16 February 2017

Group CEO Michel van Leeuwen talks to the JEP about his career so far.

MvL

The new chief executive of financial services provider Hawksford is not a man to stand still. Michel van Leeuwen has been in the post just a few months and, at the start of the year, was still without a permanent home in the island. But given the nature of his ever-changing and dynamic career to date, that is not unusual.

'I've never been a real-estate owner, although we have a house in Holland, a holiday home,' said the Dutchman. 'I don't have an issue with being on the Gatwick 'bus' - it's interesting because you see the fortunes of companies by where they are sitting!'.

Although his November arrival coincided with the colder winter months, Mr van Leeuwen has so far remained positive about Jersey's merits, although Hawksford's majority shareholders, the private equity company Dunedin, were rather concerned that he might not take up the role.

'Maybe in the past some people have not wanted to leave the hustle and bustle of London, but I was born in a town in Holland that was on the beach, close to an island the size of Jersey. Then there's the fresh air, the favourable tax regime, the short commute - tell me why I would say no!'

He describes the private equity world as 'a bunch of people who get the pleasure of investing other people's money and gaining a return within a finite window of time' - on average a ten-year period. Notably, Dunedin's investment has been in place since 2008, at the time of a management buy-out from then parent company Rathbone International.

'We still have a lot of long-serving people here,' he observed.

"Hawksford is like a family. It's a great group of people, they feel really at home and work well with each other and they are extremely intelligent which is something that attracted me to the business."

Unusually in financial services, Mr van Leeuwen's background is in technology having trained initially in electronics and computer science. 'I always loved programming, caught the bug early on, and started programming around options trading. The European options exchange was the first outside Chicago. It was numerical, volatile, interesting, and new. I found huge discrepancies which, in financial services usually means the opportunity to make money.'

Having done some paper trading and making 'huge paper profits', he managed to get himself on a tour of the exchange, overheard a couple of people talking in a way that made no sense, and butted in with his own suggestion. One of those two people was the boss, who asked him if he wanted to come back and be a market maker.

'That's how it happened. And that, I guess was the stepping stone into the rest of my career, because I fell into every next thing. Invariably, it was worked out for me.'

His next step was to join a company that turned out to be the forerunner of Reuters. 'The job was to sell data dissemination devices to traders. I was a trader. I knew all the traders who needed these devices and I could see a use for my skill set in computer science. 'We had a competitor with a really good system but they went bell-up. Luckily that worked for me and got me noticed by a rising start in finance and politics, Michael Bloomberg, who had been a trader himself. He hired ten of us to commercialise Bloomberg on the Continent.

'I can understand and speak German and other languages, I had been a trader and had a background in computer science, so I spent some time in London and New York, moved to Frankfurt, and Bloomberg had a lot of analytics, which suited the Germanic mind-set.'

At the time, his 'much better half' and wife of 30 years, Yvette, was still living in Holland, and travelling back every weekend was proving tiring, so a job offer from a company using satellite transmission based in the Benelux region appealed.

'It was an interesting sojourn - that company is now owned by Morningstar - and it led me to the next job, at Algorithmics, which is the first company to commercialise technology to measure and manage risk, driven by a regulatory imperative from the Basel committee.'

At this stage, his CV was looking 'relatively pockmarked', he admits. 'People used to say, how long will we have you? Because people who jump ship normally do so for money, but for me this was not the main driver - it was the opportunity to do something at the forefront that was new, different, and you could build something.

"There was a lot of opportunity to use technology to make processers easier for people, not taking people out, but making their job lighter."

He was then asked by the founder of Salefish, a competitor in Algorithmics, to join that company, focusing on the buy side and investment management. The owner just sold the business to State Street and Mr van Leeuwen's combined experience in both technology and the commercial world was a useful asset.

'Being a PhD salesman is a contradiction in terms,' he said. 'It's not a usual combination, but it is an inherent skill that I seem to have.'

Three years later, he was asked to join the risk management division at Misys plc as chief executive, spending three years there before Microsoft approached him to head their global capital markets industry division. 'That was a very interesting job and an interesting company,' he observed. 'They put you solely among A-type individuals who are very convinced of their own opinion, so first you are an internal salesman for you idea, why your sector is more relevant than another. The challenge is to get to a place where you can convince the most intelligent people on the planet that where you are going is where they need to go.'

'The other interesting thing was knowing five years in advance of everyone else what the public gets to know.'

The next job - the most recent prior to joining Hawksford - was as group chief executive at compliance consulting company Cordium. 'I left Microsoft because the travel was insane - I was two weeks a month in Europe and two week s a month in the US, for three years.'

'Cordium was a relatively small business, with one office, serving a lot of clients, which became a large global business with six offices servicing a multitude of clients, which was then bought by another private equity fund, so it was a very successful exit.

'With the greatest respect, areas like tax and compliance are the "make it go away" services. For a focused professional, these things they have to do take them away from the things they want to do. So if you are in those sectors, you have great resilience, longevity of client and good rate of earnings, as long as you delivery quality and don't ask more than you should be asking for.

"You make it go away for them and they feel comfortable that it is being take care of, at the best possible level."

Having sold the business on to another private equity fund, he was then approached to take on Hawksford. 'This seemed like a stellar opportunity,' he explained. 'I was already looking at the trust and corporate services sector, because a lot of these services are similar, the clients are similar, so if you have a one-stop shop you can create eternal relationships as long as you don't mess up, and you can optimise those services through technology.'

So what else will he be looking for during his time on the island? His wife, Yvette is a sports trainer who at one time ran her own gym business, and he still enjoys cycling and swimming and is a former marathon runner, although a knee injury has curtailed that in recent years.

'I still enjoy cycling and I'm looking forward to that here in Jersey, being in such a great location. I think air quality is underrated as being important and here you enjoy a great quality of fresh air. In London maybe not so much, although I like the buzz there, and if you are a bee, you want to be in the beehive.

'I also read a lot - as a Dutch national, because it's a small country, we travel a lot, we speak lots of languages, and there's an outbound, assertive, inquisitive nature that drives the Dutch. We go everywhere, see everything, want to know and understand, not for personal gain but to make better decisions and understand people better.'

At Hawksford, the focus now is on growing the business both by acquisition and extending services. 'We believe that Asia has unbridled growth and strong opportunities,' he said.

'We're a smaller player that wants to be a really big player, be competitive, technology- driven and interactive, and offer something in a way that no one else does, to create more long-lasting relationships with more satisfied clients. 'There are some very smart people here. I am giving them some direction but they are the ones with the knowledge.'

Words: Christine Herbert. Originally published in the Jersey Evening Post 15 Februrary 2017

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