A business woman with power

17th July 2005, Comments 0 comments

Yvonne Swaans tells Expatica what it means to her to be named Dutch Businesswoman of the Year 2005.

Yvonne Swaans, Dutch businesswoman of 2005

"We started at the right time, when there was little or no competition," says Yvonne Swaans about the success of the leasing agency business she started at the age of 21.

Back in 1990 she founded De Kamer Balie (literally the room desk) with partner Richard Westerhuis in Eindhoven to help students find rental accommodation.

This rental agency evolved into Direct Wonen three years later - the new name to account for the fact its portfolio had expanded to offer everything from student rooms to luxury accommodation. 

But most importantly, Direct Wonen opened offices all over the Netherlands and operated on the then "revolutionary" idea that clients looking for housing should not be bogged down in waiting lists.  Direct Wonen again took the lead in 1995 when it launched a website to make it easier for would-be tenants and landlords to find each other.

The company has 24 offices and 125 staff and is the market leader in the Netherlands, with 21 percent of the private rental market.

And behind it all has been Yvonne Swaans - little wonder that she was described as a "businesswoman of power" by the jury of the Prix Veuve Clicquot.

"The award is a recognition of the success of Direct Wonen," says Swaans.

Making the difference

Apart from the innovative nature of the company, Swaans puts a lot of its success down to the dedication of the the original team that build the fledging firm into the biggest player in the Netherlands.

Some 70 percent of Direct Wonen's employees are women working in a country where the business world still has a male bias.

Swaans acknowledges the existence of the glass ceiling women can face in the boardroom but it has not been a problem for her.

"Normally, working women have children at some stage and then want to to go down to working part-time. I think we like that," says Swaans.

She also divides her week between the office and spending time with her "second company", two daughters aged 2 and 5.

What's the trick of running a family and a company?

"I like what I do. I have always wanted to run my own company. It has always been in me since high school."

Plain sailing?

Veuve Clicquot Frenchwoman Nicole-Barbe Clicquot Ponsardin flouted all conventions when as a 27-year-old widow she took over a small Champagne concern in 1805. She renamed it Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. The prize that bears her name is awarded
Swaans' evident enthusiasm makes it all look so easy. "Of course we made some mistakes along the way with Direct Wonen," she admits.

As the company grew, not all new recruits were as dedicated or committed as the earlier members. Having offices all over the Netherlands meant that it wasn't always easy to monitor everything from the head office. But as Swaans speaks it is clear she sees the issue as just another exciting challenge rather than a insolvable dilemma.

While it looked at the early business sites in the US, her company had to learn largely from scratch how to run a user-friendly web portal for renters and landlords. Mistakes were made, she says, but that is behind the firm now.

The website had 212,000 unique visitors and two and a quarter million page views. It had 26,906 subscribers (including many expats) and 2,635 available properties last month, with 1,541 new ones coming available every month.

The launch of Direct Verzekering (Direct Insurance) is scheduled for later this year.

Rental market

But all is not well with the rental market in the Netherlands. Swaans' answer?

"Housing minister Sybilla Dekker needs to be more resolute and move ahead with freeing up prices in the private rental market. Controls should remain for public housing administered by the Woning Corporaties (housing associations)," Swaans says.

Because of strict legal protection for tenants, landlords often feel they have lost control of their property. Once a tenant has a contract, Swaans says, he or she "can just about stay there for life". The landlord cannot end the contract to sell the property.

The minister has already faced a lot of opposition in relation to her policies on public housing. But Swaans insists Dekker must gradually introduce more flexibility for landlords in the private sector over a two-year period.

Charity work

If Swaans has very clear ideas about how best to reform the rental sector in the Netherlands, she has also invested her time in matters overseas.

The jury of the businesswoman award placed a lot of emphasise on Swaans' involvement in charity work. Through the Dutch Association of World Children  (NVW), she supports the OPRIFS that provides a home and education for homeless girls in Ethiopia.

"It is very important to give back something to society and to those who have not had the opportunities I have had," says Swaans. As with running a business and a family, helping others seems to be part-and-parcel to this businesswoman of the year. 

[Copyright Expatica 2005]

Subject: Life in Holland, women and Dutch business, Yvonne Swaans

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