When times were good, Cees van der Hoeven dazzled the small, sober Dutch business world with American-like style. He went on a global acquisition spree, promised and delivered hefty returns for shareholders, and helped pioneer the use of stock options to reward managers.
Now it turns out that van der Hoeven also imported an unwanted aspect of U.S. corporate life: a big accounting scandal that forced him from his job and has left Royal Ahold NV -- parent of Giant Food Inc. -- struggling to hold on to the international businesses that have made it the world's third-largest food retailer.
"Every student who dreamed of getting into business had a poster of Cees on the wall," said Pieter Couwenbeugh, food and retail editor for Het Financieele Dagblad, a leading Dutch financial newspaper. "Until two years ago, he was Superman. He was our Jack Welch," Couwenbeugh said, referring to the former chief executive of General Electric Co., one of the biggest names in U.S. business.
In January 2002, van der Hoeven was named "Mass Market Retailer of the Year" by the U.S. trade publication MMR. It lauded him as "perhaps the world's first global retailing visionary" and quoted him delivering a typically brash comment: "In 1998 I said we'd double our sales in five years. We doubled them in two. Now I've said we'll double our sales again in three years -- and now, people are starting to believe me."
But on Monday, major bookkeeping problems were disclosed at two of van der Hoeven's foreign acquisitions. One is in Argentina and the other, U.S. Foodservice Inc., is in Columbia, Md.
The news wiped out 64 percent of Ahold's value on the Amsterdam stock exchange in a week and triggered at least five investigations by U.S. and Dutch legal and regulatory authorities. It also has spawned predictions that much of what van der Hoeven constructed will have to be dismantled, as the company unloads businesses to repay the $13 billion in debt he accumulated in his buying binge.
It was a bitter departure for van der Hoeven, 55, a tall, bespectacled financial specialist described by associates as highly intelligent with a forceful personality. In November, under pressure from investors to step down after months of bad news about profits and accounting controversies, he had defiantly told analysts: "I'm here to stay, whether you like it or not."
It isn't known if van der Hoeven was personally involved in the accounting in question. The main problem was at U.S. Foodservice, where rebates from suppliers were inflated in such a way that profits for 2001 and 2002 were overstated by a whopping $500 million.
But the widespread view in the Dutch financial and retail world is that the company had been headed for trouble for a year or more, largely because van der Hoeven's fixation on growth had begun to backfire. Many say it led him to make purchases in countries and businesses that Ahold didn't know well, and to try to conceal bad news from investors.
"It's very difficult to analyze the quality of the management of a company when you acquire it. Growing by acquisitions is more risky than growing by opening more of your own stores," said Albert Breekveldt, a senior analyst at the Julius Baer brokerage in Amsterdam.
The company is saying little, citing the official probes, and van der Hoeven is away in Austria skiing. He was photographed there this week, looking tired and sitting with a man identified as his lawyer.
Van der Hoeven (whose full name is pronounced CASE van der HOOVEN) always had ambitious plans for Ahold. The executive, raised in Curacao in the Caribbean, worked first in the petroleum industry. He was recruited by Ahold, based in Zaandam outside Amsterdam, to be its chief financial officer in 1985 even though he had no experience in the food industry.
The company was then looking for outsiders to lead it after the coming retirement of its revered chief executive, Albert Heijn, whose grandfather founded the Albert Heijn supermarket chain in 1887 -- the core of the original firm and still one of its key profit centers.
Heijn recalled in his memoirs that van der Hoeven complained about not being promoted immediately to chief executive. A Belgian executive, Pierre Evaraert, got the job for four years until van der Hoeven took over in 1993.
Now retired in England, Heijn said on Dutch television this week that he felt "shafted" by U.S. Foodservice employees, whom he blames for this week's events. Upon retirement he had presented Ahold with a gray, modernistic stone sculpture of a woman holding two shopping bags. The signed inscription reads, "Lest we ever forget for whom we work." Ahold has been the second-most-popular stock among Dutch individual investors, who can invest in a company stock fund by buying stamps at supermarket counters.
When van der Hoeven took over, Ahold already owned stakes in U.S. chains including Bi-Lo and Giant-Carlisle. But van der Hoeven accelerated the global growth dramatically. From 1996 to 2001, he carried out nearly 50 acquisitions that boosted sales from 16.6 billion euros to 66.6 billion euros. When van der Hoeven took over, nearly half of Ahold's sales were in the Netherlands. Today that portion is down to 12 percent, and the company has 450,000 employees in 27 countries.
Van der Hoeven's oft-proclaimed goal was to transform Ahold into the world's largest food concern, overtaking Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and France's Carrefour SA. Ahold would buy what van der Hoeven called "thoroughbred" grocery chains and preserve their local brands and identities to avoid upsetting customers. Then it would combine back-office, delivery and other logistical operations to achieve efficiencies, and use its size in the marketplace to get good prices from suppliers.
Ahold acquired Giant, of Landover, in 1998. By March 2002, the chain's 162 stores in the Washington-Baltimore area were ringing up $4.63 billion in annual sales, commanding 40.1 percent of the market and far outpacing Safeway, its largest rival, said Jeff Metzger, publisher of the trade newspaper Food World.
Giant's market share is up three-tenths of a percent since 1999, an impressive feat given its growing list of competitors. And Giant plans to open one new store a month for the next 12 months, said Barry Scher, vice president of public affairs at Giant. Any talk about Ahold selling Giant because of its current troubles is "totally unfounded," Scher said.
In the world of top Dutch business executives, van der Hoeven was a live wire. At meetings of the global corporate elite in Davos, Switzerland, each winter, he led the festivities when he and his countrymen traveled to a nearby village to play a game similar to bowling.
"The whole Dutch delegation would go by bus. Cees would sing in the bus. He was sort of the cheerleader," recalled Jacob van Duijn, chief investment officer at Rotterdam-based Robeco, the Netherlands' largest mutual fund group.
Van der Hoeven was better paid than most Dutch chief executives, but several associates said he was driven primarily by a thirst for accomplishment and recognition. His compensation for 2001 included total direct income of just under $3 million and a gain of $1.5 million from exercising stock options.
Van der Hoeven's motivation was, "We want to be the greatest. I'm the greatest," said van Duijn, who met van der Hoeven many times. "With Dutch CEOs, money is never the dominant force. It's the reputation and being successful."
The first serious sign of trouble emerged last April. The annual report for 2001 highlighted net earnings of 1.1 billion euros, as calculated under Dutch accounting rules. Buried in the back, however, was the news that under U.S. accounting standards, the figure was only 120 million euros.
The following month, the company abandoned its target of 15 percent profit growth. Then, for the second quarter of last year, it reported its first loss in three decades because one of its Argentine partners defaulted.
In retrospect, some experts criticize Ahold's purchase of U.S. Foodservice and two similar companies shortly thereafter. They say those companies' food wholesaling and institutional businesses were too different from the retail supermarket operations in which Ahold traditionally excelled.
"Food service is a whole other culture. The difference is so very important that you have to have a grip on it," said Peter Karsten, a veteran Dutch food executive who has known Ahold and van der Hoeven for many years.
Finally, some speculate that van der Hoeven's constant admonitions to strive for profit growth, and the company's adoption of American-style stock option and other bonus plans, may have encouraged employees to cut corners to hit their numbers.
"In my view, the management held too long to the 15 percent target of earnings growth. I think part of the problem at [U.S.] Foodservice was that if you didn't show 15 percent growth, then you had a difficult time," said Rob Horn, head of sales at Oyens and Van Eeghen brokerage in Amsterdam.
One big question on investors' minds is why Ahold's supervisory board of directors didn't do a better job of overseeing van der Hoeven. He offered to resign in May, but the board rejected his offer. One explanation may lie in the chief executive's strong powers of persuasion.
"Legally the directors were independent, but in any situation where you have a big personality, people find themselves believing what the big personality is telling them," said Pieter Lakeman, chairman of the Foundation for Investigation of Business Information. It is an independent shareholder watchdog group, which is demanding that van der Hoeven return to Ahold all compensation except 100,000 euros in annual salary since 2000.
Faced with such an individual, Lakeman said, "the critical stance of the board just fades away."
Staff writer Dina ElBoghdady contributed to this report from Washington.