KPMG Meijburg is pervaded by a macho culture

NRC Handelsblad
Tuesday October 17th 2017

After a conflict in which they were almost assaulted by a senior executive Ad Aerts and his protégé had to leave the tax law firm KPMG Meijburg in 2015. Aerts: “The company is pervaded by a macho culture.

His collection of paintings – most of them figurative – “covered two corridors” at the tax law firm KPMG Meijburg in Amstelveen and now stands wrapped in plastic in the corridor of his new office. He still keeps his papers in a KPMG wallet, shortly before the opening of his new enterprise.

It is as if tax lawyer Ad Aerts (59), who provides tax advice to multinationals and the super-rich, wants to show that it is a coincidence that he is starting on his own. That it is an accident that his labour dispute publicly exposed the sick corporate culture at Meijburg.

This week, Aerts is opening TaXeCo Tax Lawyers, together with his protégé Karim Aachboun (30, also ex-Meijburg). They are starting out as partners in a large office in the Schoen building, the former ING headquarters in the Amsterdam Zuid Business District. They will shortly be joined by a number of other tax lawyers, some of them trained by Aerts.

They already have clients. He took with him a number of large family businesses, multi-millionaires and multi-billionaires that he had been advising for years. His departure is a loss for Meijburg anyway, both commercially and in terms of knowledge. Multinationals such as ASML, General

Electric and Dutch Railways paid Meijburg EUR 750 an hour for tax advice from Aerts. He was also the final judge of the quality of his colleagues’ work.

In 2015 Aerts and Aachboun became embroiled out the blue with the top of Meijburg, which propelled the immensely secretive tax law firm into the public eye. The split followed a clash in which board member Wiebe Cnossen nearly came to blows with Aachboun and Aerts.

The occasion was silly, the consequences were not. Aerts, in a short speech to colleagues, had expressed himself in favour of Aachboun’s promotion to commercial management position. Cnossen wanted to get rid of Aachboun and made his anger known. Aerts then wanted the Board and other partners to take a stand, but they sided with Cnossen – which meant that Aerts and Aachboun had to leave.


The incident was an eye opener for the man from Heemstede: “I worked at Meijburg for 28 years and was to stay there until my retirement. After all, business was booming. But the incident has shown me the other side. Meijburg cultivates a special kind of people. There is a macho culture that stimulates jumping the queue and internal intrigue. Post is literally removed from colleagues’ in-trays in order to thwart them and pinch consultancy jobs.” Meijburg never commented on the case.

Good books

That is the consequence of the internal accountability mechanism, which is also common practise at many other advisory offices – says Aerts. “The only thing that matters at Meijburg is the number of billable hours. If you record too few, you have to go. At the same time junior staff are not supposed to approach clients themselves. To achieve their billable hours, they have get into the partners’ good books. Partners have contact with clients and assign jobs to subordinates. In this way, they decide over someone’s future at Meijburg.”

This means that migrants can barely gain a foothold, says Aerts, even though tax law is a popular study programme among Dutch students with a migration background. “The integration of women went fairly smoothly, but things are quite different for new colleagues with a Moroccan, Turkish or Surinamese background. Many were hired, but the greater part did not make it. This was mainly due to the lack of social acceptance at Meijburg. They were assigned an insufficient amount of work and then had to leave because they did not record enough billable hours.”

White ravens

This also seemed to be the fate of Karim Aachboun, a Moroccan Dutchman who grew up in various working-class neighbourhoods of Utrecht and joined Meijburg as a trainee in 2008. Aachboun was spotted by Aerts, who was in charge of the “White Raven Club” (of upcoming talent at Meijburg). He, too, struggled to secure enough billable hours.

Aachboun eventually beat the internal accountability system by doing his own acquisition work armed with a Quote 500 list of wealthy Dutch. This strategy was successful: where many of Meijburg’s commercial approaches ran aground, he recruited a number of large companies and rich families as clients. This was due to his “natural talent for cold calling” – according an internal Meijburg publication.

“The conflict that led to Karim’s and my departure was prompted by jealousy and anxiety”, says Aerts. “I believed that Karim should receive all the praise he deserved, but Cnossen did not like him. He probably felt outshone and lost control of himself. I have no better explanation.”

The fact that Aerts was ejected by his fellow owners from the organization for which he had worked all his life, took a heavy toll on the man that was used to success. Who flew across the world to consult with Saudi princes about the tax problems regarding their horses stabled in the Netherlands. Who provided tax advice to one of the richest families in Japan and to his “His Royal Highness Prince Aga Khan”, an extremely wealthy religious leader, philanthropist and businessman, who manages a part of his assets in the Netherlands.

In June 2015, Aerts had a stroke and ended up in hospital. This was due to stress, according to his neurologist. His confidence in the rule of law was shaken as well. “This escalated row has shown me how magistrates interact. As an ordinary citizen I had misjudged that. One of my associates at Meijburg, who was closely involved in my dismissal, was also a deputy justice at the Court of Appeal in The Hague. I am convinced that this affected both my own court case and that of Karim. And not to our advantage.” Proceedings on this point are still pending.

The acquittal of Sören Lerby

In the meantime, Aerts and Aachboun have rekindled their business relationship and are starting a new company, at a time when multinationals are economising on tax advice. One of their focal areas is the world of football, from which Aachboun has made many acquisitions in recent months. Aerts is no stranger to football either.

Thus, Aerts was a tax advisor on the team assisting Danish top footballer Sören Lerby in the late 1980s, in a major criminal tax case regarding Ajax. Lerby, who had arranged for NLG 1 million of his sign-on fee relating to his transfer to Bayern München to be paid into a foreign bank account, was eventually acquitted – thanks in part to Aerts – and did not have to pay tax.

These kinds of niches are attractive, says Aerts. “Because of the economic crisis of recent years, companies increasingly tend to employ in-house tax lawyers. By now, Shell employs more tax lawyers than Meijburg does, and the same applies to other large companies.”

“I can remember that Shell flew in eight partners of KPMG from different countries to Houston to present their ideas on taxes – and that only three that offered the biggest tax savings were implemented. Shell was too large to implement more than three big tax ideas each year.”

“For that reason, Karim and I focus on tailor-made advice”, says Aerts. “Assisting family businesses and wealthy individuals requires a special type of advice. Large offices make such advice excessively expensive and complicated. They go overboard on the paperwork, as if a client needs to receive a lot of paper to justify the price of the advice. We are going to do things differently. And we will do so on our own behalf, rather than for Meijburg.”