Family office director VP Capital: ‘In the long term, only sustainable companies will survive’

Family investment holdings also cannot escape the growing attention to sustainability. VP Capital in the van Puijenbroek family is considered a standard bearer. ‘We want to make our entire portfolio more sustainable. If it doesn’t work out in our historic textile business, it must be thrown out’.

Sustainable investing has gained momentum lately, but that doesn’t throw Guus van Puijenbroek (46) off course in the slightest. As director of the ‘family office’ VP Capital, he invests the assets – around 500 million euros – in the Belgian-Dutch family from Turnhout. It has its roots in work textiles and is an important shareholder in the media group Mediahuis.

Family offices

Family investment holdings are on the rise in Flanders. What drives three entrepreneurial families behind ‘family offices’ and how do they approach it?

Episode 2: VP Capital.

As a member of the fifth generation, Guus van Puijenbroek made a resolute shift to a sustainable portfolio. He is trying to find supporters for this in other family offices in Belgium and the Netherlands, according to a roundtable he organized. ‘We just don’t have enough influence to help the world move forward. We know that the sustainability area and family offices are characterized by patient capital: it is an ideal breeding ground for a sustainable strategy’, says van Puijenbroek on a sunny terrace in his garden.

How do you explain the recent rise in family offices?

Guus van Puijenbroek: ‘We have just experienced a boom in private equity (investment funds that take over companies using debt leverage, ed.). Those funds sometimes paid huge sums that family business owners couldn’t say no to. The family must then reinvest the incoming capital with a family office as a suitable organisation.’

A family office is typically an enterprising family that is often stubborn and believes they can invest their assets better than the average banker.

Guus van Puijenbroek

Director VP Capital

“It is typically about enterprising families who are often a bit stubborn and believe that they can invest that capital better than the average wealth banker (laughing). Sometimes they also want to be able to add their own accents, and that is more difficult with listed shares.’

Are good entrepreneurs necessarily good investors?

Van Puijenbroek: ‘Absolutely not, at least not when it comes to investments in liquid assets such as listed shares. Investing in illiquid companies such as a private company is more suitable for an entrepreneur because the focus is on the long term. I’d rather do that than invest in a broad stock index via a tracker: it’s safer, but also a bit boring. In addition, one notices that the family offices these days make much more out of these private investments, for which you must be able to accommodate a minimum volume. Stock markets have recently become more erratic, and large fluctuations do not go down well in family offices.’

You referred to the previous market boom. What impact did it have on VP Capital?

Van Puijenbroek: “The boom led to a remarkably higher deal flow in recent years: many more possible investments were made. Less pleasant were the handsome sums that private equity threw in. When we were in competition with someone like that for an investment, we fell usually out very early’.

Less pleasant were the huge sums that Pivate Equity threw in in recent years. Then we quit.

Guus van Puijenbroek

Director VP Capital

‘We have to trust companies that choose us because of our expertise and our long-term vision. We never enter a company with a specific exit horizon in mind. This is a big difference with private equity, where an investment period of five or seven years is normal. On the other hand, we expect a dividend: We must have an income from somewhere, also for follow-on investments.’

How is your investment portfolio structured?

Van Puijenbroek: ‘The family has long relied on two assets: the historic family business specializing in workwear and the interest in Telegraaf Media Groep, which has since become an interest in Mediahuis following the merger of the two.’

“When I became director of VP Capital in 2009, we decided to build a truly diversified portfolio with less risk and more stable cash flow. The first step was to invest in real estate with a view to long-term rental. To accelerate diversification, we have also invested in private equity funds. After that, we switched completely to impact funds.’

‘Ultimately, the goal is to make our entire portfolio more sustainable. We do this by reducing the negative impact on existing participants and by achieving a positive effect mainly through foundations. We also report extensively on sustainability in our portfolio via an annual status report.’

Your family office fully identifies with the sustainability agenda. Where does it come from?

Van Puijenbroek: ‘About ten years ago, my wife and I started making impact investments on a small scale. We made some typical beginner mistakes, but also learned a lot from them. In 2018, we argued with the family that sustainable investment should become a key element of our strategy. At that time, we already invested in five sectors – textiles, media, agrifood via a large dairy and arable farm that has been in the family for years, smart industry and real estate – and from the round of all families, three sectors have been added , where we have a sustainable desire to have an impact: health, water technology and the energy transition.’

“In each of these eight sectors, we want to help tackle the biggest environmental and social challenges through our participation in companies, through sustainable foundations and through donations.”

Are there sectors where this is more difficult to achieve than others?

Van Puijenbroek: ‘Each sector faces different challenges. Take our farm for example: making it more sustainable is very difficult there, especially in light of the nitrogen debate. The solution does not yet exist, but we want to be pioneers in regenerative agriculture. We have the resources and the patience. We give ourselves ten years. If it still doesn’t work, the company no longer has a place in our portfolio. The same applies to textiles, also a polluting sector. You can sell those companies to get rid of the negative impact, but that doesn’t solve the problem.’

This divestment without sustainable effect leads to criticism of the sustainability craze, ESG in the jargon. Greenwashing, the inconsistent measurement of ESG scores and the allegedly superior returns on ESG investments have also been criticized. What do you think?

Van Puijenbroek: ‘The criticism is often justified. Therefore, we also screen our portfolio independently for effect. Greenwashing is a topic, but thanks to the new European rules, you will hopefully no longer get away with nice words without deed.’

“I also see great added value in meaningful sustainability brands that you don’t just get as a gift. I am proud that we are one of the first family offices in Europe to receive the B Corp label. It has been a tough journey. We were bombarded with questions about our sustainability approach for a year and a half. We have had to change our bylaws. If we sell one of our companies, we have to ask the buyer for guarantees for a sustainable strategy.’

‘I think the return on sustainable investments is a more difficult discussion. It depends on so many factors. I can only say that we have never achieved better returns since we took a sustainable strategy in 2018, although that could also be a coincidence.’

How do you determine if your investments are making an effective difference in terms of sustainability?

I totally understand if a large American private equity fund doesn’t want to collect sustainability data specifically for us, but then it stops for us.

Guus van Puijenbroek

Director VP Capital

Van Puijenbroek: ‘Before we join a company, we sit down with the management to see if their vision of sustainability is in line with ours. When we step in, it is with a roadmap, where we determine the points for improvement together. The company must also report data that enables us to verify progress. All understanding, if a large US capital fund not especially for us, who will collect data, but then it stops for us.’

A debate about stakeholder capitalism is raging in the United States. The idea that companies should not only look at their shareholders but also wider stakeholders such as the workforce and society would be awakened. What do you think?

Van Puijenbroek: ‘It is no longer appropriate to focus unilaterally on profit maximization for shareholders. It’s a matter of common sense: in the long term, sustainable companies will be the only ones that survive.’

‘E for ESG – the climate – has long been the main focus, but S for Social (diversity and equality, ed.) is on the way and in the meantime weighs as much as our climate. Without attention to the S, you get growing social inequality. It’s also good business: We believe that diversity provides added value in decision-making. In addition, attention to sustainability helps to find and retain employees. Our participation Batenburg Techniek is one of the few companies in the technical world that does not have problems attracting enough people. This is due, among other things, to the fact that it is strongly committed to sustainability and innovation, something that younger employees in particular attach importance to.’

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