From 1960s rookie to globetrotting Partner, Dirk’s 31-year career rhymed with the growth of Andersen Consulting, precursor to Accenture. “There was a strong work ethic, and dedication to working as a team. I don’t think the culture has changed much!”
Dirk’s career path
- Studies: Civil Engineering & Electronics (University of Ghent), MBA at Vlerick Business School, MBA at Columbia University, New York
- 1966: Joined Arthur Andersen & Co Administrative Services Division (later the Consulting Division)
- 1971: Promoted to Manager
- 1971-1975: System design & implementation and consulting projects in the manufacturing and retail sector in Europe
- 1975: Transfer to Hong Kong together with a US team to develop the consulting practice
- 1979: Promoted to Partner
- 1982: Transfer to Montreal, Canada
- 1986: Transfer back to Belgium
- 1986-1997: BeLux & Benelux projects
- Sept 1997: Retirement
Why did you join Arthur Andersen?
The main attraction for me was the culture. It was much more relaxed than Belgian companies at the time. Everyone was on first-name terms, straight from the interview, and of course, I saw career potential. I joined Arthur Andersen & Co Administrative Services Division (which later became the Consulting Division) the same year as Guido Gysemans (who became the first head of the Belgian Consulting Division in 1978) and Peter Bontinck (who became Managing Partner Benelux).
How many people worked in the Belgium practice at the time?
There were just 15 people in the Brussels office in Rue du Trône, and 600 people world-wide! But the focus on growth was tangible, even back then. As new joiners we were told that the firm’s strategy was to double in size every five years. We did not think this was impossible… just look at the size of Accenture now!
What was the work culture like in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s?
None of the leadership team in Belgium was local. The country lead was an auditor from the US. I remember he had a Jaguar with UK number plates… we were impressed by this and wondered how he’d managed it! The office was small and informal. The fluidity of contact was exceptional. Unlike Belgian firms, you could just step into someone’s office; there was no need to make a formal appointment. However, when we went to the US office, it was a different story. Don’t forget, we were an auditing company. Colleagues there had a special dress code and auditors had to wear a hat when visiting clients. Overall, there was a strong work ethic and a dedication to working as a team. I don’t think the culture has changed much!
Is the Accenture culture a legacy of Andersen Consulting or Arthur Andersen?
A lot of people today don’t realize that Accenture is an offshoot of an auditing company. It was Arthur Andersen that gave birth to the “one firm” philosophy that still exists at Accenture. We developed a strict, global methodology that everyone used. It was a unique concept.This was contrary to our audit competitors, which operated on the basis of local partnerships. We functioned as one global partnership. We all worked in the same way and shared the profit and loss equally. The result was spread across all the Partners worldwide.
When Andersen Consulting was created, we adopted the same approach and used the same methodology. Thanks to this, I could work anywhere, Paris, Hong Kong, Algeria, Montreal, literally anywhere because it was the same way of working. This methodology was seen by some people as a restraint on creativity. But if not properly managed, creativity does not necessarily lead to success!
What was the consulting world like when you started?
Before doing any consulting projects, all new joiners were obliged to follow basic auditing training and work on audit projects for the first year. It was a nice experience and I learned a lot, but I was happy to move to consulting (for which I’d been hired). One of my earliest consulting projects was implementing the first IBM mainframe computer installation in Belgium at Outboard Marine (Bruges). Most of the new hires from the Brussels and Paris offices were assigned to that project. The computer filled one enormous room! It’s difficult to imagine now, when we have smartphones in our pockets that are a million times more powerful. We all had to learn Assembler, a programming language. I remember Peter Bontinck was an expert at changing the programs by turning the knobs on the computer. Everyone worked together, from juniors to seniors. We were hands-on; we did everything.
How did your transfer to Hong Kong come about?
By 1975, the firm was looking for someone with manufacturing experience to start up our consulting practice in Hong Kong. I had previously taken a one-year leave of absence to complete my MBA at Colombia University, majoring in manufacturing, so that made me a good candidate. The idea of living abroad also appealed to me and my wife! The Hong Kong practice started out with 10 people, led by me and a Partner from LA. This Partner had recently got divorced so he was kindly asked to move to Hong Kong (the firm did not approve of the divorce at the time!). Because manufacturing in Hong Kong was mainly assembly line with limited demand for big systems, we changed our focus to financial services. The Far East was beginning to develop and there was a major influx of US and UK banks. The likes of JP Morgan, Citibank, WestLB, Jardines were all starting their operations and we helped them to set up and install their back office operations. I was involved in banking projects across the region, from Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea to the Philippines and Malaysia. I became a Partner in 1979, while working in Korea.
How did your family adapt to living abroad?
I was lucky. It was a positive experience. I saw other families manage less well with expat life. Two of our three children were born in Hong Kong and we loved living there. A big success factor was that my wife, an ear-nose-throat doctor, was able to work there in a group practice and as the company doctor of the Coca Cola bottling plant. Originally, we planned to stay for three years, but this was extended to seven.
Transferring with the family to Montreal in 1982 was a different story: from 25 degrees and very humid to -15 degrees and very dry, and for the children, a switch from English to French. This time, the firm needed a Partner who spoke French, but not a Frenchman! A Belgian was a good compromise. Ironically, my first job was in New Brunswick, and the reason I got that is because I speak English. For the next four years, I was responsible for the Ottawa antenna, developing and managing our government practice and projects, strategic planning for the Quebec practice and managing projects for English speaking clients (mostly in retail and distribution). However, given that my wife could not practice as a doctor in Canada and the kids had meanwhile reached high school age, we decided to come back to Belgium in 1986.
What was your focus back in Belgium?
My first project was the Strategic Planning project for the Flemish Government with Guido Gysemans as the client partner. From 1988 on, I was responsible for BeLux financial services clients. We got involved and established a lasting relationship with all the major players in the BeLux. This was the time when projects became very large with former Ippa Bank (which was aborted) and GBlux, which became a major success story. I hired many local people during that time, including Olivier Gillerot (former BeLux Country Managing Director) and Jean Faltz (former Country Managing Director Luxembourg). I’m very proud that the people I hired did well. Jo Deblaere joined when I returned to Belgium and I hired Ilse Janssens, his current EA! By 1993, the firm was looking for a Partner to launch Change Management in Benelux, which became my next practice.
Change Management was totally new at the time. What was the trigger?
Several large systems implementation projects had not resulted in the expected outcome. We saw that this was mainly because people at the client were not prepared for the changes the system involved. We realized it was important to address the people issue up front. We developed a methodology and integrated it from the start of every systems implementation project, leveraging experience in the Netherlands, where we had acquired a specialized firm. It was a totally new approach and initially clients were suspicious. Their first reaction was “you want to charge more fees”! Today, people understand the need for Change Management.
By then, consulting had overtaken audit as the major earner. What happened next?
I remember that at my first Partner meeting in 1979, the question was already raised as to whether audit and consulting should split. This was due to pressure from the stock exchange, which did not want an audit company to also have a consulting branch. At that meeting, we decided not to split. Ten years later, Arthur Andersen and Andersen Consulting became separate units. I knew many audit Partners well, having worked with them in Hong Kong and Montreal. We had a good relationship. After the split, this became impossible. We were often competing against each other for tenders. Four years after my retirement, in 2001, Andersen Consulting became Accenture.
What skills helped you to thrive in consulting and are they still relevant today?
It’s important to be a good listener, to have great people skills in general, and to be a team player. My rule was always that you should never be afraid to ask someone for their opinion. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness and during my career it was strongly encouraged.
How is life after retirement?
When I retired, my wife’s career became our main focus. She wanted to follow specialist training in tropical medicine. So, we both went to Ecuador where there was a program on Onchocerciasis or river blindness. She already spoke fluent Spanish, so I needed to catch up! While she followed the training, I spent three months living with a family there to learn the language. We had to return to Belgium earlier than expected for family reasons, but we still get to speak Spanish when we’re at home in Spain. Otherwise, we spend our time traveling around the world, following the birthday parties of our grandchildren, gardening, staying active and healthy.
Your ‘Accenture’ legacy is passed on through your son, Adriaan, who followed in your footsteps…
Initially, Adriaan did not want to work for the same firm as his father! Also, there was a rule that family members could not work in the same office. But one year after I retired, Adriaan joined Andersen Consulting. He had a lot of interviews with other firms, but liked what he saw and thought, why not? Today, Adriaan’s role in Dubai and Saudi Arabia is very similar to mine in Hong Kong. He is growing a new practice in a fast-developing region, chasing lots of new opportunities, facing challenging choices, hiring the best people. And he took his family with him. When I chat with Adriaan about the firm, I get the feeling not much has changed. Of course, there are no partners anymore and almost half a million people working there! But, Adriaan has the same sense of ownership that I felt. The same feeling of responsibility to the firm and its people. It’s an attitude and way of thinking that dates back to the earliest days of the firm. On my recent guided tour of the new Belgium office at Gare Maritime, I felt that unique spirit. It’s an impressive building and it feels exciting to work there!