Failure was not an option

NRC Handelsblad
Tuesday January 17th 2017

Karim Aachboun, tax advisor

Tax advisor Karim Aachboun, who left KPMG Meijburg after an incident which received extensive media coverage, speaks up for the first time. He was successful but had to “piss off” when he got too close to the top of Meijburg.

Written by Merijn Rengers & Camil Driessen 17 January 2017

Translated by Anne-Jet Ogilvie, edited by Gigi Levens

“Bloody hell, how awesome is it that I can be here at all?”, Karim Aachboun (30) thought when he first walked through the marble-lined corridors of tax law firm KPMG Meijburg in Amstelveen as a trainee in 2008.

In the following years, the Dutch-Moroccan worked hard to become a tax advisor to multi-millionaires and billionaires, charging an hourly fee of EUR 500. He often wondered what he had done to deserve this. How could it be that Johan Cruyff called him for tax advice relating to the players of the Barcelona football team? How he, the son of a migrant raised in working class neighbourhoods of Utrecht, was meeting Louis Vuitton executive and multi-billionaire Bernard Arnault.

Of course, this was due to the reputation of KPMG Meijburg, the most prestigious tax law firm in the Netherlands. And to Ad Aerts, a partner at Meijburg and a top tax lawyer from Heemstede, who had taught him all the tricks of the trade.

Then again, his success was also due to his own attitude: not only was his mantra “failure is not an option”, he also had commercial insight and a knack for finding the right tax solution.

“I always wanted to be a successful businessman and do something with numbers. But that I would compete on this level never occurred to me even in my wildest dreams”, says Aachboun. His career rocketed. By the start of 2015 – when he was 28 – he was already in the running for a senior commercial role at Meijburg.

Early in 2017 his life looks quite different, though. Two years earlier, in March, Aachboun’s mentor Aerts was nearly assaulted by Wiebe Cnossen, a partner at Meijburg, after Aerts had publicly praised his pupil to the skies. That incident marked the onset of the tumultuous departure of Aerts and Aachboun. In vain did Meijburg try to cover things up: the affair was extensively covered in publications such as De Telegraaf, Vrij Nederland, Trouw and NRC.

Aachboun did not talk to the media. He wanted to tell his story just once, to NRC. In the luxurious Amstel Hotel, where he and Aerts regularly had lunch with Quote-500 millionaires who they provided with tax advice. “After a year of much publicity, it is time for my version.” This is his story in six chapters.

1 Early years

“My grandfather came to the Netherlands in 1970 as a temporary labourer and worked in the construction industry for 30 years. When my father turned 16, he came here as well, and also spent 30 years working in the construction industry. He did not know anything else.

For her first son Aachboun’s mother had a totally different course in mind, says Aachboun. Early on, at primary school, she noticed that Karim was different. He obviously played soccer – wearing his hair in a mullet just like the Italian soccer player Roberto Baggio. But he also was fond of arithmetic. “People noticed that I did not need to make an effort to keep up. My mother saw that as a threat: she was worried that I would become lazy and make no of my talent. At my mother’s insistence, my parents decided to devote much time and money to my education.

Aachboun, the eldest of four siblings, stood his ground in the Utrecht working-class neighbourhoods. His family still lives there. He sailed through secondary school and chose to study fiscal economics at the University of Amsterdam. “Before that I had never been outside my city and knew nothing of the world. So, I took my mother with me to the introduction day. I recall entering class and hearing English being spoken. All the first-year text books were in English as well. ‘How the hell am I going to pull this off?’ I thought. But I had to succeed. Failure was not an option.”

2 The mentor

Many students plunged into the Amsterdam student life, but Aachboun stayed at home and focused exclusively on his studies. Four years later, at the age of 21, he graduated and entered the grand office of KPMG Meijburg as a trainee. In a brand-new C&A suit he suddenly walked amongst fraternity types whose names were not Karim, but Wiebe, Jurgen or Gert-Jan. There he was among the crème de la crème of the Dutch fiscal world, who handled even the tax affairs of the Dutch royal family.

In his very first week he was approached by a man he did not know who asked him what his ambitions were. He made a point of appearing single-minded. “I want to become a top tax advisor and work at the top of this trade”, Aachboun answered with bravado. “Well, in that case you have a long way to go”, was the reply.

That man was Ad Aerts, a partner at Meijburg and a distinguished tax lawyer charged with spotting talents, which the firm called “white ravens”. A week later Aerts materialised at Aachboun’s desk, asking him to come along. They drove to a tailor in the centre of Amsterdam, where the baggy C&A suit was replaced by a smart bespoke suit. A few days later Aerts took him to a barber, where the final remnants of his Baggio mullet stayed behind.

Aerts took Aachboun to the Rijksmuseum to teach him about culture, and to Michelin-starred restaurants to teach him about etiquette. “Did you know that potatoes are not to be cut but should be eaten with a fork? That dates back to the time when knife blades were made of iron, which corrodes when it comes into contact with potatoes”.

3 Success

As one of his success factors, Aachboun names his self-conceived “quadrant thinking”, in which he attempts to act like a chess player, only making those moves that benefit him and his clients. Another success factor was the trust of Aerts and the way in which the latter taught him, without prejudice, to navigate a completely different world. “People at Meijburg compared us with the main characters of the film Intouchables.”

The two of them became increasingly close, says Aachboun, and not just because he was a nice fellow. Aachboun had a talent which few possessed: he secured several new clients from the top segment of Dutch industry. He gleaned their names from the Quote 500, the Dutch rich list.

Real estate entrepreneurs, major shareholders, family businesses: many received a call from Aachboun and several became clients. Visibly proud, he mentions an e-mail he received from a prominent real estate family, which said: “You not just talk the talk, you also walk the walk”. “Well, that means that you are on the right track. Clients do not easily compliment you. They pay very well, so they expect a job well done.”

With enthusiasm, he recalls how he and Aerts – “We really were a golden pair” – played a significant role in the move to Amsterdam of the European headquarters in Amsterdam of the Israeli chemical giant ICL, for which Prime Minister Mark Rutte had been lobbying as well. “That resulted in something tangible: three hundred new jobs for the Dutch economy.”

His star shined more brightly with every new client. For although Aachboun now dressed in Hugo Boss suits, was able to converse about Dutch masters and wagyu meat, what mattered at Meijburg in the end was to generate the greatest possible revenue.

4 The conflict

On Tuesday, 24 of March 2015, Aerts showered Aachboun with praise in front of several dozen staff at his department, since Aachboun had secured a Dutch family from the Quote 500 for the second time in a short period. Shortly afterwards the door of Aerts’ office swung open and Wiebe Cnossen, one of three members of the Meijburg board, entered with clenched fists shouting: “piss off Karim, piss off Karim!”

Aachboun dashed out of the room, looking for help. “I turned around and saw Cnossen lunging towards Aerts and nearly assaulting him.” Cnossen had heard about the speech and was not pleased at all. He believed that Aachboun was receiving too much praise and he felt by-passed by Aerts, according to later court documents.

Aachboun was outside, his legs trembling. “It was like I had just run a marathon. I really panicked. How would you feel if somebody charged at you with clenched fists? And not just anybody, but a member of the board?”

Aachboun did not know what to do, went home and called in sick. After ten days, he had gathered enough courage to go back to work. However, except for Aerts everybody acted as if nothing had happened. The pair asked Wilbert Kannekens, the Chairman of the Board, several times to acknowledge that aggression such as that displayed by Cnossen was not allowed, says Aachboun. But Kannekens refused.

“It haunts and distresses you. I slept poorly and kept thinking: ‘When will they start an investigation? Will they even start an investigation?’ At first, I tried to repress it, but you cannot do that forever.”

In May, Aachboun learned that his next performance review would be conducted by a partner for whom he had never worked. And that, despite his achievements, this review would be negative. Suddenly, there was also dissatisfaction about Aerts.

“That was when I realised that things were turning ugly. They wanted to cover up the aggression incident and assassinate our characters by pretending we were performing poorly. But honestly: what is the chance that the two victims, who had been advising multi-millionaires and billionaires for years, suddenly both ceased performing well?”

5 The lawsuit

Early in 2016 Meijburg brought dismissal proceedings to sack Aachboun and engaged Ferdinand Grappenhaus, Chairman of the Board at Allen & Overy. “This is when I realised I was in a strong position”,

says Aachboun. “They cannot resolve this, for why else would they go for the best Dutch labour law attorney?”

The Court of Amsterdam ruled that Meijburg had acted “in a seriously culpable manner” towards Aachboun in the aggression incident and its aftermath. Meijburg “could have been expected to hold Cnossen accountable for his behaviour”. Meijburg was ordered to pay EUR 75,000 compensation to Aachboun.

Not good enough, he thought, especially when he found out that he had been in line for promotion. “That aggression incident torpedoed my nomination for the post of commercial director”. Aachboun announced that he would appeal and Meijburg decided to settle. That Aachboun received nearly one million euro, as suggested by De Telegraaf, has been dismissed as “bull” by Meijburg in NRC.

Aachboun is not allowed to divulge anything because of the confidentiality agreement he signed. “All I can say is that I am satisfied with the amount.” When asked, he says that the Mercedes GLE Coupé which he drives nowadays cost about EUR 120,000. He also mentions four charities to which he intends to donate money, including the Johan Cruyff Foundation, which will receive EUR 6,000. “I donate every year, but my wallet is now in considerable better health because of the settlement.”

Because he won the case so easily, he does not find the racist incidents at Meijburg he recalled in the courtroom all that relevant anymore. These include an e-mail he claims to have received from a partner: “Fewer, fewer (Moroccans) – can you fix that, Karim?” “At that time, I ignored discrimination and did not let it stop me. What do you achieve by playing the victim? At the end of the day, you just have to succeed.”

The Court ruled that discrimination had not been proved, for that matter, considering that Aachboun had a successful career.

6 The aftermath

Despite the settlement, the affair is not over for Aachboun. In his opinion, dubious things occurred around the time of his departure. He refers to a recent article in De Telegraaf, which describes how the Public Prosecution Service is conducting a judicial investigation into Meijburg Chairman Kannekens for pressuring Aerts, who was a witness in the dismissal case against Aachboun.

Another example: Leendert Verheij, the President of the Court of Appeal of The Hague, rejected a complaint from Aerts without even reading the attachments. The complaint concerned Valentijn van Noorle Jansen, a partner at Meijburg who also works as a deputy justice and was allegedly involved in putting Aerts under pressure.

Meijburg used this rejected complaint in the dismissal case against Aachboun. “In this way, they tried to influence the subdistrict court judge in my case, along the lines of ‘what can you add to that, Your Honour? The President of the Court of Appeal has ruled that Aerts was not pressured to lie.’”

Aachboun does not have a new job yet. He says that different companies have approached him through LinkedIn and that there are talks about consultancy services. He has no contact with Aerts, because the latter is currently involved in an arbitration case about the terms of the termination of the partnership. Likewise, he never spoke to his other co-workers. “On the day I was allowed to collect my belongings after 5pm, the whole department was deserted, evacuated or something. It was really unpleasant after working with these people day after day for years, and not be permitted to be civil and say: ‘I wish you well.’ At this moment, this is still an open file to me, an open end.”