Philippe Vollot on Living and Working in the Netherlands

Philippe Vollot on Living and Working in the Netherlands
What is it like for a foreigner to assume a position in the management of a Dutch organization? In the series A Meeting of Minds – also the name of a network for foreign executive & non-executive board members in the Netherlands – Management Scope interviews foreign executives about their work in Dutch boardrooms. This time: Philippe Vollot, Chief Financial Economic Crime Officer at Rabobank. ‘I took the time to truly understand how things work here.’

‘Did you see it?’ Philippe Vollot says enthusiastically, slamming his hands on the table. ‘At Volksbank, they are also getting a Chief Financial Economic Crime Officer now! I am no longer the only one in the Netherlands!’ Vollot, who became Rabobank's cfeco in October last year, is delighted. ‘We are setting a trend.’ He adds, ‘We brainstormed extensively about the exact title of my position. We came up with many different names. Which ones? No, no, I won't tell. We considered all sorts of options. It had to cover exactly what the job is about.’ Thus, the French-born Vollot became the first Chief Financial Economic Crime Officer in the Netherlands, and perhaps in the world, in October last year. He was hired to streamline Rabobank’s anti-money laundering operation, closely monitored by the supervisory authority De Nederlandsche Bank, which repeatedly urged Rabobank to catch up on backlogs and intensify the control of money laundering and financing of terrorism.

How has your experience in the Netherlands been so far?
‘It feels very good. I consider myself primarily as a global citizen. I knew The Netherlands, especially Amsterdam, mainly as a tourist. I have been here for weekends. But I did not really know the Netherlands or Amsterdam. Amsterdam is a beautiful city to live in, a pleasant environment with many friendly and helpful people. My wife and I have done many enjoyable things. This summer, we went to the beach. And we ate at fantastic restaurants,’ he says with a smile. ‘That is not unimportant for a Frenchman.’

How was your onboarding at Rabobank?
‘Rabobank is a warm, friendly organization. There is a strong sense of engagement among the employees. I felt welcome right from the start, even during the job application process. They paid considerable attention to my onboarding, both professionally and personally. There was a special expat program that focused on Dutch culture and living and working in the Netherlands. My wife was also involved in this. It went smoothly. I felt a bit embarrassed at first because I did not speak the language. When you enter somewhere, everyone has to switch to English. But no one made a big deal out of it. I arrived here without major prejudices. I wanted to experience it all for myself. Prejudices cloud your mind, in my opinion. So, I tried to be open-minded, firmly believing that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you deal with it.’

What did you do in your first 100 days?
‘I stayed mostly low-key during the first three months, asked a lot of questions, and met people. I forced myself not to immediately come up with all the answers. I also wanted to avoid another classic mistake: doing exactly the same in the new position as what I did at my previous employer. That is a huge pitfall. So, I behaved like a sponge in those initial months. I took the time to really understand how things work here. My trick was mainly to engage with younger employees. It was funny: everywhere I went, the senior management had a serious PowerPoint presentation ready. But I was not necessarily interested in that. ‘Skip the PowerPoint, I prefer to spend an afternoon with the team,’ I would say. And I would sit with junior employees who monitor transactions, to hear their thoughts on certain matters. In roles like mine, you have to be careful not to rule from an ivory tower. You should invest in deep dives into the organization. I believe in personal contact more than in PowerPoint.’

What struck you in those conversations?
‘Well, one thing that stood out was the directness of the Dutch people. That was the only thing I had been warned about beforehand: the directness of the Dutch and their reputation for being straightforward. I understood that many people find this directness challenging or impolite. But I have not experienced it that way at all. I find directness mostly positive. I never after a meeting have to wonder what was really meant. It is always clear here. Dutch people are honest and transparent. Even in my meetings with junior employees, everything was laid out on the table. They asked me direct questions: who are you, what are you here for, how are you going to do it, why did they choose you? I have not experienced such a strong speak-up culture anywhere else in the world as I have here in the Netherlands.’

If everyone keeps speaking up, it can lead to endless discussions...
‘That is true. You cannot keep discussing endlessly with dozens of people until there is consensus. I always say: if you invite too many people to your wedding, there will always be someone who does not like the chicken. To continue the culinary analogy, I have also experienced here that there were too many cooks in the kitchen. We would have 15 people discussing relatively simple topics. That is not feasible. I quickly learned the Dutch saying: ‘Every decision is the starting point of a new discussion.’ I addressed that after my first 100 days to establish better decision-making processes and, more importantly, focus on implementing those decisions. I told a few people: I need you in my team, but I do not need you at this meeting. I spent a fair amount of time explaining that. I also made some changes in my team. I brought in some external experts. It did not always go smoothly. But eventually, now that we are a year further, we are all on the same page and making progress. It is great that we have already achieved some successes. That of course makes everyone enthusiastic.’

You were appointed at Rabobank even before the new CEO, Stefaan Decraene, was appointed. Was that not challenging?
‘I think I might have found it challenging ten years ago. Back then, I probably would have wanted to know who my new boss would be. But here, I had confidence. During my own job application process, I had productive conversations with the supervisory board. Very competent and nice people. I thought it would be highly unlikely for these people to put forward an unpleasant, arrogant, or authoritarian CEO. So, I had confidence in a positive outcome, and that confidence was certainly not disappointed with Stefaan’s arrival.’

Have you encountered different challenges here than at your previous employers in other countries?
‘The challenges banks face are to a large extent similar, in the Netherlands and internationally. It always revolves around the monitoring system that should raise the right signals for suspicious transactions. It is the same here. After three months of ‘sponging,’ I could reassure the executive board and the supervisory board: it was no different here than at other banks. I did not encounter any major surprises. There were no other problems or challenges than those I knew from other banks. The only difference was that there was significant legitimate pressure here, particularly from the regulators. The bank had to get to work quickly.’

In your role at Rabobank, you deal extensively with regulators. How has that been? Is it different from other countries?
‘I have had numerous conversations with regulators in my life, and I must say that the conversations with De Nederlandsche Bank have been exceptionally good so far. They are professionals. They know what they are talking about. They are clear, helpful, and patient. They are transparent and clear about their expectations. I am not saying this to curry favour with them; I am saying it because I mean it. I know that we pursue the same goal: effectively combating financial crime. Of course, they are strict, they have set clear deadlines, and they demand that we deliver, but those demands or expectations are not unreasonable or unrealistic. It is gratifying to talk to people who know what they are talking about. In other countries, my experiences in this regard were sometimes different.’

You of course need to deal with the Dutch corporate governance code here. Do you find that the rules are much different from other countries?
‘It is not that different. Within Europe, you see that governance rules are largely harmonized. And the implementation too is mainly similar. Of course, there are differences in governance models, with one-tier and two-tier boards. But even there, you almost always have an executive team on one side and a supervisory body on the other. The biggest difference is that these bodies have slightly different names in each country: a board of directors, an executive team, a management board ... Within Europe, there are small nuances, especially in terms of the intensity with which the roles are executed. In the Netherlands, the supervisory board is slightly more involved with the executive board. This is largely due to legislation and regulations. The biggest difference for me was that I ended up in a cooperative at Rabobank. It was the first time I worked at a bank where there were no shareholders.’

When will it be ‘mission accomplished’ for you?
‘The first goal is clear: we must meet the regulator’s requirements. There is a strict deadline at the end of 2024. We are working hard to meet all the requirements, and I am confident that we will succeed. But my focus is already beyond that. My goal is not to pop open a bottle of champagne in 2024 because we met the minimum requirements of the regulator. On the contrary, I would like to set the bar even higher. So, the journey will continue after 2024.’

In an ideal world ...
‘... I am no longer needed. If I do my job well, I shoot myself in the foot. That is how it is. And that is precisely the goal. I do this work because I fundamentally believe in combating financial crime. I told my team: okay, from now on, we are financial crime fighters. It is our job to protect the financial system, our customers, and Rabobank, using our own means, of course. We cannot raid drug houses, but we have our own weapons to fight. It fits very well with the bank’s motto, its ‘purpose:’ growing a better world together. And for me and my team, what it means concretely is that we want to deal with criminals who undermine that goal, people who abuse the financial system for their criminal activities.’

You said before that the Netherlands is at the forefront of combating financial crime, partly due to Transactie Monitoring Nederland, or TMNL, a public-private partnership to monitor and combat financial crime.
‘I am a huge fan of TMNL. When I heard about it, I was immediately very enthusiastic. In fact, TMNL was one of the reasons why I wanted to work in the Netherlands. TMNL makes the Netherlands the most effective country in the field of combating financial crime. This is the future; this is how we should do it. I find it worrisome that the system is being questioned in the political debate in the Netherlands, and that there are concerns about the privacy aspect. Completely misplaced. Believe me: privacy is more than adequately safeguarded in TMNL. We work with fully anonymized data.’

How do you view the public debate in the Netherlands about these issues?
‘This debate drives me crazy and makes me frustrated at times. Look, I am also just a citizen. I value privacy too and do not want my smartphone data to be leaked. But this is not about spreading beach photos via Facebook and TikTok. We are talking about combating organized crime. We are talking about large-scale, international money laundering practices through hundreds of bank accounts spread all over the world. Hundreds of billions are involved in money laundering practices annually. As a society, we might recover one percent of that each year. Believe me, these guys are professionals. With TMNL, the Netherlands has a weapon to fight back while protecting privacy. TMNL helps us be better financial crime fighters. That is the message I like to convey in Brussels and The Hague.’

Interview as a part of A Meeting of Minds, a program for non-Dutch executives at Dutch companies. This article was published in Management Scope 10 2023.

This article was last changed on 21-11-2023