentor Mentee System (MMS) for younger alumni when it comes to career orientation. When asked whether he has any tips for the next generation, there’s only one thing that he definitely wished he had done differently. Luck would have liked to have joined a student association: in his later life he met a great many people who owe their closest circle of friends in part to their activities in their student years!