Quote March 2014 cover story:
Marcel Boekhoorn's Booming Business
‘I'm addicted to deals'
Through megadeals with telecom provider Telfort and bakery chain Bakker Bart, Marcel Boekhoorn shot like a rocket to the top of the Dutch business world and the Quote 500. And he's far from finished. In an exclusive interview with Quote, he unveils his spectacular new plans. ‘We're becoming a global player. My team and I are dealing with the big boys. We've entered the Champions League.'
Ten minutes before the interview is to take place, Marcel Boekhoorn strides briskly into the office of his real estate investment company Chalet Group in Amsterdam's financial district, de Zuidas. Without slowing his pace, he shakes some hands and walks straight to the corridor that leads to the meeting room. ‘Come, we'll sit here.' He sets his sturdy brown briefcase down next to his chair, but he's not ready to start the interview. He's got one more call to make - in the hallway. ‘One minute. I'm trying to close a deal.' No problem, of course. That the current number 10 on the Quote 500 (estimated net worth: 1.3 billion Euros) sits for an interview is exceptional enough. Boekhoorn (54) doesn't like publicity. He values his privacy, he says, but self-awareness also plays a role. He sometimes says things that he later regrets. ‘I'm somewhat impulsive in my communication,' he puts it euphemistically, and indeed within a minute he's back and takes a seat. The deal's not done yet. ‘I'm not an average man doing everyday things. The media are attracted to that. You can't hold that back. But I can guarantee you that with regards to interviews, today's will be the last for a while.'
Boekhoorn's been in the news sporadically over the past few years - as the buyer in of High Tech Campus in Eindhoven for 425 million Euros, as the owner of now defunct free daily newspaper De Pers, as the important sponsor and father-in-law of Forumule 1 driver Giedeo van der Garde, as supporter of Nijmegen football club NEC and, of course, as singer Hind Laroussi's new beau. But what makes this meeting on the fifth floor of the World Trade Center extra interesting is a rumour that's been buzzing in the business world. Boekhoorn is working on something revolutionary: a company that in the very near future could be worth billions of Euros; a project that has him in contact with some of the largest companies in the world; an investment that might bring even better returns than Bakker Bart and Telfort, the deals that made him known as a super investor in the Netherlands. He couldn't and didn't want to tell about it earlier, but the time is now ripe for the former chartered accountant to talk. Boekhoorn and his team are indeed working on something big. ‘This has the potential to be our most successful business ever.'
The secret? An antenna company. Put simply, Boekhoorn owns antenna technology that is much faster and more advanced than everything on the market. Antenna Company, as the company is called, will turn the world of wireless communication completely on its head. Mobile telephones, tablets, computers, routers, radar equipment, everything. An international team of five scientists is working to perfect the invention. Boekhoorn, dressed in a perfectly tailored blue suit, explains calmly with his reading glasses perched in the hook of his mouth. Whereas every smartphone today is equipped with up to seven different antennas to send and receive data, with the new technology one simple plastic antenna will be enough, he explains. This means that in one shot cell phones can be made much smaller and lighter and the battery life extended significantly. ‘Because the current antennas drain your phone in no time, enough to drive you crazy.' And that's not all, because thanks to the use of special polymers (‘What they're composed of, that's our Coca-Cola formula') as well as a highly complex mathematical formula, better conductivity and a ‘dynamic' signal, Boekhoorn's antenna is capable of sending and receiving spectacularly more data than is possible with current antenna design and technology. ‘Get ready: we're talking seventy to eighty percent more more. So you can imagine that this is reasonably interesting.'
Boekhoorn picks his iPhone up from the table. ‘Look, nine hundred million of these kinds of devices are made each year. Samsung makes five hundred million, Apple two hundred million. And the antenna is always a standard component. And that's just smartphones. Our antenna can be used in all wireless equipment. The amount of data that such devices are sending and receiving is growing explosively. And the growth will continue without a doubt in the years to come. We play into the trend of exponentially growing data communication - the internet of everything, it's called. Interest from the market is enormous. We're in contact with some of the world's largest companies. Our first orders are in. We're starting production in March.'
Which companies are those?
‘I can't name any of them in this phase, but believe me: we're talking only with global players. This is revolutionary. Look, the existing antennas can't keep pace with developments in mobile communication. The technology has in fact remained the same for thirty or forty years. Photos, videos, everything gets sent, but the current digital highway can't handle it. If you're in a stadium or at the Olympics, then you've got a problem. With our antenna you don't: it's capable of pulling the best signal from the ether. We've conducted tests, and with our technology you can easily make a call in a full football stadium.'
This remarkable antenna project crossed Boekhoorn's path a few years ago thanks to PR guru Jeroen Sparrow, who also participates as an investor. Sparrow brought Boekhoorn in contact with the scientist who laid the foundation for the discovery, a certain Johan Gielis. The antenna's operation is based on Gielis's so-called Superformula. Boekhoorn won't share details of the magnitude of his investment in the project. But what's perhaps most remarkable is what Boekhoorn did on the evening that he first dove into the details of the plan. He phoned his old friend Roel Pieper, IT guru, former Philips board member and more recently sporadically successful entrepreneur. ‘I looked at the formulas, and I couldn't figure it out, even with my background in econometrics. So I thought I'm going to give Pieper a call. He graduated Summa Cum Laude at the Technical University of Delft. I said, ‘Roel I have a feeling this is something remarkable, but I can't put my finger on it.' We started talking, and now he is the CEO of Antenna Company. He flies all over the world right now.'
Did you have second thoughts about involving him? Roel Pieper was more or less out of the picture in the business world the past few years.
‘Maybe in the Netherlands, but internationally he's extremely active in business. I've known Roel for a long time. His experience and knowhow are extremely valuable to me, because this is a truly high technology company. And it's been a big success to date.'
Do you find it strange that I have to think back to the ‘broncode' story of Jan Sloot [ed: revolutionary data compression technique that remained secret with the sudden death of Mr. Sloot]. Pieper and you flew around the world to talk about his revolutionary technology that was to be worth billions.
‘No, or rather yes, I find that strange. This is something very different. This is a physical product. It's not software. I can't say exactly how big it will be in a few years' time. That's always a risk with high technology. You can always be overtaken by someone smarter who you don't know located on some other continent.'
‘But believe me: we're talking only to global players. The antenna is revolutionary'
How will this develop further?
‘I can't predict with any accuracy. The only thing I can say is that we're working on buying a company that employs a few hundred engineers. We need as much knowhow as we can get. We've got five professors working for us and 25, almost all of whom graduated Summa Cum Laude, but we're not there yet. Don't forget that the company is only a year old. My biggest problem right now is: where to start? Because we can't respond to the demand at once.'
All twelve partners of your investment company Ramphastos participate in this project, I understand?
‘Of course, but they've done so the whole time - for twenty years now. They don't co-invest in private projects, like NEC or Giedo van der Garde. But they do participate in all Ramphastos portfolio companies. And the management of those companies participate as well with their own money and at their own risk. I try always to close deals in which everyone feels himself a winner. Ramphastos will become a global player in the years to come, just wait. Also thanks to two other investments, by the way: Aviation Glass and VoiceTrust (see sidebars below). The global scope is a new dimension for me.. We're dealing with the big boys. We're playing in the Champions League.'
In addition to the antenna project, Boekhoorn and his team also recently invested in Aviation Glass & Technology, ‘a great example of innovative Dutch entrepreneurship,' according to Boekhoorn. The company's CEO is Frans van Hapert, who bought cigar box manufacturer Picus in the mid-nineties, one of Boekhoorn's first acquisitions. ‘The glass factory, that I bought myself in 2006, received an order for a glass staircase for the interior of a Boeing 747-800. The client was an unknown princess, Ms. No Name. But Boeing said: ‘That staircase is too heavy and too dangerous in the event of an emergency landing.' So we began testing new forms of lightweight, unbreakable glass. Two years ago we developed a variant that you can't break with a hammer of any kind but that's ultrathin - 1.7 millimetres - and extremely lightweight. It's ideally suited for windows (‘lenses') and mirrors in airplanes. While we were looking at factory to place our machines in Voorthuizen in Gelderland Province in The Netherlands, I phoned Marcel. He came and looked and he made his investment within a half hour. All major airplane manufacturers are interested. We're in contact with all of them. The glass has many advantages. Airplane windows and mirrors are currently made of plastic. We can deliver the first ultra-light and ultra-strong glass that can't be scratched. Yes, this is a company with great promise.'
If his investments in antennas and airplane windows don't pan out, Boekhoorn can place his chips on a third highly promising company: the voice recognition technology expert VoiceTrust, ‘a specialist in voice authentication for banks, telecom companies, hospitals and government organizations,' according to Boekhoorn. ‘I am convinced that this will grow significantly. What is easier than turning on or off your phone by saying your own name? There are so many other possible applications. In some countries enormous fraud is committed by people using the identity of others who have been deceased for twenty years to receive pension payments. If you have to speak your name into the phone each month, this becomes impossible. A voice can't be fabricated or copied; our technology filters out recorded sounds. We are currently active in this way in Mexico. Our technology is highly advanced and completely patented. There is an enormous market for it. We're speaking with really large Fortune 500 companies. We hope to make a breakthrough this year.'
Boekhoorn speaks enthusiastically and without reserve about his new project. He clearly enjoys it. It takes him no more than two seconds to formulate an answer to the question, and he knows exactly what he wants to say. He may not enjoy interviews, but he makes a completely relaxed impression. This is actually exactly how those around him describe him. ‘Marcel is always full of energy and fun,' says Ton aan de Stegge, former Telfort CEO and since then friend of Boekhoorn. ‘He makes things naturally fun. There are few people in the world who are as clever in business and can stay so relaxed and be so upbeat and happy at the same time.' Friend and business banker Rob ten Heggeler: ‘I don't know anyone who has as much energy as he does. Marcel is always cheerful, and he's always there for you. He thinks a few steps ahead and dares to make lightning-fast decisions.' Even Wilco Jiskoot, the famous former ABN Amro dealmaker and currently advisor to Boekhoorn, who's not known to be all smiles, responded cheerfully when we asked him about Boekhoorn. ‘You see right away what his position is. What you see is what you get with Marcel. And he always creates a form of conviviality (in Dutch: ‘gezelligheid') that everyone wants to be around.'
Boekhoorn's enemies are hard to find - with the exception of Cyrte investor Frank Botman, with whom he's been in a legal battle for years about an investment in the Telegraaf Media Groep that went sour. Boekhoorn called him ‘a swindler wearing a tie.' He doesn't want to talk about it anymore. And at one point Boekhoorn threatened to take publisher PCM ‘to the highest court in the land' after a plan to launch a free daily newspaper was scrapped because the supervisory board didn't want to work with him. But those are exceptions. ‘Marcel is extremely trustworthy. For him it's ‘be good on your word: a promise is a promise.' I've never detected an ounce of inconsistency in him,' says Ten Heggeler. ‘In business he's always a good sport. He can take defeat. It's part of the deal. It's only when he feels personally harmed that he gets upset.'
Those around you are impressed by your cheerfulness. Aren't you ever grumpy?
‘No. Life is much too beautiful. I always look at the positive side of things. Of course things go wrong for us sometimes. My first question is always ‘how can we solve this?' I always push the negative energy aside right away. That makes life easier and more fun. The worst thing that could happen to me is that I go to be grumpy because I lost a few bucks. You're a real blockhead if that gives you a headache and a rash.'
There are plenty of people....
‘Undoubtedly. Well, have no trouble with that, I can tell you. The trick is of course to build a fantastic team around yourself. I thank my success to them. This isn't a one-man show. I have my own strengths. I'm good with numbers, I have a creative brain and strong intuition. But I don't have everything. That's where I need the others. They're all incredibly intelligent and extremely loyal. No one has ever left my company. Never.'
How do you do that?
‘Ha ha, I don't know. We all have respect for one another, I think. We always have fun. We recently had a New Year's reception at my zoo. I invited astronaut André Kuipers to make a presentation. Extremely interesting. On a day like that, people show up at about four in the afternoon and by midnight, no one's gone home. We all work extremely hard, but we also have fun doing it. And problems can almost always be solved. We've managed to steer almost all of our portfolio companies through the crisis - which hit us just as it hit others. It's not as if they said ‘Boekhoorn's a nice guy. Let's skip him with the crisis this time around.' I was also smacked hard.'
Where were you hit?
‘Take Doorwin, for example, our door and window frame manufacturer. The turnover has shrunk from three hundred million to one hundred million Euros. That's because no one has been building, just saving. That government policy has hit us hard. To get this country out of the slop, we have to stop with cost cutting and austerity measures. Innovation and entrepreneurship - those are what will put this country back on the rails. The Netherlands is in danger of becoming a greying country with a population living off interest. That's why I find the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven so important: research and innovation are more important than ever for our economy.'
But the investment in the campus real estate was a defensive strategy? You always used to say ‘Stay away from the bricks and concrete'
‘That's right. Private equity always has ups and downs. You close a big deal, and then you have no activity for years. The peaks and troughs are big. With real estate you have a steady income steam, and I wanted steadier cash flow. But for me it was especially about getting a seat of honour right at the heart of all the innovative high-tech developments in The Netherlands. That's why I'm so enthusiastic about this. The Campus is the number one example of open innovation and the future of research and development. The Netherlands stands out worldwide in this area. The Campus is a true pearl of our economy.'
Do you always have an exit strategy in mind when you invest in something?
‘I always think about how a company can be sold in the future. Because ultimately that is my business: buying a company, fixing it up and selling it. But I've also learned from experience that people come to you if you have a great company with fantastic growth opportunities. We're now so well-known that that happens. For us it's not about fast money. We want to create value. We work like a family company - we're patient and look long-term. And make no mistake: our results are many times greater than those of other private equity investors. Some of them are happy with returns of fifteen or twenty percent. We achieve returns of up to three thousand percent.
‘The Boekhoorn empire consists of roughly three branches: investment company Ramphastos, real estate investment company Chalet Group and Marcel Boekhoorn's own private investments (including the zoo Owehands Dierenpark and football club NEC). Ramphastos is on the verge of breaking through internationally, according to Boekhoorn. Thanks to the technological innovations and significant investments that he tells about here but also through his investment in Kenda nTech, an energy fund in which a fund manager for Shell also participates. ‘Our most successful investments have one or more of the following three characteristics: a unique competitive position through exclusive technology or a patent; enormous growth potential; or they play into a strong trend such as an ageing population or increasing data communication. As investor-entrepreneurs we help companies find a direction and help them further develop that way.'
THE STRANGEST PROPOSALS
Boekhoorn made his most spectacular exit in 2005 when he sold telecom provider Telfort to KPN for more than a billion Euros. He had bought the majority of the shares only a year before the exit for less than a hundred million Euros. The quick deal earned Boekhoorn earned about five hundred million Euros. ‘Yes, that was a fine year,' remembers Ton aan de Stegge, who was CEO of the telecom provider that year. He's in the Quote 500 thanks to the Telfort deal. ‘Marcel showed his absolute strength during that deal. He dared to say: ‘my company is worth a billion' - and he had the arguments to support it as well. He is so powerfully convincing that's it's tough to contest him. Our modest management team might have ended up saying to KPN: ‘Our company is worth five or six hundred million.' But Marcel went and told KPN: ‘This is an amazing business. If you don't buy it, you won't exist in the future.' He might bluff a bit, but he always supports his position well.'
But things go wrong, even for Boekhoorn. His adventure with the free daily newspaper De Pers failed. His cigar box company Picus tumbled and the Doorwin Groep (doors and windows) is struggling. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule: Boekhoorn's eye for smart super deals is matchless. And when Boekhoorn does business, everyone wins. That's why he receives two to three hundred proposals a month.
You don't study all of those proposals yourself, do you?
‘Some things come straight to me, others go first to my team - a bit of both. But I always see them. I think that I have a good nose for deals. That might be one of my most important qualities. I know really quickly if something is good or bad. And if I find something good, I always send it to my team for consideration.'
Do many people see you as a walking money bag - entrepreneurs looking for a loan?
‘Of course. You have no idea. I get the strangest proposals. I have to change my telephone number regularly, because people are constantly asking for money - also because the banks won't do anything these days. People come to me to ask for help. A hundred grand here, a million there...'
Do you sometimes oblige?
‘I've done that a lot: acquaintances, friends, businesspeople. I stopped doing so two years ago. It cost me too much. I've become wiser by learning the hard way.'
Have you ever regretting letting a deal go?
‘Let me think.... Yes, I know a good one. A few years ago I had the opportunity to buy the Honda Formula 1 team, but almost everyone around me said: ‘Mars, don't do it. That's a bad scene. You'll come up dry.' So I didn't do it - against my own will and that of my daughter Denise (ed.: who is now married to F1 driver Giedo van der Garde). That was in 2009. And what happened? That team became world champion with Jenson Button! And it was sold that year to Mercedes for 350 million Euros. I could have bought it for nothing. I had that deal in my hands. I can show you the letter of intent.'
‘You're a blockhead if losing a few bucks gives you a headache'
And all this time you could have been lying on a beach somewhere after the enormous Telfort deal. What motivates you to keep going?
‘First, I don't think it's good for a person to do nothing. Many people with whom I've done business have become very rich and are now out golfing. But they usually end up grumpy and annoying. And they lose their edge. And I feel like a fish in the water doing what I'm doing. This is my thing. I enjoy each day to the full. I don't smoke or drink coffee, but I am a deal junkie. I love it. I love playing the game.'
An addiction then?
‘Yes, I'm definitely addicted to deals. I love playing the game. I enjoy it, and I think I'm pretty good at it. That motivates me to keep doing this.'
Have you ever considered taking a step back?
‘I'm less involved with the daily operations at Ramphastos Investments lately. I recently brought Joop de Rooij on board as managing partner to take that responsibility. I still work hard. I bring vision, strategy and creativity to the mix, and I negotiate the deals. I want to remain involved in the things that I enjoy most and that I do well. But Joop now handles the real daily operations and problems. We're in contact every day.'
You've developed yourself over the past few years into a real patron and benefactor. You invest private funds into football club NEC, into your zoo Ouwehands Dierenpark and in your son-in-law's racing career. With SaveWave you want to help protect endangered sea animals. And you financed photographer Jimmy Nelson's three-year trip around the world to photograph endangered tribes who have had little contact with the Western world...
‘Yes, those are things you don't do to make a profit, I can assure you. I find it important to do something for society, because society and the community have given me so much. The project with Jimmy Nelson is a good example of how I can make a difference. Through the project I help with the preservation of many exceptionally beautiful people. I had no idea where the adventure would take us, but it's spreading like wildfire. The large photo book that costs 6500 Euros is selling like crazy across the world. Really prominent people, including members of our royal family, have bought the book. No joke! We don't have to do anything: they're coming to us. We've already sold eighty thousand copies of the smaller version of the book. Next year we'll make a DVD and CD and another book... We want the proceeds to go back to the tribes.'
You really enjoy this
‘Did you know that I travelled with Jimmy and his team to one of the tribes? I was in the Amazon for a week sleeping with tarantulas on my tent. Really adventurous stuff.'
‘I find it important to do something for society and the community, because they've given me so much'
Different from talking about antenna technology in Silicon Valley
‘This is much better. Do you know why? Because you discover that there are still so many real people. In our Western world everything's political. You've always got to be on your guard. But these people are pure. We took to the Amazon River by canoe and at a certain point we came upon a tribe. We went hunting with them. The people dipped an arrow in poison and then at once - I saw this up close - one of them shoots a monkey out of a tree. They ate the monkey later for dinner...'
‘No, you'll understand that I skipped dinner that night. No way, never. But the most remarkable was this: you're sitting there in a tent, the monkey is hanging on a spit, and at seven o'clock half of the group just lies down right there and falls asleep. As if to say: great that you foreign visitors are here, but we've had enough for now and tomorrow's another day. You don't find that kind of purity any more in our cultivated society.'
NAME: Marcel Martinus Jacobus Johannes Boekhoorn BORN 30 October 1959 in Nijmegen WAS ONCE chartered accountant at Deloitte & Touche BEGAN for himself when he was 34 NAMED his company Bowloar (Boekhoorn Word Lachend Rijk) CASHED in on the sale of Bakker Bart in the nineties BOUGHT the struggling zoo Ouwehands Diernpark in Rhenen in 2000, made it profitable and his main office CLOSED his biggest deal by selling Telfort for more than € 1 billion to KPN and earning himself hundreds of millions BUILT with Chalet Group in the years thereafter a real estate portfolio that includes the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven IS fanataic supporter and patron of the Nijmegen football club NEC BUT never invites business contacts to his skybox, only friends AND loves to host parties after the game in his skybox with his favourite Dutch singer Alex (known for ‘Een bossie rooie rozen') NAMED his 52 metre yacht Deninki after his daughters Denise, Nicole and Kim MARITAL STATUS divorced, has been in a relationship since last year with singer Hind Laroussi