Dutch business gets an American pep talk

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The new director of the American Chamber of Commerce in the Netherlands hopes she can help Team Holland rediscover its winning streak in the competitive world of international business.

"It's half time and Holland is behind 3-1. We're in the locker room now. Okay Holland, you're good at playing catching up", says the 'coach' Chris Devries, President of the American Chamber of Commerce, "what are we going to do?" Reporter Lesley Thomas listens in on the game plan.

This is how Chris Devries presented his game plan during the presentation "The Netherlands from Abroad", to Dutch government officials in January. If international business held a world cup every 10 years, the economic tiger, the Netherlands, won the last one. But now the long time high scorer, Holland, is slipping. Will Holland rediscover its winning streak?

New Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce as of 2005, Carolina van der Ark, plans to coach Team Holland back to top form. She will be rallying the Dutch to support the American Chamber of Commerce's Dutch investment comeback program.

She explains that relations with the Dutch government as well as with the American Embassy and the American Consulate are good. "Together we can make clear to the Dutch government the importance of improving the investment climate in the Netherlands. Our aim is to make the Netherlands a more attractive country for US companies, for example, when it comes to establishing a European headquarters and investing in the Netherlands," says AmCham's fifth Executive Director in the Netherlands.

It is now half time; and time to reflect upon just how Holland is going to face the challenge of catching up.

The Netherlands, having occupied first place on world economic competition lists, has dropped within the past four years behind other northern industrial countries such as Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Austria, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

Considering her experience in lobbying and policy reform, Van der Ark can certainly give the Dutch team a pep talk. She is a member of a transport committee for the Dutch liberal party (VVD) which advises party colleague and Dutch Transport State Secretary, Melanie Schultz van Haegen.  As a member of the executive board of Barin, an organisation that represents foreign airline companies in the Netherlands, Van der Ark negotiated with the Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management on issues such as rates and noise level standards.

The number one AmCham investor priority point is flexibility in the Dutch labour market, asserts Devries. There is too much permanent disability. The American Chamber of Commerce supports the Dutch government's resolve to reform the WAO. Another priority is increasing flexibility in job termination by introducing a simplified procedure with well-defined requirements and compensation. Making it easier to import highly skilled labour from abroad is yet another issue.

The Dutch government should work on retaining the elderly in the workplace. The government should also make it easier for women to join the workforce by making child care tax deductible. In terms of health care, if the Dutch government were to invest more money in its health care system, such measures could have a positive effect upon employee productivity. Van der Ark mentions shorter hospital waiting lists as an example.

"I look forward to pushing these initiatives ahead together with the AmCham staff and its members," says Van der Ark, regarding the investors' 2005 agenda.

*image3*The Chamber puts its money where its mouth is. A meeting has already taken place with Karen van Gennip, the Dutch State Secretary of Economic Affairs in order to discuss some of these priority points. AmCham is to present its agenda of priority points to the Dutch Minister of Health, Hans Hoogervorst on 2 March.

Other qualms investors have include the poor growth rate, a gridlocked Dutch physical infrastructure, a lagging Dutch virtual infrastructure, especially when compared to Scandinavian countries, and the fact that Dutch educational skills do not always match business needs.

The Dutch government could become more proactive when it comes to stimulating IT and in offering internet services. Holland is slow when it comes to making compromises. Big infrastructure projects take more time to complete than in other countries.

Regarding corporate income taxes, the Dutch trend is good, but is too little, too late, comments Chris Devries. Dutch corporate taxes have been cut 2.5 percent to 31.5 percent.  Ireland's present corporate income tax of 12.5 percent is far more attractive for companies than the 30 percent 2007 goal of the Netherlands.

Van der Ark explains that Dutch tax rules should be clearer. "For a company it is very discouraging when you do not know what is going to happen tomorrow. After having invested so much in your business, only to be told half a year later that the rules have changed. Well, there goes your investment".

No wonder the board members' eyes fell upon her. Born in Amsterdam, the Dutch director has an impressive career background. She began her financial career as one of the first female stockbrokers to work at the financial management and advisory company Merrill Lynch in Amsterdam. During her 20 year career, Van der Ark has held a number of high level positions, ranging from bank director to country Managing Director of Delta Air Lines in Amsterdam. Six of these years she worked in London. She has always worked for American companies and understands the American business mentality.

"I've always regarded my being a woman as more of an advantage than a disadvantage in the workplace. In the past you had to prove as a woman that you were better than your colleagues. Nowadays it is more accepted". Van der Ark has had to constantly manage two jobs: her work and bringing up her four kids. "You have to be able to deal with stress and be able to organize well".

The American head hunter Korn Ferry together with the Chamber's executive search committee chose Carolina to become director for at least 10 years.

By working together as a team, maybe the American Chamber of Commerce and the Dutch government can score a couple of touchdowns.

17 February 2005

[Copyright Expatica 2005]

Subject: Doing business in the Netherlands, AmCham Netherlands, Caroline van der Ark

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