On the road in Rotterdam

Stad Rotterdam Verzekeringen

Hey, this is the first big city visited in Europe to have modern skyscrapers right smack in the middle of downtown. Most downtowns have had height restrictions, protected historic buildings in their downtown core or laws preventing those kinds of structures being built. I ask Carla Vergeer, Concern Public Relations, why Rotterdam is different. Turns out during World War II most of the downtown area was completely leveled by bombing so, there were no historic buildings to preserve or protect. Oh, I also ask Vergeer about the title on her business card; Concern Public Relations, and ask if there's someone else in her office with the title; Unconcerned Public Relations.

Insurer Stad Rotterdam Verzekeringen, a 275-year old company, owns and occupies 75% of this 16-story-glass tower in downtown Rotterdam. Built in 1990, it's home to over 600 employees.

Initially, Vergeer came down to the lobby to inform me they weren't interested in meeting with me. However, I started telling her about insurance companies being my favorite group to visit and regaled her with trivia. I always like to tell the story of visiting Foremost Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It's an insurance company that specializes in mobile home (house trailer) insurance. Anyway, they built this brand new headquarters out in this heavily-wooded area with a big lake next to the building. Since it opened they've been having terrible problems with snakes getting in the building. So? Well, I was told it's so bad, secretaries would be walking down halls and snakes would drop down from the air ducts.

We go through my questions sitting in the large lobby. I can't see CEO Caerlo de Stewart's sixth floor office because "he's busy" but, I do get a look in the boardroom to see the square-shaped table. Revenues in 1994 were NLG 3.4 billion, profit NLG 102 million with total assets over NLG 16 billion. (For more information: ASRO)

Unilever NV

Almost directly across the street from Stad Rotterdam sits the modernistic-looking 11-story headquarters of Unilever, one of the largest consumer goods businesses in the world (1994 revenues US$45 billion, profit US$2.3 billion). Do the names Vaseline, Pond's, Pepsodant, Close-Up, Wisk, Lux, Dove, Lifebuoy, Breyers, Klondike, Magnum sound familiar? Those are but a few of the brand names owned by Unilever. The company is the world's largest producer of ice cream and margarine.

The Unilever Group was established in 1930 when the Margarine Unie and Lever Brothers decided to merge their interests, while at the same time retaining their separate legal identities. Now known as Unilever N.V. (NV) and Unilever PLC (PLC) respectively, each has its own headquarters in Rotterdam and London.

Generally speaking, I've had poor receptions at big international, consumer-oriented companies. Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Phillip Morris are three that quickly come to mind. Coca-Cola would only talk to me after I submitted my questions in advance AND signed a form saying I wouldn't write anything about the company unless it had been cleared through them first. After going through all the preliminary red tape and after meeting with someone at Coca-Cola, I decided to nix doing a story. As I told them: "you mean to say if you guys are jerks I can't write that? Let's just forget the whole thing".

But, entering Unilever's large marbled-floor lobby I'm not worried about being treated badly here because I already received a letter acknowledging receipt of my advance material and how they were looking forward to my arrival. Several sculptures are scattered about and a black piano (it's locked so I can't see the brand name) sits in a corner of the lobby.

Gen van Hattem, Business Service Manager and Tom Gordijn, Press Office, answer my questions and show me around the elegant yet not too fancy place. However, before we start Hattem asks if I'd like something to drink "perhaps a Lipton ice tea"--which just happens to be a Unilever product. I'm not a coffee or tea drinker or much of a drinker of ice tea. However, the ice tea tastes fantastic! I don't know if it's because it's hot outside or it's in the presentation. It's served on a big glass mug stuffed with ice cubes.

Built in 1992, the company-owned structure is home to 500 employees. Running the company cafeteria is also part of Hatten's job so I get of tour of the spotless (you could literally eat off the floor) industrial kitchen which is also used for testing products. Yep, right by the cafeteria registers are freezers filled with their various brands of ice cream bars.

So picture this: the building is square but, the top floor looks like a oversized-halo on top--it just kind of overhangs from the rest of the structure. It's in one of those corner overhangs where I find CEO Morris Tabaksblat's unassuming, functional office. Ditto for the boardroom, it's nice but functional. (For more information: UNC)

Nedlloyd Group N.V.

Companies, which transport goods via the waterways, seem to have brushed aside calling themselves shipping companies and now like to refer to themselves as logistic services organization. This means the total control of physical cargo flows on behalf of shippers and recipients anywhere in the world. Nedlloyd Group, 1994 revenues NLG 6.6 billion, profit NLG 92 million, is a big player in the industry with its 60 containerships, fleet of 2,140 trucks, 1,790 delivery vans, 85 tank trailers, 40 dry-bulk trailers and over 1,000 tractor-trailers.

Befitting a company doing much of its business via the waterways, Nedlloyd's white 18-story headquarters fronts the Nieuwe Maas River which runs through the city. It's a big building with over 1,000 employees (120 of those corporate) working here.

My contact person, Wim de I'Orme, Central Public Relations, doesn't think it's a good idea leaving my bike locked outside so we wheel it down to an area in the basement set aside for employees riding bikes to work. I'Orme's not a bike rider so he's never been down here before and we're both impressed with what we see: a large, well-lit, secured room lined with dozens of bicycle neatly lined up in bike racks.

Built in 1988, the company has its name atop the sides of the structure and occupy 75% of the space. They're not superstitious here as I note the marked 13th floor. The company's art collection contains Dutch Masters as well as Asian art and framed old posters of cruise ship advertisements. My favorite piece of art though is the large (10 foot by 20 foot) unusual tapestry hanging on a wall; it's a design made out of actual ropes used in the maritime industry.

CEO Leo Berndsen's 17th floor corner office with a view of the river contains nine framed antique maps, one's a map of the world dated 1630, with others showing Africa, Black Sea and the Baltic Sea hundreds of years ago. (For more information: NLYN)

Hunter Douglas NV

I'm near an industrial/warehouse waterfront area about four miles from downtown Rotterdam and from the looks of the rundown apartment buildings and trash strewn streets nearby it's definitely one of the city's least desirable areas.

I'm here to visit Hunter Douglas and it looks like headquarters is inside one of their factories located on the waterfront. I don't even have to identify myself to the security guard or receptionist because word had trickled down of my pending arrival. This is one of those companies where I have no idea beforehand what kind of business they're in. Standing at the receptionist desk I turn around and look out the picture window through open blinds to the street. I then notice the picture window has two pieces of glass and the blind is placed between the two-giving a neat, sharp-looking effect to the blind. Looking over to the large lobby area I notice track lighting and what looks to be blinds in all shapes, sizes and colors on display. I ask the receptionist, "do you make blinds?". "We're the world's largest manufacturer of blinds", she answers.

The lobby area doubles as part of the company's product showroom which of course explains the array of blinds. Also hanging on a lobby wall are framed pictures of 20 manufacturing and assembly operations around the world. The company has over 100 plants and operations in 80 countries. Revenues in 1994 were US$ 1.1 billion, profit US$ 50 million.

My three hour visit is great fun and includes a tour of the factory and lunch in the cafeteria. David Sonneberg, the 30-something year-old son of CEO Ralph Sonnenberg answers questions along with Harry Houthuijsen, Director of Operations. The son's business card reads: Director & General Manager-Decorative Window Covering Products, and I ask him if he's being groomed to take over the company and he admits it's a possibility.

How did the company end up being located in Rotterdam on a former shipyard? Sonnenberg said his grandfather, who was Jewish, fled Germany in the early 1930's and picked this site to start anew. There was a Joe Hunter but, the Douglas part of the name was made up. Why? "My grandfather didn't want to use Sonnenberg because it was Jewish so, he went through the phonebook and picked out the name Douglas" says Sonnenberg.

Nothing fancy about the six-story head office. Around 30 people work in the corporate office part of the building. Lunch is bland with their hamburgers and French fries never having to worry about being mistaken for McDonalds' or Burger King's.

Of course when walking into CEO Ralph Sonnenberg's spartanly-furnished, no-frills office I check the brand on the venetian blinds. Yep, it's one of theirs. For more information: HUDNC)

Three Who Give Me The Heave-Ho

Pakhoed, with 1994 revenues of NLG 1.4 billion, profit NLG 93 million, is in the business of worldwide storage and logistics for the oil and chemical industry (with most of it's tank storage operations in Rotterdam and Antwerp). Headquarters are the top six floor in a new 17-story downtown building. Mary Heger, secretary to Chairman Nicholas Westdijk, tells the receptionist to tell me they sent a letter saying they didn't want to talk to me.

Van Ommeren, with 1994 revenues of NLG 1 billion, is a worldwide shipping, transport and tank storage concern. The company has a fleet of over 30 ocean vessels and operates 30 tank terminals. Headquarters is a 14-story, river-front building built in the 1960's. Though Joke Mourik, security guard/receptionist, does her best, I'm told via Joke that Aleidus Fokma, Director of Public Relations, has no time for me. Oh well, the lobby area is pretty neat with the 1889 wood carving from ship's bow looking down over the lobby--it's of a warrior and his dog. Several model ships are displayed in glass cases along with a three-foot tall, antique wooden compressor-type contraption. I don't know if it's actually a compressor and neither do the two security guard or five different employees we ask who pass by. Boy, I'm sorry but, I don't give these people much credit. If I worked here and passed by this "thing" everyday I'd be curious to know what the heck it was.

One building down from Van Ommeren's offices I find the four-story, red brick with white trim, turn-of-the-century headquarters for Internatio-Mueller. With 1994 revenues of NLG 2.9 billion, profit NLG 70 million, Internatio-Mueller has four main business areas: technical services, third largest pharmaceutical wholesaler in The Netherlands, one of the largest ship brokerage companies in Northwest Europe and distributor of specialty chemicals. Here too (as with the two other above) I'm told second-hand via the receptionist that Peter van der Slikke in public relations doesn't want to participate. Skimming through the company's annual report I note van der Slikke is listed as Company Secretary. I was told he's head of public relations, Then again, if this is an indication how he handles PR, then I wouldn't list that title after my name either. I'm also disappointed in being able to find out why the company leaves off the "nal" from Internatio-Mueller. (For more information: PAKN, VOMC, IM)

On the road in The Hague


The Hague, with a population over 200,000, lies roughly halfway between Rotterdam and Amsterdam. The name of the city is The Hague and it's located in The Netherlands and I don't know why the Dutch like to use the The word in naming places.

Assets of US$ 66 billion, make AEGON one of the 25 largest insurers in the world. Revenues for the first six months of 1995 were US$ 6.7 billion, profit US$ 381 million. So where do I go to find one of the big boys in the insurance industry? Several miles from downtown next door to a train station stop.

The plain-looking, white five-story building is part of an office complex built in 1987. The company's name is atop the side of the building but trees obstruct the sign so you really can't see it from the street. Not a very impressive-looking exterior.

To get into the lobby requires going through doors controlled by security guards. Then it's over to the reception desk in a five-story atrium. Looking up to the atrium's ceiling I see what looks to be thousands of colorful balloons hanging in mid-air. Turns out these 5,300 colored balls are a piece of art and depict cloud formations. Things are starting to look up here.

The receptionist calls Jacqueline Sorel, secretary to CEO Kees Storm, as I wait in the atrium reception area surrounded by eight REAL 20-foot tall trees. On a wall are clocks showing current times in Cedar Rapids (Iowa), New York City, Williamstad (near Venezuela), Netherlands Antilles, London, Edinburgh, Baltimore, Little Rock, Antwerp, Taiwan, Madrid, The Hague and Budapest. A man and a woman soon walk out and the man motions me to go with him. Conversing as we walk to the elevator I learn he thinks I'm the Bloomberg technician they called to fix a BLOOMBERG (primarily due to the fact I'm wearing a Bloomberg T-shirt). It's back I go to the lobby. Turns out the woman who walked out was Sorel (the CEO's secretary) and she assumed I had been taken care of when she saw me walking with him. Anyway, I eventually hook up with Marianne Honkoop, Public Relations.

My first question concerns those clocks in the lobby showing various times around the world. "What criteria was used in picking the cities?", I ask. Honkoop says AEGON has operations in all those places.

Over 1,200 employees work here and commuting to work is helped when your company OWNS the adjacent train station. There's no fitness facility but, employees can play Ping-Pong and shoot billiards.

Sorel joins us for lunch in the large cafeteria. The Italian-style macaroni with beef is good and so is the pudding. Sorel enjoys the story of how my regular feature of listing the 10 Worst CEO's Secretaries was pulled from the BLOOMBERG. I'll repeat it here: Since I frequently deal with CEO's secretaries I thought it only appropriate to name names and list the 10 Best and 10 Worst. Several years ago I had a particularly nasty run-in with the secretary to a CEO of a bank down in Alabama and I duly noted in one of my Bloomberg stories her making my 10 Worst list. Well, the CEO of the bank read my story on the BLOOMBERG and called up New York City wanting to know why his secretary was on the 10 Worst list. The powers that be in Bloomberg's NYC office contacted me on the road and said I was to call the CEO and explain it to him myself. No problem, I mean I don't put somebody on that list unless they deserve it. So, I'm sorting through my notes and oh-oh!!, I realize I visited two banks in Birmingham and had mistakenly put the wrong bank and secretary on the list! I call up the CEO, explain about the mix-up in banks and apologize profusely for the mistake. He's one of those classy southern gentlemen bankers and accepts my apology. He then goes on to tell me in one of those authentic southern drawls, "Well Paul, the reason I was so concerned was because we just spent five million dollars training our employees to be nice".

The downside to my visit at AEGON is not being able to see the boardroom and CEO's office. I'm told, "We just don't do that".

AEGON was established in 1983 as a result of a merger between AGO and Ennia.

(For more information: AEGN)

Nationale-Nederlanden NV

Nationale-Nederlanden, another big player in the insurance industry calls The Hague home. With over US$ 64 billion in assets it joins AEGON as being one of the 25 largest insurance companies in the world and the seventh largest in Europe. However, Nationale-Nederlanden is only a subsidiary of ING Group, the big financial services giant headquartered in Amsterdam (whom I visited several weeks earlier).

Wow, Nationale-Nederlanden has a new headquarters and it's quite spectacular. Built in 1994, the white 17-story, shaped like the letter H structure takes up a whole city block. The seven-story atrium lobby with marbled floor is impressive. Scattered about one section of the large lobby are nine, six-feet in diameter metal circles with spouts of water shooting up from each. Six glass display cases in various parts of the lobby contain a colorful collection of glassware. In the far corner I spot employees lining up to use an ATM machine. Waiting in the lobby is quite comfortable because the twisting blue sofa is long. How long. Long enough to seat 35 people.

Dr. Ron Kok, Manel Vrijenhoek and Willie Teixeira-Waalboer, all from the communications department, welcome me and it's then off to lunch in the cafeteria. It's on the way to the cafeteria where I learn about the size of the place. Since I rode up to the building on one side I didn't bother looking on the opposite side because I could see the structure was bounded by a passing freeway. Well, I should have. There's an enclosed skywalk OVER the freeway which connects to a two-block long, eight-story, E-shaped building on the other side of the freeway. That explains the need for two cafeterias--over 2,700 employees work here.

The meat balls, Vietnamese egg roll, yogurt pudding and eierkosk (sweet roll) for lunch wins the nod over the food served several miles away at rival AEGON. The nod for having the best recreational facilities also goes to Nationale-Nederlanden with its aerobics and weight rooms, showers and billiards .

I can't see CEO Bert Richaers's eighth floor office because there's a board meeting today. I know it's true because upon entering the building I saw all the "suits" congregating outside the boardroom, located off the lobby. I also knew something was up upon seeing half-a-dozen fancy cars with drivers parked outside the front entrance. (For more information: INTNC)

Royal Dutch Petroleum Company

I'm a little apprehensive about visiting Royal Dutch Petroleum Company, the oil behemoth (1994 revenues US$ 95 billion, profit US$ 6.2 billion). I remember visiting their USA headquarters in Houston, Texas and getting the royal runaround. One of the two fellows I met with in the lobby of their high-rise skyscraper in downtown Houston was head of building security and it was such a farce it was almost comical. "For security reasons", they wouldn't tell me how many floors were in the building, or even if the CEO had a corner or middle office. Very paranoid.

I've visited many of the major oil companies. Exxon and Texaco were very accommodating as was Atlantic Richfield. Chevron was so-so and Amoco gave me the brush off but, by far the worst reception received at a major oil company was at Mobil Oil. Visiting Mobil's suburban headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia (close to Washington DC) you're treated more like an intruder than a visitor. Every guest and their belongings are put through a metal detector device similar to one's used at airports. Now I can't blame Mobil for being overly cautious (a few years earlier a bomb exploded outside the entrance of their old NYC offices) but, it was definitely overkill in the lobby as I watched a security camera follow me as I walked from one side of the lobby to the other. This was AFTER having to pass muster with two security guards on the grounds and the two in the lobby. You won't find my visit to Mobil on the BLOOMBERG due to my tossing out the story.

Getting back to Royal Dutch. The Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies has grown out of an alliance made in 1907 between Royal Dutch Petroleum Company (The Hague) and The "Shell" Transport and Trading Company PLC (London), by which the two companies agreed to merge their interests on a 60:40 basis while keeping their separate identities. Royal Dutch has the 60%.

Head offices are several miles from downtown on an average-looking side street no different than many others in the area. There's no tall edifice or hulking fortress-type building but, several distinctive-looking buildings on each side of the street which I know are Royal Dutch properties. How do I know this? I think the large metal adornments shaped like shells on the exteriors of the top windows are a dead give-way.

I get the runaround here. My first two visits I'm told the woman in Public Relations is out. My third visit I'm told to come back next week. I make a stink and end up talking to Bert Regeer who's head of corporate communications but, is based in Rotterdam. Regeer says they have only two public relations people in The Hague and the majority are in Rotterdam where Royal Dutch/Shell Netherlands is based. He apologizes for the runaround I've been getting and the task of answering my questions falls to Karyn Vermeulen, who identifies herself as an assistant journalist.

Vermeulen knows the answers to very few of my questions and it's pretty much a waste of hers and my time.

The good-looking five-story, red brick building on the corner was built in 1915 and it's the former head office of the company. Connected to the brick structure is the current head office, an eight-story building built in 1983 with the previously mentioned metal shells (no they aren't painted yellow like the company logo) adorning the outside of the top floor windows. Down the street is another company building, this one is 14-stories tall and looks to have been built in the early 1960's. Vermeulen guesstimate about 2,500 employees work in the area.

Though I can't see the CEO's office or boardroom because "we don't do that" I get the thrill of walking through the three separate lobby atriums in the head office. Old framed advertising posters hang on several walls and there's a scale model of an oil platform.

The company's corporate aircraft use Rotterdam's airport about a 25 minute drive.

Stay tuned to see how this reception compares to their counterparts at The "Shell" Transport and Trading Company when I visit London. (For more information: RD)

Nutricia NV

The town of Zoetermeer is in small type on my map of The Netherlands which means it's one of those little communities under 10,000 people. Imagine my surprise when I head 12 miles east of The Hague and find a sprawling city of 100,000. The local tourist center says Zoetermeer sprouted from 10,000 to 100,000 in less than 10 years. Why? Interstate 30. Office building complexes have sprung up along the sides of the freeway.

Nutricia, with 1994 revenues of NLG 1.5 billion, profit NLG 99 million, manufactures and markets infant baby formula, baby foods, skin care products and brand name liquid drinks such as Chocomel chocolate milk, Fristi yogurt drink and energy drinks (similar to Gatorade).

The small square-shaped, four-story, concrete slab building with blue-tinted windows sits next to Interstate 30. Entering the place I see no products on display or anything else for that matter. Makes you think they aren't proud of their products.

Annelies Mols, secretary to Chairman Hans van Der Wielen, steps out to the lobby and in an abrupt, unfriendly manner says she has no idea what I'm talking about and hasn't time to deal with me. She suggests I go down the road about half-a-mile and maybe someone at their The Netherlands plant/office will be able to help me.

It's been raining all day so I put my wet raingear back on and head down the road to the plant in the pouring rain. At least they have covered parking for their bicycle-riding employees. However, I still manage to get drenched running to the front door. There's no overhang outside the entrance and I don't like entering wearing my raingear so I usually strip.

Oh this is great, here's a company selling infant milk formula, baby foods and energy sports drinks and upon entering the place I find the receptionist smoking up a storm. What kind of image is that?

After a half-hour wait, Dr. Hugo van Someren, Group Controller Overseas, and Marti Jager, Head personnel department, meet with me. However, since neither works in the headquarters building they aren't able to answer most of the questions. (For more information: NUTV)

Gist-Brocades NV

Heading five miles southeast of Nutricia puts me in Delft, a beautiful town of 50,000 people. Canals run through the downtown area and several huge historic churches anchor market square. It's a definite stop on the tour bus trail.

Several miles from downtown Delft I thought I found headquarters for Royal Gist-Brocades but, learn it's the entrance to the plant only. I have to ride around to the other side. Turns out this place is HUGE. It's about a two mile ride around the perimeter of the property and I end up at a warehouse-like building stuck between several rundown company buildings all which look to be from the early 1900's.

Gist-Brocades, with 1994 revenues of NLG 1.8 billion, profit NLG 141 million, is the world's largest industrial producer of penicillin and one of the largest producers of bakers yeast.

Before the receptionist issues me a visitors badge I'm told to sign a piece of paper. It's about half the size of an 8x11 sheet of paper and it's filled with all kinds of Dutch writing. I tell the receptionist I'm not going to sign it if I don't know what it says. "It's rules", she answers. Must be over a dozen of them listed. I still hadn't signed it when my contact person Dr. Philip van Lelyveld, Senior External Communications, shows up, so I have him read it to me. Jeez, the do's and doníts are similar to what defense contractors make me sign and this is for a company making high security bakers yeast?!

Holy cow! From the outside the place looks like a worn-out, run-down dump but once past the receptionist you enter into a magnificent grand hall reminiscence of those great passenger halls built by train stations in the early 1900's. Built in 1907 and designated a historic landmark structure, it's known as "The Big Office" and it's a beaut. On the first floor (it's four-stories) there's a even a ticket window similar to those used at train stations. It's where employees used to pick up their tickets for travel.

With over 2,000 employees and several plants in the complex, Gist-Brocades is easily the biggest employer in Delft.

Can't see CEO Herman Scheffer's second floor middle office because "he's working" but, he does pass by as Lelyveld and I stand outside his office admiring two bronze elephants given to the company as a gift. (For more information: GISNC)

Philips Electronic NV

Eindhoven, The Netherlands fifth largest city with a population of 194,000, sits in the lower middle part of The Netherlands near the Belgium border. Eindhoven's claim to fame comes from being the birthplace and home to electronics giant Philips Electronics (1994 revenues $US 34 billion, profit US$ 1.1 billion). Riding around town one can quickly see the impact of having the world's third largest electronics company based here as I ride past Philips Stadium and Philips Music Center. Though Philips isn't located downtown, an old building of theirs which looks like it was the head office back in the 1930's still stands. At night, the whole insides of the top part of the structure is ablaze with bright lights (Philips's brand of light bulbs no doubt).

Headquarters is a complex of buildings several miles from downtown. Entering the grounds means having to stop at the guard gate. While the guard makes calls I scan the premises. The two most prominent structures are an ugly-looking 15-story edifice from the 1950's and a plain-looking 12-story high-rise from the 1960's. Jeez, I hope neither one is the head office. A global company like this definitely needs a modern, sleek-looking building.

Standing in the guardshack I talk to CEO Jan Timmer's secretary over the phone. She gives me directions to the Philips Competence Center several miles away because "I think you'll find it more interesting than our offices". I protest, saying it's corporate offices I'm visiting but, to no avail.

I head off down the road past several large Philips plants all the while wondering, what the heck is the Philips Competence Center? Is it a place where employees get tested to see if they're qualified? I was told it's easy to find because "it looks like a giant flying saucer".

Sure enough, built in the 1960's the four-story structure looks like a big flying saucer. Jan van Dongen Torman, General Manager, who runs the place, says it was originally built as a visitor's center to show off the company's new products. Problem was, according to Torman, the company kept coming out with so many new products they couldn't keep the visitor's center up to date so they closed the place.

Now, the building's used as a combination showroom/exhibit of company wares to Philips's corporate customers. Torman gives me a guided tour of the well-done and informative exhibit taking up three floors of the saucer-shaped structure.

Well, Torman's a nice man but isn't much help in answering questions about headquarters about a mile away. I ask him if he can call up CEO Timmer's secretary about possibly seeing the boardroom and Timmer's office. He calls and the answer is no. I then ask if I can get permission to ride on the property and at least SEE the headquarters building. Torman told me it's a three-story building hidden behind the two ugly buildings I mentioned early. I like to be able to say I actually saw the building. "No problem", says Torman, "I'll take you over in my car and drive you around the complex". I tell him thanks, but no thanks. He keeps insisting and I keep saying no. I finally relent. Why am so opposed with going with him? He's a three packs-a day-smoker and I barely survived his smoked-filled office and I can just imagine what the insides of his car smells like. Before going I give his office the once over: hmmm, there's a Philips VCR, Philips phone, Philips computer, Philips television and, I check the ceiling lights--yep, they're also Philips (they're the world's largest manufacturer of light bulbs).

Driving through the complex Torman points out headquarters: it's a blah-looking, brown concrete slab structure with dark brown trim. Boy, looks like the whole place needs a wattage change. (For more information: PHIL)

Gamma Holding

Not much to write about at the headquarters of Gamma Holding in Helmond, 10 miles east of Eindhoven. Gamma Holding is one of the 10 largest textile companies in Europe. Revenues in 1994 were NLG 1.3 billion, profit NLG 40 million.

Hans Fuchs, Senior Adviser, answers questions as we sit in the big, fat comfortable black leather chairs in the lobby. Built in the early 1970's, the decor in the company-owned, three-story building looks the same as it probably did when it opened. The train station lies about 400 yards away and there's a company plant directly behind us.

The biggest part of Gamma's business is manufacturing printed exotic fabrics for Africans, where it does most of its business (The Netherlands used to have colonies in Africa). Austin walks me around the showroom and I'm impressed with the company's wide range of other products including curtains, carpet (which is theirs that we're walking on) and home furnishings. Gamma is also the world's biggest manufacturer of mohair.

About 30 people work in the no-frills building. I can't see the CEO's office because "he's in there". (For more information: GAMN)

Oce-van der Grinten NV

Venlo lies about three miles from the German border and because of its location, this town of 80,000 people is a happening place. Walking around the supermarkets, butcher shops and such in downtown Venlo I notice the prices are in German marks not Dutch Guilders. I ask a store manager about it. Seems the Germans drive over here to do their grocery shopping because it's cheaper and the Dutch give the Germans the money right back by driving over the border and buying the German's cheap gasoline. I kid you not, I count 23 cars with German license plates backed up in a line waiting to enter an already overflowing Venlo parking lot.

Several miles out of town I find headquarters for Oce-van der Grinten (there's suppose to be a slight comma-like mark over the "e" in Oce but I can't do it on my computer). The three-story grey aluminum and reflective structure with red trim sits amongst corn fields. Exposed 2x2 slats of wood on the exterior of building adds some pizzazz. The length of about three football fields separates the company's parking lot from the edge of the River Maas. It's along this river where Holland had it's worst flooding earlier in the year (I learn later it's the reason there's a new three foot dike circling the parking lot). Out front of the building's entrance 15 geysers spout water four feet in the air. What does this company with 12,000 employees and revenues of NLG 2.8 billion? Copiers, printers and other imaging supplies for these systems.

Entering the lobby you encounter something very unusual: two 30-foot tall saguaro cactus and three five-foot tall onions. Stuffed with straw and wrapped in green ribbons, the whimsical objects are definite conversation pieces. The company-owned building has an expansive three-story atrium. I count twelve bright red chairs for visitors. Suspended from the lobby rafters are 24 pieces of colored glass, each about the size of a bedroom door. Don't know if it's coincidence but, Oce's lobby is eerily similar to rival Xerox's in Stamford, Connecticut.

Nancy Winckers, Manager Visitors Programs, gives me a warm greeting, then says she wants to check out my bicycle. Why? She just returned from a bike-riding vacation in Italy with her husband and is curious to see the set-up on my bike.

Oce has a good reason for being in Venlo: it was founded here way back in 1877. Over 400 employees work here. There's quite an extensive collection of modern art scattered about the floors. Most of it done by young artists in the area. I can't see CEO Harry Pennings's third floor office because "he's busy".

Though they do business in 80 countries I tell Winckers I've never heard of Oce or it's copiers so, it's off we go to a showroom to take a look at the company's product line. Impressive collection of goods but, do they use their own products? We stroll through some of the work areas so I can check the copying machines being used. Not a Canon, Xerox or Konica in sight.

(For more information: OCEN)

Koninklijke Frans Maas Groep N.V.

Less than a mile from Oce, two miles from the German border and less than 100 meters from a freeway, international freight forwarder Frans Maas Groep occupies a small three-story building with its name on the sides.

Maurice Gilissen, General Counsel, gives me an enthusiastic welcome to this company with 1994 revenues of NLG 1.2 billion. Founded here in 1890, the company was private until going public in 1987. Though three-stories tall, they're are seven split levels. Built in 1990, it's a leased building with about 80 employees working here.

The top floor contains the small canteen which serves cold sandwiches and soups for lunch. When asked where's the nearest airport, Gilissen replies, "Dusseldorf, less than an hour away". Amsterdam's airport is two hours away.

Nothing fancy about CEO Roland Oliemans's 5th level middle office. He sits behind a U-shaped grey desk, has one real plant, no computer, several pictures of family, five drawings of old sailing yachts and two pictures of Olieman sailing. His view? He can see a Blomberg sales office across the street. Come again? A Blomberg office in Venlo? Let me explain. Twice, during my trek through Sweden I walked into a company's headquarters and after eyeing my Bloomberg T-shirt the receptionists said, "Oh, I have a Bloomberg". The first time I remember saying to myself, "Hmmph, why would a receptionist have her own Bloomberg?" and just kind of shrugged it off. But the second time a receptionist said it, I knew something wasn't right. I said, "you have your own Bloomberg?". She replies, "Yes, I've had it for years". I don't spot it around her desk area and ask, "where do you keep it?". "At home", she answers. I say, "Oh, you have a Traveller like me". She then gives me one of those "what are you talking about?" looks. Well, to make a long story short, there's a company in Germany which makes washers, dryers, dishwashers and a whole line of other appliances. The company's name? Blomberg, with only one "o". Actually it's easy to understand the receptionists confusion. Bloomberg and Blomberg use the same fat letter styling in their names and when the receptionists saw the Bloomberg name on my T-shirt, they didn't catch there was an "o" missing. Leaving Frans Maas, I go next door to the Blomberg store and ask to speak to the manager. Thinking he'll get a kick out of it, I tell him the funny story (or so I thought it was funny) about the mistaken names. Either I'm a lousy story-teller, he doesn't understand my English or, he hasn't a sense of humor because nothing registers on his face. I grab a couple company brochures and quietly leave. (For more information: LTUV)


I'm in Heerlen, a booming little city of 100,000 people about 15 miles from Maastracht. The German border is only a few miles away and so is the Belgium border. The surrounding countryside is drop-dead gorgeous farmland and idyllic little villages. It's around here where I encounter my first hills in The Netherlands.

DSM, a chemical concern (1994 revenues of NLG 9 billion, profit NLG 532 million), occupies a big fat, eight-story building in the downtown area. Getting into the place requires passing muster with the two cigarette-smoking security guards behind their protective glass.

A woman, who says she's from the public relations department greets me in the seven-story atrium lobby and says they aren't familiar with what I'm doing. She tries to dismiss me but, I persist. I mention Bloomberg Business News and she says she's never heard of it. She goes and gets her boss. She returns with Arthur Spierts, Head of Press Office. He's VERY familiar with Bloomberg. Why? He says Raymond Frenken, who runs the Amsterdam Bloomberg office is a hometown boy from around here. Bingo! I'm in.

We head up to Spierts office and on the way we pass the eight-foot tall sculpture in the lobby which looks like three plastic over-sized spoons. The company's art collection consists of primarily local artists. This lobby sculpture is titled "Zonder titel" by Sjra Schoffelen in 1985 and it's made out of polymer resins--one of the company's primary products.

Built in 1989, over 700 employees work here. The company's original name was Dutch State Mines and was formerly 100% owned by the Dutch government. Now, the government's ownership is 33%.

I'm really disappointed in not getting to meet CEO Simon de Bree. He's in a meeting. The 50-something year-old CEO is an avid athlete and VERY serious cyclist--having won and still wins bike races.

Conference rooms are named after members of royalty and the boardroom, with its white table, has the obligatory picture of the queen. (For more information: DSMA)