IN THE CURRENT WAVE OF MERGERS AND ACQUISITIONS, HEARING THE DIRECTOR OF AN AUTONOMOUS FAMILY BUSINESS SPEAK IS A BREATH OF FRESH AIR. FABRICE DE WAAL, CEO OF DDW GROUP, CHERISHES HIS INDEPENDENCE. THIS INSURANCE BROKER’S SECRET WEAPON IS HIS HUGE INTERNATIONAL NETWORK
Text by Linda Welther
At DDW Group it’s all about relationships. Clients, insurers and the networks of fellow brokers abroad. “This is our strength. When a Dutch enterprise is opening an office in Malaysia, China, or anywhere in the world tomorrow, we can take care of all of the local insurance through a partner who’s located there. Our network is spread across some 140 countries around the world, with at least five partner brokers per country.”
DDW Group provides risk and insurance advice. The most common policies are cyber, liability, fire, marine, CAR and D&O. Other specialties are employee benefits (pensions) and due diligence, including M&A activities.
“When a company wants to make an acquisition, it engages us to identify the risks.” Clients are primarily companies, of any scale. “We have about five per cent of the Dutch listed companies on our books.” In addition to its head office in Amsterdam, DDW Group also has an office at Kop van Zuid in Rotterdam, specifically for its Rotterdam-based clients. This office, with stunning views over the port area, is where the interview takes place.
Dorens and De Waal Verzekeringen was founded in 1940 by Fabrice’s grandfather Rein de Waal and his former field hockey teammate Wim van Erven Dorens. Their first clients were from the manufacturing industry. In the 1980s and 1990s, technology and IT companies were added, as well as law firms, interim managers, biotech and life sciences companies.
In 1985, Rein’s son Alexander de Waal took over the business. That Fabrice would succeed his father Alexander was not a foregone conclusion. “I’m a very ordinary guy. I’ve cleaned hotel rooms, washed dishes, worked at various departments of V&D, a Dutch department store. In 2008, when I was 24, I wanted to start my own business. My father suggested: why not take care of the marketing activities for DDW? We worked closely together for several years. I loved it. I connected with thousands of prospects, made trips, visited clients.”
This continued until the time when Alexander passed away unexpectedly and Fabrice had to take over. “That was in 2012. At that time, I was the youngest CEO in the insurance industry.”
Entrepreneurship and customer focus, those terms keep coming up during the interview with Fabrice. “We’re very close to our client companies. Service is key at DDW. We work very closely with our clients. They know we’re there for them 24/7. “And our entrepreneurial spirit is always very much alive.
For me, business is sport at top-level. I actually see ourselves as start-ups, we’re continuously reinventing ourselves. Of course, we sometimes take a wrong turn, we sometimes turn back. But we always look ahead: what will the market be like in the near future?
How can we better serve our clients? How do we acquire new business? We’re young at heart, but with 83 years of experience.
“For instance, I wonder if insurance brokers will still be needed in the near future. When you look at the private market, almost all insurance policies are taken out online... What will our added value be in the future? It will have to be found in risk management and risk consulting. Mastering risk is one of our mottos.”
Over the years, DDW Group has always maintained its independence. “Of course, everything is for sale. We have been at a very advanced stage with interested parties. When it turned out that an acquisition would not benefit the relationship with our clients, we discontinued the talks. But we’re still interested in partnerships that will make us stronger. However, it is important that the De Waal family keeps an interest in and control of the company. That way we can maintain continuity for our clients and partners.”
On top of that, DDW Group has been growing in recent years. “I expect this growth to continue. I have noticed that we’re becoming more important to international companies and their partners. Compliance is becoming more important, we’re taking out more local policies for our colleagues abroad. An American fellow-broker can no longer think: the Dutch branch of our client will manage this on its own. They now have to manage their affairs country by country. Cyber insurance has also become increasingly important. Even if a company’s IT is well-organised, it’s still expected to have professional back-up.”
In addition, DDW Group is benefiting, unwillingly, from Brexit. “Since Britain left the EU, British brokers can no longer simply provide cover from England in an EU country. They have to take out a local policy there first and therefore they need a partner to take care of that for them.”
Succession can be a challenge in a family business. “I’m still very young. And as long as my mind is sharp, I won’t stop working. But I do think about the continuity of the business.
“That’s why I’m in the process of recruiting people who can support certain work of key persons and take over where necessary. So we don't find in ten years' time that there’s only one person who has all the knowledge. At DDW, we have good reason for saying: Your future partner. Generations Long.”
Fabrice has one son, Alexander, aged nine. “I don’t know if he likes the insurance business. I do think he’s an entrepreneur. But I'm not going to push him to join the business, my father never did that to me either. What’s important to me is that Alexander is happy in what he does.