The Netherlands, a tiny country of 17 million people, suddenly rules the world, and it’s getting kind of weird. In every sport and in every industry from semiconductors to entertainment, the Dutch are not just players, but often dominate.
This occurs to me every time I turn on the tele and see Max Verstappen win a race, Michiel Huisman starring in another HBO series or Dutch companies developing next-gen tech in photonics or quantum computing.
This was driven home for me this weekend when we were in Brussels for the Tour de France and Mike Teunissen won the opening stage. On Sunday, the Dutch team made it to the final game of FIFA Women’s World Cup, only to come up short against a dominant United States team looking for its fourth championship in a row.
This is more than a fluke. If it were one or two industries or one or two sports, yeah, we’d be talking about an anomaly. Like Giannis Antetokounmpo being the NBA’s most valuable player or the Finn’s dominance of digital games. Life is always about numbers, and the math is wildly against the Netherlands when it has to compete against the United States, with 330 million people, China with 1.4 billion or Germany with 82 million.
Which is why we
rarely never see countries of comparable size such as Switzerland and Denmark dominating across the board like the Netherlands. Yet it does.
Though we have seen this movie before. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Netherlands dominated global trade from coffee shops to Tulip Mania, with colonies from what’s now New York City to South America to South Africa to the South Pacific.But in the modern era, Dutch domination seems unlikely when the entire country has a smaller population than New York State and global competition is so fierce.
Yet the evidence is overwhelming:
Autos, bicycle and motorcycle racing
In Formula 1, at a time when legends such as Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are in their early 30s and in the latter stages of their careers, 21-year-old Dutch driver Verstappen is waiting in the wings, clearly the best of a new generation of drivers. At the Austrian Grand Prix last month, Verstappen passed at will veteran drivers, then emerging French star Charles LeClerc’s Ferrari to – in true Dutch style – dominate.
In motocross, Jeffrey Herlings was one of the top-ranked riders in the world before he was injured. He sat out part of 2019, but is back with a victory in Turkey.
And as noted above, Mike Teunissen, Dylan Groenewegen and Dutch Team Jumbo-Visma are dominating the early stages of the Tour de France.
Dutch actors, producers and directors began playing outsized roles in Hollywood starting with “Blade Runner” star Rutger Hauer and director Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct”) in the 1980s.
But since 2010, the Dutch are starting to replace the British as dominant with stars such as “Game of Thrones” Michiel Huisman, who – admit it – you thought was American. Carice van Houten has had hit after hit in the U.S. including Melisandre in GoT. Newcomer Marwan Kenzari is the “sexy Aladdin” in a movie that’s approaching $1 billion in global box office.
There’s also Lotte Verbeek as the witch Geillis in “Outlander” and our personal favorite Gaite Jansen who played the buck-wild Russian princess in “Peaky Blinders: “When there are no rules, the women take charge.” The line should have been “… the Dutch women take charge.”
Finally, no Dutch actor has had greater success than Famke Janssen, who landed roles as everything from a Bond Girl to playing Scottie Hargrave in the long-running TV series “Black List.”
Behind the scenes, dealmakers such as industry insider Pieter Jan Brugge, who has written for – or produced – some terrific movies and TV shows including “The Insider,” “Glory,” The Pelican Letter” and “Heat.”
Currently, Brugge is a producer for the hit TV series “Bosch,” which has Dutch touches. For instance, the main character is Harry Bosch, whose birth name is – wait for it – Hieronymus. Yes, the same as the famous phantasmagorical Dutch painter and native of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands.
See! This isn’t all in our imagination.
The Dutch currently rule the photolithography business. Which means they rule the semiconductor industry. Some staggering percentage of computer chips are made on photolithography machines from ASML, which is located in our HQ city of Eindhoven.
NXP is similar in that they make most of the chips used in phones and cars. So between the two companies, almost everything that depends on semiconductor technology connects back to the Netherlands, not just The Valley and China.
The Dutch also just introduced the first solar car, Lightyear. So look out Tesla.
Royal Dutch Shell is the most valuable company in Europe based on total revenue, taking in about $500 billion in 2018. Big deal, right? Well, think about this – Shell generates more top-line revenue than Toyota, Volkswagen, BP, Exxon Mobile, Berkshire Hathaway, Apple, Samsung, Amazon and General Motors.
The Netherlands is also (one of two) headquarters for the global consumer-goods giant Unilever along with London. Unilever is the No. 5 or No. 7 largest consumer conglomerate in the world depending on which list you read.
Beer and food
Heineken is the second largest brewer in the world behind next-door neighbor AB InBev, based in Leuven, Belgium. Which is not exactly a shocker. But what is is that this flat, chilly, wind-swept county is the No. 2 food exporter in the world behind the U.S. How? Science ….
Fintech, banking and insurance
A preview of things to come? Last February, Amsterdam-based fintech company Adyen replaced Peter Thiel’s legendary PayPal as eBay’s primary payment processor!
ING is Europe’s largest bank by revenue, and insurer Aegon is one of Europe’s largest insurance companies.
So, why do the Dutch rule the world? As an ethnic Jew, this is a sensitive question because anti-semites through history have always accused Jews of secretly controlling the world. We wish.
Some of the poorest kids I grew up with were Jewish, and none of the Jews I know are really in the same financial league with our most successful WASPy friends. While no one I know is really super rich, there’s no question that the majority of my Jewish cabal are middle-middle class to upper-middle class. Mostly that’s because we stress education and community. Just like the Dutch.
Here’s why I think the Dutch excel, even if they don’t really rule the world. Well, not that we know:
• Education. Everyone talks about Finland, but the Dutch education system is a good deal more successful. It starts with Dutch parents giving their kids the freedom to explore and socialize instead of pushing them to the limit like American parents.
And this is going to sound silly, but the fact that literally from the time they can walk, Dutch kids bike everywhere (in a very safe environment) gives them a sense of freedom and mobility American kids just don’t have.
The universities here are among the best in the world and crank out top-notch engineers and physicists along with entrepreneurs, financiers, actors, producers and dealmakers.
• Quality of life: Americans burn out; the Dutch burn bright. Why? Because the Dutch take time off to be with friends and family while re-energizing so they can work when they need to work and focus when they need to focus.
The Dutch government assures quality of life with strict labor laws and lots of benefits for families including limits on predatory companies that exploit the free market in the U.S.
• Along these same lines, the Netherlands – like Sweden and Denmark – benefits from a more collectivist society that wants to see everyone succeed for the benefit of all, not just an elite few as in the U.S. To that end, education is available to everyone. Healthcare is available to everyone. The vast majority – 80 percent – of Dutch really are middle class.
• Little or no corruption. Are you going to strive to build a world-class company in an environment where a Putin or Orbán will come along and take it from you or make you sell it? What good is it to be rich if you’re dead or in prison?
We see talent arriving every day in the Netherlands from Russia, Romania and Bulgaria, where everyone is blatantly on the take.
• English. If you’re going to do business on a global scale or become famous, you’d better speak the language of international business and entertainment. Few countries have citizens as fluent.
• Multiculturalism that works because people assimilate. Talented, productive people come here from other regions including Africa and the Middle East and boom! They’re Dutch in one generation.
Alas, there is one category you’ll notice that’s missing here and – to the consternation of my Dutch friends – the Netherlands haven’t produced a whole lot of football stars since Marco van Basten and Johan Cruijff.
To me, that’s not really surprising, because what makes the Dutch most competitive is that they’re totally pragmatic, understanding the difference between competitive advantage and nationalist fantasy (cheap shot at Brexit). They leave it to the dysfunctional countries such as Brazil to create football stars, then use their unlimited wealth to import them to Ajax.
Obviously, the U.S. remains the dominant world power. But for the Netherlands to be so small, yet so influential, is testimony to the power of intellect and unity.
About the author:
Terry Boyd is co-founder of Dispatches Media, based in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Boyd has been a military reporter, business reporter and an entrepreneur, founding Insider Louisville, a pure-play digital news platform, in 2010.
Boyd & Family are long-time expats and have lived in Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.