A move to Amsterdam
For Glenn Fassett, who sits on the company’s board and is General Manager of International Operations, opening NHR’s European head office in the Netherlands was not just a new business challenge but also the beginning of a new chapter in his life, in a new country. “Life is an adventure, as is often said -it’s about the journey – not the destination.”
Network Hardware Resale was set up by Chuck Sheldon back in 1986. Chuck’s son John joined in 1994. The company originally focused on selling pre-owned IBM 400s out of a garage in Santa Barbara. Their concept proved to meet a real need. The entrepreneurial duo quickly broadened into a fuller range of pre-owned network equipment.
Glenn was the fifth employee to join Network Hardware Resale. “We pioneered the pre-owned Cisco market. What set us apart from the competition was that we weren’t selling ‘second-hand’ stuff but refurbished products, extensively tested and meeting the highest quality standards. Plus, we were offering long warranties. That combination of significant cost savings coupled with great warranties made our concept new to the market. Our client base in the US just ballooned and we realised that what we offered had so much more potential, not just in the domestic market but abroad, too.”So it was only logical that expanding internationally was the next step. Because NHR already had contacts in European countries including the UK and Germany, the company decided that the first market it would crack would be Europe.
Ideal operating base
Glenn explains, “We pretty quickly decided to locate our European head office in Amsterdam. The UK was expensive and didn’t provide us with the continental European distribution center we were striving for. We investigated Germany as well. Right there between them is the Netherlands, with its excellent infrastructure and the internationally-oriented city of Amsterdam – for us, the ideal operating base from which to start serving European customers.”
And so it was that Glenn got on the plane to Amsterdam in 2002 to make something of their expansion plans. NHR was accustomed to shifting gears and making on-the-spot decisions. Strict timelines were set arrange the office premises plus his own accommodation. “It took us five days to track down a suitable and affordable location for our European branch. That left just a day and a half to look to arrange personal lodgings for myself – but we managed that, too, and flew home with both contracts signed.”
Just a few months later, Glenn, and two other US colleagues who had relocated to the Netherlands with him, constituted NHR’s first European sales office: a single room of a few dozen square feet in an office block on Amsterdam’s Delftlandlaan. He was also getting to grips with his new apartment, in a quaint building from 1642 on a city-centre canal path, Brouwersgracht.
“It may sound a bit strange to people that have been born here but relocating from the US – California, especially – to Amsterdam felt like time travel.” From a part of the world where everything’s new, I had rolled up in Amsterdam: a city that oozes history, with a unique culture, with centuries-old canals and buildings on every hand. I often found myself wondering how a city so old can feel so new.”
It was not just the city that was new: pretty much everything was different than he was used to back in the States.
“When you move to a new country, your life is turned upside down: nothing is done the way you’re used to. The simplest things – like subscribing to a phone line or electricity or cable TV, or arranging rental contracts and work permits – all suddenly take much longer, because you don’t know the way things are done. And, of course, there’s the language barrier. The Dutch generally do speak English really well, thank goodness, but a lot of forms and contracts are only available in Dutch.”
Differences often exaggerated
Asked what the biggest differences have been between life in the Netherlands and the US, Glenn replies, “In your first few months in a new country, you’re inclined to exaggerate everything: the positives and the negatives. After that, you kind of balance your view. Some things that struck you as odd at first become normal; others of them you positively start appreciating in time. For instance, I was taken aback at first that you have to wait around so long for the check in a Dutch restaurant. In America, they give you it as soon as you’ve finished the meal. But now I actually appreciate that having to wait. It allows you to enjoy your meal.”
“The cycling culture was another thing I really had to get used to at first. I was so used to taking the car for absolutely everything back home. American society totally revolves around cars. And all of a sudden, here I was cycling to work. I was needing to weave my way through the Amsterdam traffic jungle, between taxis, trams and thousands of other cyclists. It’s quite impressive that more accidents don’t occur given how little distance exists between the bikes and cars.”
“Something I’ll never get used to is that when you make an appointment for, say, a plumber or handyman to call, you just get a timeslot of ‘between nine and noon’ or ‘sometime between one and five in the afternoon’. People are forced to take half a day off from work just for a blockage or a broken washing machine: nobody would put up with that in the US”
NHR’s launch of European operations went smoothly enough. Even though the company was fairly unused to the European scene and their company was new to the market, the first successes weren’t long in coming. As Glenn recalls, “What took up most of our time in the early days was concluding contracts and holding talks with potential customers and partners. Based as we were in Amsterdam, that process went very smoothly. The city is a true melting-pot of professionals and businesses from every part of the world, so it doesn’t take you that long to build up an extensive network. And that bears fruit in all kinds of ways.”
“What was important to NHR, for instance, was that we were able to hire people from all over Europe to meet our clients’ expectations – and we service the whole of Europe from here – that our customers always get served in their own language. Here, we never had trouble finding the right people with the right background. And whoever we couldn’t source locally was only too glad to relocate here: Amsterdam has massive allure as a city to come and live in.”
“For me personally, no less, it was Amsterdam’s international soul that was a major help. I came across so many people in the first few months who, like me, had moved here from another country, who I could share my experiences with. I remain friends with a number of them. Meeting each other in that kind of challenging situation creates a strong bond.”
Right from the start, Glenn has appreciated the Dutch way of doing business. “Dutch business culture is not just highly professional but also marked by its openness and tolerance. Also, the Dutch are very direct by nature, and I find that a very positive attribute. You know exactly where you stand with them, which means that in general, matters can be dealt with quickly and efficiently. I also lived and worked in Asia for a few years, and it takes you significantly longer there to get behind the facade and realise what people really mean by what they say.”
NHR was considerably helped by the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency (NFIA) in starting up his European head office: “For a new arrival who’s not yet gotten his head around things, it’s fantastically useful to be able to work with a government body like the NFIA. They helped me not just when I was looking for a suitable location but also in finding partners in areas like personnel recruitment and legal support. Because the NFIA is a neutral body, they can offer you several options to choose from: they’re not in the pay of any party.”
A good home base
NHR Europe has burgeoned over the past decade. Just one year after the launch, the company outgrew its Amsterdam premises and moved to a building in Lijnden, on the city’s western outskirts, where its European distribution centre remains located.
And Glenn is expecting a fresh wave of significant growth in the coming years: “We’re keen to continue expanding our European operations in the next few years. To that end, we’re beefing up our sales and support team right now: we’re intending to double their size in the coming year.”
Looking back, Glenn is greatly satisfied with the decision made ten years ago to choose the Netherlands: “The Netherlands has turned out to be a good home base both for NHR and for me personally. And Amsterdam I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. Wandering down the canals on a Friday evening, past houses that have stood there for hundreds of years and the twinkling reflections of bridge lights in the water, how can you fail to fall in love with this city?”
Glenn chuckles when asked how Dutch he reckons he himself has become: “I’ve lived in many different places around the world and I really feel a world citizen more than anything. But I do get on my bike every weekend like the best of them to call in at the fish stall round the corner for a raw herring!”