Learning the Akkermans way
Nando Akkermans has always thought ahead when building his business – it’s not where the market is today, but in some years’ time that matters to him.
When he started his business, Akkermanns & Partners, in 1981, there were no professional consultants in the pensions area in the Netherlands. “There were insurance brokers paid by commission from insurers,” he says.
But Akkermans worked on a fee basis from the beginning. And because he was coming from an insurance background, having worked in the Netherlands for a leading UK insurer of the day – Equity & Law, he had to find some way of getting his message across.
“In my view, there was a big market for pensions consultancy,” he says, even though conditions were quite static at the time. And in those days, insurance companies were not that interested in the pensions arena.
He started in Tilburg looking after the small- to medium-sized employers. “I was advising on the pensions and tax legislation, as firms set up their own arrangements.” The plans had tax incentives to encourage employers.
But he had the advanced idea of working through auditors and accountants. “They had good standing with employers when they introduced me.”
As he recalls, the auditing marketplace was not that receptive to his services, partly because it was a static market. “So I introduced myself by giving lectures on pensions issues.” This provided an entry point by explaining the problems their clients faced and how to solve them. “My message was that something needed to be done.”
This approach was exceptional for the Dutch market at the time. But the move paid off and Akkermans is now providing pensions advice to some 500 accountancy firms and tax advisers across the country.
This then became the platform for the development of other services. In 1985, he realised auditors were developing software relating to tackling actuarial calculations
and valuations for their clients. Worried that this might be a threat to his consultancy operations, Akkermans reacted in a characteristically robust fashion. “ I reckoned that I should look at the market for software development.”
He took on the specialist pensions software market, little knowing that, in time, his operation would become the biggest software pensions developer in the Netherlands.
“Now most of the auditors and tax advisers, as well as other providers active in the pensions market, including retail, use our software.” But growth was slow in the beginning and it was not until the early 1990s that it really took off.
“It became a very dynamic marketplace.” He points out that between 1995 and 2000 there were over 400 changes to the law, usually requiring software changes.
The software client base now extends to some 1,200 clients. But the company has never been tempted to move into for the actuarial software market, as this is too specialised, in Akkermans’ view. Also there is a very practical issue. “Insurers and pension funds are very loyal to their actuarial services providers. They don’t change providers.”
He then put his finger on an underlying deficiency in the market. “People were interested in pensions knowledge.” Given a centimeter, he took a kilometer, and now Akkermans is the largest private education provider in pensions sector, even running the equivalent of its own university.
“We are authorised to award master level degrees to our students in pensions, which are internationally recognised. No other Dutch university is able to offer this.”
As the knowledge-based provision got underway, Akkermans developed the ‘skills’side as well. “In our view it is very important to combine knowledge with skills.”
Originally, when making the educational move, he saw that that obtaining teachers expert in the pensions area would not be easy, as such specialised knowledge was not generally available. “We developed our own educational programme. And we trained our own employees as teachers for these courses.”
After three or four years, contact was made with universities, where there were professors and other academics who were expert in certain areas, such as pensions, actuarial, taxation or operations. They were invited to be course teachers on a freelance basis. “Currently, we have some 40-50 of these teaching for us – and including a number of professors from abroad.” By contrast, the numbers of full-time teaching professionals within the group is around four.
Initially, the courses were given at the headquarters building in Tilburg; currently there is a centre in Naarden and a lot of company training is done in-house. Akkermans reckons that each year about 1,500 students overall attend the courses. “The courses vary from just a couple of days to the MBAs requiring over 50 days a year. Altogether, three MBA programmes are provided, in pensions, financial management and investment strategy. “In that way, we are a private university.”
Another niche area where Akkermans & Partners Group has developed services is that of secondments and temporary staff replacement for pensions schemes and insurance companies. It has trained some 150 people for this replacement capacity. “We recruit people from universities and train them for a number of months, and then they can go to work on a temporary basis.” Usually, they are brought in by the pension fund or insurer to help with a particular problem they are facing short-term, particularly in the administration area, where they can get into arrears.” The ever changing legislation requirements creates a ready market for adaptable staff up to speed on the latest requirements, he says. “They are specialised staff trained in the particular requirements.”
Here the company is facing greater demand than it can meet currently, thanks in no small measure to the Netherlands’ active legislators. “We are one of the biggest players in the market in this arena.”
As an adjunct to this, a recruitment and placement business has been developed. “Pension funds and insurers often ask us for help in finding permanent staff. This is particularly for the more senior levels within organisations.”
On the advisory side, the firm now includes a pensions legal advisory operation. “This is separate from the other consultancy operations and employs three qualified lawyers, all of whom are very busy on the pensions front at present.” Akkermans sees a “new culture of litigation” developing in the Netherlands, with the growth of group and class actions.
The modern world of communications has not gone unnoticed in Tilburg. “We act as a portal on the internet, where those visiting us can come into contact with all the players in the financial world, such as insurers, mortgage providers, fund groups and so on. About 300,000 visitors per month use the portal.” This is aimed at the Dutch general retail market, not at an institutional audience.
The business model is straightforward, with the service providers paying Akkermans a fee for every client that links through to their sites. “ To get our clients we place a lot of banners – around 15m a month – on other sites. We also have about 200 side-bars to take care of the financial information.”
This service grew out of the group’s strategic plan. “Within the next three years we want to become the most important player in the world of pension funds, insurance companies, auditors and tax advisers in our fields. Our concept is to develop a chain of services and products, with an ‘affinity effect’. Every product and every service has to be complementary to the others.
“Everyone in the pension market has to be product buyers, but our role we see is to sell concepts rather than products to our clients,” he says. “By concepts, I mean for example, if the law changes we can send temporary employees to meet the immediate need. But as others do the same, how can we distinguish ourselves from our competitors? We say you can solve your problem with people, but you
can do it in a more sophisticated and better way if you combine software with people. Then we can educate your staff to do the job themselves. We see the contract as being one of not just people, but combining people, software and education.” Akkermans believes this gives the group its edge in the marketplace.
But Akkermans is not neglecting the original roots of his business. The growing complexity of pensions in the Netherlands is causing problems for insurance brokers, accountants and tax advisers giving pensions advice. “A number of them have come to us to see what could be provided together, as pensions is not their core business. Our plan is that by 2006, we will include 750 of these in the Akkermans Partners Pensions Management network – at present some 500 firms are involved.”
Through the network, they will have the software and other services, including marketing. New legislation in the Netherlands is making advisers more accountable and responsible for the advice they give.
Akkermans says his role in the group is to look more at where the market is going and to implement new ideas, as the ‘full service’ concept for smaller pension funds (see box). To help in this, there is a company-wide think tank with a representative from every operating area of the business, which now employs over 230 people – to look at the future. “Our focus is on 2007, as you have to think that far ahead.”
The firm recently announced its expansion into the Belgian market with the formation of Akkermans Stroobants , but he does not see international expansion beyond that.
As the company does not have outside shareholders, its growth has been self-financed. Akkermans is the majority shareholder and employees are among the other shareholders. But the thirst for growth is unquenchable. “Currently we are in negotiations with some smaller companies in software development and education with a view to acquiring them.”
Akkermans adds: “We are constantly seeing how we can develop the possibilities in the market by combining services or making them deeper, or introducing new services.”
Full service concept
Akkermans & Partners is developing a full service concept for the pension fund market. Nando Akkermans, head of the firm, reckons that of the near 900 pension funds in the Dutch market, perhaps as many as 600 will not be able to survive, because of their size and the increasing demands being made upon them.
“Our new concept is to take over everything concerning their pension business. A small pension fund cannot afford a lawyer, but if you bring a number of schemes together, it is possible to obtain the services by sharing. The same applies to software, if you have a 100 pension funds combined it is not a problem and it is state of the art, which it has to be.” This enables a scaling up effect, which can decrease the cost for pension funds.
This new service is to go live in January 2005. “We are obtaining a very positive response to this approach, but we know the decision making process in pensions takes a long time.”
Akkermans has set up an advisory board, on which Dick Snijders, formerly head of the Philips fund, and Dick de Beus, previously chairman of PGGM, as well
as professor Jacques Sijben, an expert
on demographic issues, and Robin Linschoten, a member of the Social Economic Board.
While the service is moving into fiduciary related services areas, it won’t handle asset management. “We are talking to a number of players in the market to see if their services would be complementary to our business.”
The company is not involved in pensions administration services at the moment but will be providing access to administration.
“Our concept is to solve all their problems. When they outsource to us, we reckon they can have a decrease in costs of 40-50%.” Akkermans does not see real problems in selling such an approach: “Outsourcing as a practice is not new for pension funds. What will be new is to outsource to this extent with one group. We will outsource from the back to the front office.”
The intention is to make full use of internet capabilities. So fund members will be able to access their details and calculate their pensions entitlement. “Should there be a shortfall in what he needs, the system can calculate the costs of bridging the gap. Our job will be to make everything understandable by the members.”
Funds will be able to choose which of the menu of services they require. “I am convinced that this will meet the need in the marketplace,” he says.