Van der Vorm: the Dutch billionaires who keep schtum

The Rotterdam-based Van der Vorm family is one of the world’s richest clans, but if it is known at all, it is renowned for its silence. A canny bet on spectacles provided its latest multibillion-dollar windfall. 

“The highest form of bliss is living with some kind of folly,” the late Dutch shipowner, Nico Van der Vorm, told The New York Times in 1984, quoting the 16th-century scholar Erasmus. The head of the Holland America Line was in town toasting the launch of another cruise ship. Even so, it was a rare outburst from a member of a dynasty which, if known at all, is renowned for its silence. A lot has happened to the Van der Vorms since 1984: for a start, the Rotterdam-based family has discreetly become one of the world’s richest clans. But Nico’s philosophising was pretty much the last word they have ever put on the record.

A massive cash pile

“Even as the family avoids the limelight, its fortune has continued to grow,” says Bloomberg. Their combined fortune (the second-largest in the Netherlands after C&A’s founding Brenninkmeijer family) is put at around $11.2bn, “though individuals may privately own other assets”. After exiting shipping in 1988, when the cruise business was sold to Carnival for $625m, the family piled everything into a new investment vehicle – the publicly traded Hal Trust, which has since returned almost 2,000%. Probably the most pressing question facing the current generation of Van der Vorms is what to do with “a massive pile of cash”?

Hal has investments in about 20 firms spanning everything from timber and flooring to aviation and energy. But it was a canny bet on specs that provided the Dutch billionaires’ latest windfall, says BusinessInsider. They are set to scoop an extra $4bn for their trust after selling eyewear maker GrandVision to EssilorLuxottica (the Franco-Italian empire behind Rayban) for $8.1bn. The Dutch financial establishment is abuzz with what they’ll do with it. “Nobody from outside knows,” one banker told Bloomberg. Despite being publicly-traded, Hal’s inner workings are “shrouded in secrecy”.

The Van der Vorms’ involvement with Holland America Line – a freight and passenger carrier founded in 1873 – dates to the Great Depression. The founder of the family fortune, Willem Van der Vorm, saved it from bankruptcy. He was quite a player, says Les Echos. He arrived in Rotterdam at the end of the 19th century to work as a bellboy and, after tactically switching trades to accountancy, wangled control of a coal freight firm, which he later sold at huge profit.

The decision to bail out Holland America Line turned out to be equally shrewd. Faced with the growing threat of transatlantic air travel, subsequent generations reorientated the company to focus on tourist cruising. Nico’s long reign, beginning in the 1960s, “was pivotal in shaping” the modern family’s fortune, says Bloomberg. He took the call to sell the cruise business to Carnival and pushed for a more international model, moving Holland America’s HQ to Seattle and its holding company to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. The Hal trust has been run by non-family members since Martijn Van der Vorm stepped down five years ago.

Some unwelcome publicity

“Rich Dutch families have good reason to be discreet” – as well as priding itself on “egalitarianism”, the country has a history of kidnaps of the scions of industrial magnates. Nonetheless, despite earning praise for their philanthropy, the secretive Van der Vorms have drawn criticism for shielding their dealings from scrutiny in a Caribbean tax haven – earning a recent mention in the Panama Papers data leak. The Panama revelations “sparked protests, government inquiries” and resignations from compromised lawmakers. True to form, the Van der Vorms said nothing.