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Family Business on a World Scale

John Fentener Van Vlissingen, 62, was born into one of Holland’s great family businesses – Steenkolen Handelse Vereniging (SHV) – and in the mid-1970s, had the opportunity to lead the energy and retailing giant with his two brothers. While remaining a substantial SHV shareholder and director, John decided to pursue an independent career in the financial industry. Ultimately, he founded his own family business, BCD Holdings, N.V., and while maintaining his ties to SHV, has created one of the world’s great travel and financial services companies. "I am a believer in the family business,” Van Vlissingen explains. “If BCD had not been a family business, we would never be where we are today.” The technological changes affecting the travel industry required massive investments in technology putting substantial pressure on the profitability of the travel activities of the Van Vlissingen family enterprise. “If I had been the president of a publicly traded company, I would have been scolded every quarter by anonymous shareholders for failure to achieve positive results. And I would not sit here right now.” “Because of the family company structure, we now have a financially very sound and profitable company that ranks in the top three in the world in the business travel industry and which employs more than 9,000 people,” he explained. About 75% of the company is American with U. S. headquarters in Atlanta. BCD is based on Curacao, Netherlands Antilles, and has operations in nine countries. “For the continuity and further expansion of BCD Holdings, it is very important for me to maintain the family business character.” The ownership of BCD has already been transferred to Van Vlissingen’s two daughters and son. “They each have a 33% ownership, but not all will continue in the business,” he explains. “The ownership and the operation are two separate issues.” Perhaps SHV and his relationship with his two brothers offer a role model for Van Vlissingen’s children. “For 35 years, my two brothers and I have gotten together at least once every two months for an informal discussion about the business at SHV. Too many family businesses have failed due to non-involvement of the shareholders.” Management of BCD Holdings is in the able hands of some 30 non-family executives. “If I would suddenly leave, it would have hardly any short-term effect, “ Van Vlissingen says. “The top position in the company does not absolutely have to be in the hands of a family member. I appreciate it very much that my children indicate that they are not ready yet to take on the responsibility of running the company. That lets us search for a person to lead the company until one of the children is ready.” Van Vlissingen expects a non-family CEO will head the company with full authority for about ten years. However, family ownership involvement remains crucial. To guarantee that the “family character” of the business is maintained, “when the future CEO is an outsider, the Chairman of the Board needs to be a family member.” With over $4 billion in sales, BCD is comprised of: World Travel BTI, the third largest travel management company in the U.S.; TRX, a primary supplier of automated solutions to the travel industry; Park’ N Fly, a market leader for off-airport parking; business and leisure travel companies in six European countries; and niche companies in financial services and real estate management in the U.S.A., on Curacao and in the Netherlands. Despite its size and global scope, BCD Holdings’ Mission Statement has as two of five key principles: “Continue as a family company” and “Build the company for the next generation.” Van Vlissingen believes that the current economic climate is good for family businesses in the long term. “The current downsizing of companies leads to many new companies. From the tens of thousands of people, who are forced to leave a number of larger public companies, there are many who will start their own companies. They build something, have fun and want to be successful. That’s the satisfaction of the family company entrepreneur; and that goes for the baker on the corner as well as the owner of a multinational corporation.” This article is based in part on an English translation of an article that appeared in Familie Bedriff Magazine, April, 2001.

 

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