Sunday, September 26, 2010

Nothing like DC

I've been in the Netherlands for more than a month now, in Amsterdam for almost four weeks, and I started my job at ING about three weeks ago. Nevertheless, it sometimes feels as if I'm still in DC. When I see a tv-reporter comment on American politics in front of the Capitol, it still feels like it's right around the corner. When I see NY on tv or in a movie, it feels like it's just a short busride away. When I go for a run through the Dutch meadows or city-parks, I imagine passing the DC zoo and crossing Rock Creek Park. When I read about the World Bank and the IMF, it's like I'm reading about my neighbors, and when I ride my bike, it feels as if the next turn could just as well be Pennsylvania Avenue. Sometimes I want to speak English to my Dutch friends, and I have to remind myself all the time that shopkeepers speak Dutch.
But there's no White House anywhere near here, and instead of an eloquent black president I have to listen to a stuck-up, mispronouncing queen. Instead of Penn-avenue's wide lanes, I'm now walking the narrow streets next to the canals in Amsterdam, and the financial center where I work consists of a few high-rise office buildings and lots of social housing. DC's summer heat has been replaced by a gray sky, a cold wind a frequent showers, and New York once again turned into a fancy destination for a long trip abroad.
It's hard to get used to this change, but when I look at the beautiful 17th century houses in Amsterdam, when I hang out with my Dutch friends who had been so far away the past two years, and when I hear about the great things I'll be able to do at ING, I realize it's not that bad in the Netherlands. I'll just have to learn to appreciate it all again.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Road tripping

Everybody knows that the US is a huge country, but I wanted to see it with my own eyes. I also wanted to see all those places that I had heard about, but never visited: New Orleans, Texas, the Colorado, Los Angeles, the sequoias etc. The best way to do this, of course, is by making a road-trip. First, Chloe and I wanted to rent a car, but luckily we found someone who wanted his car driven from DC to San Francisco - exactly where we wanted to go.

So on August 16th, we got into the Honda Hybrid - me with all the stuff I would take to the Netherlands after our trip - and headed south. It was really hard to leave DC behind, I enjoyed the two years that I lived there so much. I met great people, learned a lot, got some great experiences - and met the love of my life! Luckily, she would stay with me for the rest of the road-trip, and will someday also move to the Netherlands.

But as hard as it was to leave DC, I had a great journey ahead of me that I had been looking forward to and dreaming of for months. The US would finally reveal itself as we headed further and further to the West. Driving so far and seeing so many different places was like a 2-week long trip of intoxication. Every town and every road offered new impressions, new amazement and new experiences. I won't bother you with all the details, but just describe some of the highlights:

In Savannah, we stayed at Tybee Island, a wetland about 20 miles east from the city. While it was great to be able to swim in the sea in the morning, the most amazing experience was a overwhelming thunderstorm the first night we were there. After dinner, we walked on the beach while huge clouds drifted through the sky. It wasn't raining, but every second another lighting bolt illuminated the sky, the sea and the beach. After enjoying this wonder of nature for about 30 minutes, we made a dash to the car and made it just in time before the downpour.

In New Orleans, EA Sports launched a new football-game and as a promotional event the software-developer sponsored a free concert with Cowboy Mouth and Galactic. All football-fans gathered and sang along to Cowboy Mouth's "anthem" of the Saints winning the super-bowl and danced to Galactic's funk. On our way to Austin, we made a short stop at Beaumont, where the first large Texan oil-field was discovered at Spindletop, and we visited the Gladys City Boomtown Museum, named after the drilling company that discovered the field.

In Austin, we enjoyed our time at Highball, a great bar with live music and bowling alleys, the Continental Club, the many vintage clothing stores, the great cafe's and restaurants (organic, vegetarian, fair trade, locally farmed, you name it) and the largest urban bat population in the world! Every day at sunset, the bats would fly out form under the S Congress bridge over the Lady Bird lake and hunt the many insects there. It results in a spectacle of hundreds of bats flying around, watched by both tourists and locals.

In Utah, the rock-formations in Arches National Park and the vastness of Canyonlands were incredible. Walking around, we felt like Alice in Wonderland discovering Lewis Carroll's imaginary world - nature had come up with things crazier than a Mad Hatter or a Chester Cat! I can't really describe it, you just have to go there sometime.
On our way to California, we crossed Nevada through the Loneliest Highway (route 50): 300 miles of road with just a few old mining towns for gas and food.

And then: California! Finally I saw that famous state. In San Francisco, I marveled at the hippie-infested Haight-Ashbury district, where beautiful fashion shops and a great record store where lined by street-artists, creative minds and bums. A very interesting place. I was also happy to discover Japan Town, a huge shopping mall with all kinds of Japanese stores inside and around it. It made me feel as if I was back in Tokyo.

In LA we spent most of the time swimming and relaxing at Venice beach, but I also had to see the beach-town El Segundo (after listening to A Tribe Called Quest since I was 14 years old) and Hollywood boulevard. The first was nothing special at all, the second was just a large tourist-trap.

After LA, we went back north, and after visiting a friend of Chloe we went camping at King's Canyon, where we saw some huge sequoia trees. When I was a child, I played the song Meta Sequoia by the Dutch guitar-player Harry Sacksioni, so it was great to see where he got his inspiration for that song.

And finally, we headed back to San Fransisco, from where I took the plane back to the Netherlands. It was an amazing way to end my stay in the US, seeing so many different things in such a short time, like a compressed, miniature version of the previous two years.

Goodbye United States, I miss you.

Monday, July 26, 2010

On the road

So I’ll be moving back to the Netherlands by the end of August. Even though I hoped to stay in the US for a bit longer than two years, I didn’t manage to break with my post-high-school routine of moving to a different country on at least a biannual basis. But it will be good to be closer to friends and family, and living in Amsterdam will be a new experience for me after living in Beerze and Leiden.

Before moving back, though, I am planning to get to know the US better by making a road-trip to California. The tentative route will include Savannah, Georgia; New Orleans, Louisiana; Austin, Texas; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Moab, Utah; Los Angeles, California and finally San Francisco. It should be a good mix of cities and natural parks, hostels and campsites, coast and inland and desert and mountains, so I’m excited. Finally I’ll get to see the great natural beauty of the US I’ve heard so much about.

But it’s also fun to be on the road in DC, and to get to know this city better. With that purpose – and to make some money for the long road-trip – I’ve started working as a bike-messenger. I was always intrigued by the fearless guys (and some girls) who ride their awesome looking bikes through traffic to deliver documents and packages all over town as quickly as possible. So now I get to go from law-firms to government departments, from travel agencies to embassies and from NGO’s to accounting firms to file documents, deliver paychecks, apply for visas and pick up financial statements for audit. I is a great way to get to see the buildings where organizations such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, the DC District Federal Court, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Human Rights Watch etc. are located.

It also offers me the opportunity to get to know DC from a whole different perspective. Instead of the well-equipped, protective and comfortable environments of universities or office buildings, the streets in DC expose you to the weather and traffic, and allow interaction with homeless and hustlers. Talking to other bike-messengers and service staff of office buildings also shows the less glorious side of DC, where people don’t get the salary, security and perks that go with a job at a law-firm or a government agency. While most people visualize such more glamorous occupations when thinking about DC, the majority of those that are born and raised here end up doing the more mundane tasks, and now I finally have a chance to experience that life-style too. I must say, I enjoy it for the time being, but I’m glad that I have the prospect of a job at a Dutch bank, where I don’t have to worry about exposure to the elements, getting into an accident or the amount of my income. It will also be nice to learn new things again, because by now there are few surprises left in my day-to-day activities.

Another great way to explore the area around DC is on a motorized bicycle. After getting my motorcycle endorsement in May, I finally hit the road on a rented bike (at the front in the picture) a few weeks ago together with Mike, whom I had met at the motorcycle training. It was great to see the countryside in Maryland without the confinement of a car. A motorcycle also offers a much more direct experience of the speed, power and sound produced by the engine, making it less of a mind-numbing activity such as driving a car can turn into. I was always wondering what it would be like to ride a bike, and now I finally got to experience it! And I must say, it made me appreciate and understand America’s love of motor-vehicles a bit more.

That was even more so after Mike took Chloe and me to a car-show in Manassas, about 40 miles west of DC. There, car-lovers who had bought and restored classic beauties such as old Ford Mustangs, Chevrolet Corvettes, Dodge Challengers etc. showed off their cars, often with the hood open to make the engine visible. Strong symbols of the time when the US car industry was still alive and well. Why don’t they make cars like that anymore?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Banking on the Future

The last semester at the George Washington University was a great introduction to the next stage of my studies: real-life application of everything I’ve learned so far.

As far as courses are concerned, Global Investment Banking gave an interesting overview of the main activities investment banks engage in, accompanied by great stories based on the experiences of Mr. Seale, who started his own investment bank and had been teaching the course for a good number of years. It made me all the more interested in finance, but I also realized that I didn’t want to help just any company go public or take over another company. I want to do that for companies that play a pivotal role in economic development and sustainability, such as power generation, infrastructure, finance or telecom. Those kind of industries is where I want to apply my knowledge.

For my International Portfolio Management course, I had to put together a portfolio of securities to maximize the return on the portfolio. While this was an interesting exercise, I also realized that I wanted to engage in more long-term investment with the goal of helping a company (or rather a community or country) grow, not just to make money for myself or my client.

For the Capstone project, I developed a financial model for a waste-to-energy plant. That was a lot of fun, and it made me realize that I like to work with numbers and manipulate them in Excel. It's like solving a complex puzzle using the countless tools offered by Excel. That is something I want to learn more about and get more experience in in the near future.

Apart from coursework, I learned a lot from my experience with SIFE GWU. While I finished my project that aimed to teach artists how to be more successful in marketing their work, I didn’t manage to find a successor and build a sustainable team. So SIFE GWU doesn’t exist anymore. I guess it takes more time and dedication, more motivated people and a longer breath to set up a team. I still like to implement my own ideas, though, and I hope to start something up again in the future, but hopefully in a more professional, thorough way.

Another lesson I learned during the last semester is that job search, career and compensation are quite different in the US and in the Netherlands. I sent out many resumes to American companies, applying for all kinds of jobs with investment funds, development agencies, clean-tech start-ups and financial institutions, but barely heard back from them. Even if I would have gotten a job, I probably would have been doing some kind of back-office task for the first few years before moving on to the interesting stuff. I might have gotten a really nice salary, but not many vacation days or other benefits. Basically, what I realized is that a master’s degree doesn’t mean much here. You need at least a couple of years of experience and well developed technical skills to start at an interesting position at any company.

In the Netherlands, on the other hand, I think many employers expect more from recent graduates, especially if they have a master’s degree. Because you should be smart, learn quickly and be highly motivated, you are involved in a wide range of activities, including decision making processes. At least, that was already the case when I interned with the procurement department at ABN AMRO. Even if the salary might be a bit lower, this is more than compensated by a wide range of benefits, including a good amount of vacation.

So I not only applied for jobs in the US, but also in the Netherlands, and a few weeks ago, I passed the final round of interviews with ING Bank and got accepted in their ING Talent Program. This traineeship contains a six-week long intensive banking course, followed by a few rotations at different departments. I applied for their Commercial Banking program, and hope to focus on structured finance, which includes the financing of energy, infrastructure and power projects. ING aims to expand their lending activity in these sectors, so I think it will be a great opportunity to get some experience – learning more about what I like while applying everything I’ve learned so far.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Shaking things up a bit

Every once in a while I read the op-ed by Dutch comedian Youp van 't Hek on the website of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. I love the way he discusses high-profile events from the lowlands. He never fails to point out how narrow-minded some of the key players in those events can be, and how large egos can harm such a small country. Some of the best examples of course are the sell-out of ABN AMRO to RBS, Santander and Fortis, after which CEO Rijkman Groenink left what used to be the biggest bank of the Netherlands with a bonus of about 26 million euros. Or Dirk Scheringa who orchestrated the rapid growth of the DSB Bank through misleading credit terms for high-risk consumers. This eventually led to a massive walk-out of disgruntled customers, pushing the bank into bankruptcy and depriving the US speed-skating team from one of their main sponsors.
But one line of Youp van 't Hek, which he used in his show "Scherven" (Broken Glass), has echoed through my head for the last few days. When, during a dinner, one of his friends asks the father of another friend several tough questions, such as "Why, as a banker, do you provide credit to companies that contribute to the destruction of the planet?" or "Why do you think you are driving a high-occupancy vehicle because you have your own driver?", the atmosphere at the table soon deteriorates - but at least it shakes things up a bit.

Lately, quite some things have been shaken up considerably. First of all, the Dutch coalition has collapsed, after the coalition-parties couldn't reach an agreement on the duration of the Dutch mission in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. Personally, I am glad that the Labor Party stuck to their deadline of 2010 to pull out. In the beginning I supported the Dutch presence in Afghanistan because I believed we did a good job there (especially compared to the indiscriminate destruction by deadly US drones), but after seeing several documentaries, notably the one by Tegenlicht, or Backlight, I realized how surreal it is to go into a country as Afghanistan and think you can solve problems that you have nothing to do with. So it's better to pull out. Even decades of foreign intervention will not change the local situation, so why waste money on it. Obama's surge is just an excuse to impose a deadline by which the US can leave and say: at least we tried. In the meanwhile, the Taliban are waiting until those over-equipped and scared foreigners move out so that they can take over the country again.

But back to the Dutch coalition. It's an interesting experience trying to explain the procedure to an American: "So, the coalition parties didn't agree on one issue of their agenda, and therefore they can't cooperate anymore" - That's how much coalition parties trust each other. And now we're delivered to the mercy of the Dutch population. Unfortunately, the Dutch population has shown rather populist tendencies lately, giving the right-wing Party for the Freedom 17.4% of the votes, according to a poll by Synovate. That would give it the same number of seats in the Parliament as the Labor Party (27), while leaving the Christian Democratic Party the largest with 31 seats. I hope the Dutch people will come to their senses and realize that radicalization can't solve problems, but as our deputy-CEO said lately: "Something always comes out if you shake things up a bit."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

RETech 2010 + Snowmageddon

From February 3-5 the Renewable Energy Technology Conference and Exhibition took place at the Convention Center of Washington, DC. During this event, specialists gathered for speeches, workshops, exhibitions and discussions about the latest developments and initiatives in Renewable Energy Technologies. Of course, Taylor-DeJongh was there to promote their investment banking services, backed up by years of experience in the power and energy sector. In the few hours that I helped manage the booth on Friday, numerous people stopped by to pick our brains on financing opportunities for renewable energy projects, ranging from solar plants and new wind-turbine technology to energy efficient buildings and biofuels.
One of the other exhibitors at RETech 2010 was Concord Blue Energy, a US license holder of a German technology that allows power-generation from waste through pyrolytical gasification, resulting in high energy efficiency and very low CO2 emissions. Solar Millenium also had a booth on the exhibit floor. This German Concentrated Solar Power manufacturer was one of the first companies to build large-scale parabolic trough plants in Europe with the Andasol projects in Spain. It's subsidiary, Solar Trust of America, is planning to do the same thing in California, Nevada and Arizona. Covanta, one of the leading waste-to-energy companies in the US, was also there to promote its products. Even though no waste-to-energy plants has been built in the US over the past 20 years, this will hopefully change now that dumping trash into a landfill is becoming more and more expensive. Another interesting company was Suzlon, the Indian wind-turbine manufacturer that has a large market share in the US market through its subsidiary REPower.
Apart from companies, states and countries also promoted their RE capabilities, mainly to attract investments in projects and start-ups or trade. Among them were Nevada, Ontario, Italy, Denmark, Japan etc. And of course many government agencies and industry associations offered their services during the trade fair.
It was great to see so many people who were actively promoting renewable energy solutions, but it is unfortunate that so many governments still drag their feet to provide the right incentives to make this market really take off. Especially given the current economic climate, many investors and lenders are wary to take any risk at all, making it very hard for new technologies to raise sufficient funds for commercial scale development.

During a breakfast-event at the law-firm K&L Gates, Senator Barbara Boxer of California, one of the sponsors of a climate bill that was introduced in the Senate, emphasized how the US will end up lagging behind while countries like China, Japan and Germany develop state-of-the-art RE manufacturing and development capabilities. So there are certainly members of Congress who would like to see a climate bill move forward, but given the time it takes to adopt a much-needed health-care bill, I don't have much confidence in any climate-legislation being implemented in the US this year.

While RETech 2010 was supposed to last until Friday-evening, the snowstorm that was coming to DC made the organization decide to close up early, and by 1:30pm most exhibitors had left the floor. While it was still relatively easy to move around last Friday, the snow really came down on Saturday and made it virtually impossible for cars to even leave their parking spot. Many people participated in huge snowball-fights that occured throughout the city (including yours sincerely), while others recorded the transformation of DC into a ski-resort. Metros were only running on the tracks underground, and on Monday the federal government was closed. Yesterday things became a bit better, but last night it has been snowing again so all streets and cars are once more covered under a thick layer of water crystals.

Our street

At the intersection of 16th St and Columbia Road

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Last semester

Christmas-decorations in the suburbs of Detroit can take on gargantuan proportions.

A new year, a new semester, a new blogpost - finally. Let's just say that blogging isn't on the top of my priority list when I also have classes, an internship, work and a girlfriend. But I do want to keep you informed about my life here, so let me give you a quick summary of last semester.

I started an internship with Taylor-DeJongh, an financial advisory firm that has an extensive track record of helping companies and governments raise funds for oil&gas, infrastructure and power projects. A great place to learn more about financial modeling, capital markets, project finance and the energy sector. I'm personally mainly interested in renewable energy, but for most of the industrial era and the foreseeable future, fossil fuels have and will play a pivotal role in the economic activities of any industrialized country. So I was happy to learn more about this industry: the major players, the major technologies, the supply chain, the political and social issues etc. I always wanted to know more about it, and it is great to get an insider's view now. I have been working there three days a week from September until December. That was a very short period considering what there is to learn about project finance and energy, so I'll continue working for them this semester.

For my studies I took the courses international business finance, international banking and financial statement analysis. But what's probably more interesting is what I did next to work and study. One great event - from my perspective - was the Dutch celebration of the establishment of New York 400 years ago, when Henry Hudson sailed up what's now called the Hudson River in 1609 and the Dutch established a trading post there. Part of the celebrations was a job-swap between people from New York and people from Amsterdam. First, the Dutch would spend a week with their counterpart in New York, and then the New Yorkers would spend a week in the Netherlands. During these exchanges, they were asked to keep up a blog about their experiences. A friend of mine, who was involved in organizing this program, asked me if I could help out translate some of these blogs. I translated the blogposts of the architect, the bartender, the prosecutor, the farmer, the firefighter and the foodbank employee from English into Dutch. It was great to read about their exchange - their different opinions and backgrounds, their similarities, their enthusiasm about the event. You should certainly take some time to read some of the blogposts. They show how people at two sides of the Atlantic Ocean can share a passion for the same profession, work in different systems, learn from each other and bring back part of the experience back to their job at home. The best part of the story is that, when I went to New York in October, I seized the opportunity to go to Jimmy's no 43, the bar of the New Yorkian bartender. When I told him I had been translating his blogposts, he sat down at our table, got us some great beers (and kept them coming for the rest of the night) and told about his job, the job-swap, food and beer (his passion) and we had a great time.

The next time I went to New York was to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends of Chloe's (my girlfriend). Thanksgiving is a big thing in the US, so it was nice to experience it with so many people. I guess it's similar to what I'm used to of Christmas - having a nice dinner with family, but not much more. Christmas in the US, though, is very different. After looking forward to it for the whole semester, Chloe and I rented a car and drove to Detroit -the legendary birthplace of assembly-line production and of Chloe. Most of her family still lives there, so she normally celebrates Christmas in Michigan. It was a nine-hour ride through Maryland, past the coal-mines and mountains of Pennsylvania, the plains and the refineries of Ohio and the lakes and industries of Michigan, to eventually arrive in the suburbs of Detroit. It's amazing to see a city that's so spread out, where cars not only represent a vital part of the economy, but also of people's lives. Without a car, it's almost impossible to get anywhere. To go from a suburb to Detroit proper, you have to take the highway for 15-30 minutes, and you barely see anybody walking on the streets of downtown Detroit. In a way it is a gloomy city, with many abandoned factory buildings (mainly from before the current crisis) and foreclosed houses, but at the same time Detroit evokes a kind of pride in people from the area - the pride of being part of American history, contributing to state-of-the-art mechanical engineering and building up ones life with ones own two hands, depicted in the great mural painted in the Detroit Institute of the Arts in 1932. Now that this lifestyle has become more difficult, that pride might have taken a serious blow, but I don't think it will ever disappear.
One example of what Detroit has to offer, despite a lifeless economy, was Cadieux Cafe. There, great Belgian beer was combined with the rock and roll of the Rumpshakers and a Belgian game called feather bowling (or trabollen, in Dutch). It is similar to playing petanque (a french game) on a giant lane, with a feather instead of the small ball and wooden cheese-wheels instead of the larger balls. It was great to see that this unique part of Belgian culture had found its way to Detroit and was now fully integrated in the local people's pass-time.

After Detroit, we drove on to Chicago to visit more family of Chloe. After the view of a tore-down Detroit, driving into Chicago and seeing a beautiful skyline was amazing. Chicago, where some of the world's first skyscrapers were built, has a down-town area with many elaborate high-rise buildings, a beautiful Millennium park and some shiny sculpture known (and shaped as) the Bean. In Chicago we met many great people, enjoyed the lively (but cold) streets, celebrated New Year's eve in a great bar and Chloe's birthday on the 74th floor of the Hancock building and in a Mexican restaurant.

When all that great fun time was over, we drove back to DC in about 12 hours and went back to work the next day. It was a great intermission of the academic year, a great way to meet many great people, and I'm looking forward to going back there some day.

Now on to the last semester of my studies!