Your partner in British Dutch Business

anton valk

Anton Valk is a name that is synonymous with the Anglo-Dutch trade relationship. As chair of the Netherlands British Chamber of Commerce (NBCC), Anton has spent more than a decade navigating the ups and downs of this crucial relationship for both countries. Despite facing a rocky start when he took over the chair position, Anton persevered and went on to become one of the most respected leaders in the business community.

Anton's tenure at NBCC was not without its challenges, as he faced the impact of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. However, through his resilience, Anton proved himself to be a strong and effective leader who is committed to strengthening the relationship between the UK and the Netherlands.

In this interview, we reflect on Anton's time at the helm of the NBCC, discussing the challenges he faced, the lessons he learned, and the legacy he leaves behind. Through our conversation, we gain a deeper understanding of the man behind the role and the impact he has had on the business community. So, let's dive in and discover more about Anton Valk's journey as chair of the NBCC.

How was your start at the NBCC?

I became familiar with the NBCC in 2004 when my company NedRailways (later this name was changed into Abellio) won an NBCC award, which was celebrated in the impressive surroundings of the Institute of Directors at Pall Mall. The award was handed out by Tony Ruys, the CEO of Heineken at that time. NedRailways subsequently became a member, In 2012, after stepping down as CEO of Abellio, I was encouraged by both ambassadors to revive the NBCC which was in a state of disrepair. It had become a service organization that mainly provided services to the government and received less than 50.000 euros in membership fees, not sufficient to sustain a professional organization.

To turn the NBCC around we reduced costs and moved to a more economical office in The Hague. However key was that in 2013 more than 25 companies joined the NBCC as premier members. This was a new category of high value membership which I copied from the British Quality Foundation of which I also was a director. To convince companies to become a premier members we received help from both ambassadors and the British Trade Minister, Stephen Green, who was focused on expanding local British chambers. I also wanted to renew the board and introduced teleconferencing for board meetings to make the board attractive for senior executives from our members with a high workload. The transformation of the NBCC into a membership organization with the targeted 50 premier members was completed in 2016 before the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom.

You have also faced many challenges in the past decade such as COVID and Brexit. What has been the biggest challenge?

I want to mention three major challenges. The first one was in 2012 to transform the NBCC in the first three years of my chairmanship into a flourishing membership organization. The second one was in 2020 to react swiftly to the effects of COVID-19 which created much uncertainty, also for the NBCC. The third one was the challenge I saw for the NBCC to continue playing a role for its members and stakeholders in the bilateral post-Brexit environment. This led in 2019 to the introduction of the “NBCC strategic business dialogue”, a structured programme which broadened our scope from only Brexit to new key areas such as sustainability, technological innovation and diversity and inclusion.

For over ten years you have been the chair of the Board of Directors. What accomplishment are you most proud of?

I’m not quickly proud. If so, it is about my colleagues who made it possible where the NBCC stands today. We came a long way since 2012 with a dedicated board and team leading to the well-run organization of today with 220 members of which 2 platinum and 67 gold (formerly premier) members. However, let me give you an answer in relation to the three challenges above.
The successful transformation to a membership organization allowed the NBCC in 2016 to play an important role during the Brexit negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom. These created much uncertainty for bilateral business. Between 2016 and 2020 we organized more than 200 events to create a communication and information platform for our members varying from round tables and sectoral meetings to large events with ministers for more than 150 attendees. That was a major accomplishment for a small team.

In 2000 when Covid-19 caught us by surprise we became one of the first chambers a champion in organizing virtual meetings to continue serving our members. Therefore, we have been able in 2020 and 2021 during the covid-19 pandemic to continue helping our members and stakeholders by being a virtual platform for information and communication in times which were difficult for them. Our reward was the loyalty of our members who nearly all stayed as members despite their own often difficult financial situations.

The NBCC Strategic Business Dialogue made since 2019 a whole new range of activities possible. Most tangible is the NBCC North Sea Neighbours Dinner and awards, which is such a joy for so many people, not only for those who receive awards but also for those who hand out awards. Also, I want to mention the sustainability forum which involves so many active members. It made amongst others the successful contribution of the NBCC to the COP 26 in Glasgow possible and led to the green coaching program in which frontrunners inspire other members with their best practices. There are too many other new initiatives to mention them all here. The only one I cannot resist mentioning is the International Market Entry Coaching (IMEC) programme for first time Dutch exporters to the UK which we did in partnership with the Hague Business Agency and NLin Business. This programme which helped innovative Dutch entrepreneurs to find their way into the UK is a great template for the future.

Do you think there is a possibility that the UK will join the EU again?

Start laughing. Not in my lifetime. We better should focus on the question of how to create the best environment in our bilateral relations to help companies to export or invest in the UK and the Netherlands. Now Brexit is complete with the Windsor Framework we are entering a new phase of bilateral relations and cooperation in which the NBCC can play an important role for our members. The trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) is only the start of what I expect to grow again in a deeper and broader bilateral relation. It is a new era of opportunities led by the challenges both countries are facing and the creativity of the business community to find solutions.

In 2021 in an interview with CGTN you said regarding the new trade relationship between the Brits and other Europeans: "If the border controls are not solved and if governments do not solve the issues, like digital forms, it will become increasingly difficult for perishables to reach their markets,". What do you think of the current situation?

Physical borders are hampering the export of products which are reliant on reliable and swift “on time delivery”. This holds true for food, flowers and other perishables which are an important part of the bilateral trade mix. As the post Brexit sanitary and phytosanitary inspection regime is not yet proven, digitization still needs improvement, and the border control has in some areas staff shortages there are today still too many border obstacles to create the certainty and reliability companies expect. Our members want to continue doing business with the UK or the Netherlands, however, these practical issues must be solved rapidly to make that possible.

Where do you see the best cooperation between the UK and the Netherlands?

That is a broad question. As a former Royal Dutch Navy reserve officer and member of the British Transport Authority I’m closely following what happens in defense and security. I’m so impressed about the cooperation between the UK and the Netherlands in these areas in particular since the war in Ukraine. It gives me much trust that this close cooperation will come back also in the economic area now Brexit is likely be solved. It is not without reason that the bilateral trade between both countries has a value of € 70 billion. Both countries have the same spirit of global entrepreneurship and trade. With the challenges ahead there are many innovative areas for which already seeds for close cooperation are being planted. One of that is the North Sea as one of world’s future largest sources of clean energy.

How do you want the members of the NBCC to think back on you as their chair for over a decade?

I was touched by the praise and nice speeches for me during my farewell at the recent NBCC North Sea Neighbours Dinner, which said it all. Thinking back to myself, it is not so much about my legacy. It is about the difference the NBCC has made during the past more than 10 years and the colleagues who always made the extra step needed to be successful as a small organization. If there is anything personal to respond to your question it is my passion for best practice exchange and better understanding between people of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, the two countries I have the privilege to work and live in. I hope that I have inspired the people I met and worked with as CEO of Abellio, chair of the NBCC as well as in the many other most voluntary jobs I did in both countries, to share this same passion.

What is the most important lesson you learned as chair of the NBCC?

Throughout my whole career, I have started new activities or companies based on a vision, a strategic plan, and the inspiration I gave to colleagues, partners, and stakeholders to join me on a journey. Hence, I feel the responsibility to be successful. In the case of the NBCC, it was the challenge to create virtually from scratch a membership organization which offers value and is respected by its members and stakeholders and for which people want to work or want to be on the board of directors. As a bilateral chamber of commerce, we only can financially afford a small team while there are so many opportunities in promoting bilateral trade and investment and supporting our members. The most important lesson from more than 10 years of NBCC is that you can make with a small team of committed and dedicated colleagues a big difference when you structure and limit your activities, closely listen to your members and stakeholders and involve them in what you plan to do.

What advice would you like to give your successor?

In my view finding a good successor is one of the most important tasks of a sitting chair. So, I want to start by saying that I’m so pleased that Diederik van Wassenaer is the new chair. Diederik has all the experience and competencies to be successful in this role with the opportunities and challenges of the new post Brexit environment. Today the NBCC is a membership organization with loyal members who are connected to the NBCC through the programme of the Strategic Business Dialogue and a service offering which provides the NBCC with a solid revenue stream. I do not feel I need to give Diederik any advice on how to run the future NBCC and what his priorities should be. It is such a pleasure to have the opportunity for a proper handover and I wish him all success as the new chair.

What aspects are you going to miss about your job?

I’m sure I will mostly miss the interaction with people. It is a great feeling to chair a productive meeting to which all participants have contributed and to create with the board and staff a strategy going forward. It is a privilege to participate in round tables with members and stakeholders about interesting topics as well as to perform in seminars. The NBCC always brings people together so chairing it is an ideal place for interaction with people around bilateral cooperation which is so close to my heart. It will not be easy to find another platform to do so, but I will look out for it.

The last couple of years the NBCC has made a significant commitment to sustainability. The NBCC’s participation at COP26 and COP27 and events regarding sustainability and climate change are a testimony to that commitment. Why is it important to you personally that companies put effort into this topic?

We are today in the middle of a transition to a more sustainable world driven by the looming crises in climate, raw materials and biodiversity. To solve these challenges requires not only urgent global cooperation between governments but also creates many opportunities for companies in developing new products and services and in creating new markets. I strongly believe these products and services will make up in the coming decade a growing share of the bilateral trade between the Netherlands and the UK. It is for that reason we have adopted sustainability as one of the focus areas of the NBCC post Brexit. This is also an area where we feel we can represent and advance the interests of our members by sharing their views with both governments. That led as an example after an intensive preparatory trajectory with our members to the joint statement to both governments for the COP 26 in Glasgow.

How should the UK and the Netherlands collaborate to increase sustainability?

To solve the urgent challenges for a more sustainable world close cooperation is needed between both governments, as well as research institutions and the private sector in both countries. It would be great if the United Kingdom joins Horizon Europe to have funding for bilateral research projects as an example to transform the North Sea into a sustainable energy hub and CO2 storage facility. But also, to find ways in which both governments can learn from each other in specific sectors where one of the countries is ahead. Finally, as the interests of both countries run often so parallel it would be great if they can jointly operate at international conferences such as the COP with opportunities for the private sector in mind.

Looking at your CV you had a very successful and impressive career. What advice would you like to give you to the younger generation of Anglo-Dutch entrepreneurs?

I would advise Anglo-Dutch entrepreneurs that despite Brexit Britain is open for business while the Netherlands is an ideal springboard to enter the whole of the European Union.

I was able to pursue in 2001 my dream to organically build up a leading Train Operating Company in what I thought before was a very close and protected market. When I started in the UK in 2003 Abellio had 15 staff, when I stepped down in 2012 staff had grown to 12,000 people. Abellio is a great example of how to open the British market is for a Dutch business. So I want to encourage all Dutch entrepreneurs to come to Britain if they look for a new market. London is not only a financial centre, but it is also a centre of creativity and digital innovation. And outside London Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Cardiff, Belfast, Glasgow and Edinburgh are great centres of excellence in many areas of business.

As NBCC chair I have met many British entrepreneurs who entered the European Union from the Netherlands. Not only speaks nearly every Dutchman English, but the country is also prosperous and stable. It has an excellent digital network while logistics is second to none. I did business in Germany and France and I can guarantee you that it is easier to do business in the Netherlands.

Finally: you have 3 beautiful daughters and many grandchildren. I’ve heard from your colleagues that you are a wonderful father that always supports his children. Now that you are stepping down as chair of the NBCC, what are you most looking forward to?

After I stepped down as CEO of Abellio in 2012 I have strived for a different balance between my professional and personal life which was much more tilted towards the latter. So, I could make time for all the activities I want to do with my family and circle of friends not only in the Netherlands but also in the United Kingdom. Being chair of the NBCC did take me in average 1 to 2 days a week so that time will become available for new activities. I have not decided what to do with that time yet, considering different alternatives. But I like to continue doing things I enjoy and believe in, which positively contribute to society, with which I can make a difference with my experience and expertise, and which give me the opportunity to work with other people. All in all, I look forward to continuing to bring people together as I did during my tenure at the NBCC to which I look back with so much pleasure.

Anton Valk's leadership and contributions to the NBCC will undoubtedly leave a lasting impact on the Dutch-British business community. His legacy will continue to inspire and guide those who follow in his footsteps, and his achievements will be remembered as a testament to his dedication and commitment to promoting business relations between the two countries. We wish him all the best in his future endeavours and thank him for his outstanding service to the NBCC.