An interview with Tom Willaert
He uses a case to illustrate his approach: “Suppose you have a company and you believe that you require considerable additional financing for a certain period of the year, perhaps as a result from liquidity stringency due to unforeseen growth or a drop in turnover caused by unfavourable exchange rates. Being a good entrepreneur, you pay your bank a timely visit and make your request. And how does the bank react? In total panic! Because your account manager has probably been replaced several times, the bank doesn’t really know you or your company anymore. For them, your request is entirely unexpected.”
Willaert conjures up an image of what such a company might expect: expensive audits, thick reports, and perhaps a place at the special management department.
Entrepreneur takes centre stage
Tom Willaert emphasises that this need not happen. As stated above, part of the problem lies with the banks: with all the cost-cutting and turnover of staff, there is no time left to adequately get to know their clients. Nowadays, to investigate the risks involved in financing, a banker will always insist on bringing in external expertise. This means a considerable price tag for the client.
That is why Willaert’s search for a solution begins with the entrepreneur. “Communication is key. I will always listen first, to find out about the opportunities an entrepreneur sees, find out how the company is running, and what the ambitions are. Then I take a look at the finances. What is the origin of this credit requirement?” He often discovers that entrepreneurs have partially lost sight of their own operational management.
From past to present
“Auditor’s reports often turn out to be history books”, says Willaert. “There is little use in knowing how your company did six months ago; entrepreneurs actually need to look at the future in order to make prognoses and relate those to historic figures.” This is the core of his approach: organising the financial reporting in such a way that the entrepreneur and management team can keep their finger on the pulse of the company.
This may involve long discussions and old-fashioned financial handiwork. Willaert: “I always involve the management. External advice is wonderful, but your own insights gained during the process are infinitely stronger.” This is a process that can be rather confrontational. If structural problems emerge during the financial digging, Wfs is always prepared to help.
Numbers are very capable of stirring emotions. “Sometimes, difficult decisions have to be made, about problems that can be traced back to past policy”, says Willaert. “This is why it is very important to know the story of the entrepreneur and his or her company. You have to look forward in a positive way.”
Tom Willaert firmly believes that “in business, the Netherlands looks to the past far too often, which solves nothing, reinforces the feeling of malaise and undermines self-confidence. You learn from the past for the sake of the future. After all, people learn to walk only after they fall a number of times!”
According to Wfs, nothing is better for an entrepreneur’s self-confidence than to visit the bank with a well-founded and clear liquidity prognosis, present a clear case for financing and then provide a result at the end of the year that well-nigh matches that prognosis. The bank will gain insight, the entrepreneur will gain self-confidence, and operational management will become much more solid.
Naturally, satisfied customers also provide Wfs and Tom Willaert with personal credit and a strong reputation. Tom takes great care to preserve it: “Due to my independent position, I act as a kind of buffer between the parties. These parties include private financiers, accountancy firms, tax consultants and jurists. Banks sometimes refer entrepreneurs to me. After all, a financially healthy customer is good for a bank so my interests lie on all sides, with the relationship taking centre stage.”
Wfs’ interest is always clear: “If possible, Wfs does not work on commission. I want to avoid any semblance of bias. Customers pay a fee for advice. Independence, broad expertise and the personal approach are the foundations on which I wanted to build Wfs – to provide financial services that actually fit that term. I don’t sell products.”
The ringing telephones in the background are testimony that many customers could not agree more. And since colleague Joëlle van Haelst only has two ears, the interview is over. Back to work!