Me&MyMoney

Dutchman invests in memories & experiences

S'pore-based entrepreneur's latest venture is a customer-centric insurance search engine

Funds, bonds but not individual stocks

Dutchman Andre Hesselink may be well-versed in the online and travel scene today, but it was Japanese rice crackers that gave him his first taste of business.

The Singapore-based entrepreneur recalled: "When I was 23, I started my first business, a little company selling Japanese rice crackers that were new to Europe, and dried fruits and nuts.

"That was a good lesson. It didn't make me rich but I learnt that if you run a business, you need to think of everything. I did it with two friends, we had a lot of fun and learnt a lot but, in the end, it was not the business I felt happy in."

Mr Hesselink, 54, eventually found his niche in the online and travel sectors. In 1989, he set up a company specialising in airline ticket sales, and brought that business online as a travel agency called Vliegwinkel.nl in 1995.

He eventually sold the company, where he continued to work as chief executive for five years .

PRECIOUS MOMENTS

I spend the most money on experiences because they last a lifetime, and I realise I'm in a very fortunate position, that I can afford to do so.

MR ANDRE HESSELINK, chief executive of GoBear

After that, he went on a sabbatical - his second one - with his wife Ellen, 54, because he "always invests in memories and experiences" and decided not to wait too long to travel around the world.

One highlight was Botswana in Africa, where the couple was within walking distance of the wild African animals.

"I spend the most money on experiences because they last a lifetime, and I realise I'm in a very fortunate position, that I can afford to do so."

These days, you will find Mr Hesselink working on GoBear, an insurance search engine that compares more than 100 insurance plans from almost all major insurers in Singapore. He moved here in 2011.

Car, travel and health insurance are now on the list of products, and credit cards will be added by the end of this year.

  • Worst and best bets

  • Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A This was during the dot.com bubble. In the Netherlands, you had World Online (Europe's largest Internet service provider then).

    There was this whole hype, at that time, about the value of the company. It had three to four years of heavy losses then.

    Initially, I was not interested in buying the stock. The valuation couldn't be that high with so much loss.

    The banker called me and said: "By the way, the initial public offering (IPO) of World Online is tomorrow." I said, "no", I've no interest and I heard there's more demand than shares.

    He was in one of the banks doing the IPO and said he could get shares for me as a valued customer, if I wanted.

    At that moment, there was a kind of greed, that I should get the shares as everybody was talking about them.

    I remembered I wanted only €10,000 worth, but the banker told me I needed to bid for €30,000 worth, otherwise I wouldn't get it, so I agreed.

    The IPO was out and I got all the shares I bid for. The banker said I was lucky but I told him I didn't want them all and I had to sell.

    The IPO price was €45 on the first day. Then it went down to €43 and, gradually, went down to €8 and then, nothing.

    So I do not believe everything bankers and analysts say any more. If they knew all, then they wouldn't be in their positions.

    Of course, there is some basic research on stocks but that is no guarantee as things still happen.

    I think stocks are like the casino. One day it's good, the next day there's a scandal and the prices go down, not based on the underlying value, but on sentiment.

    Q And what has been your best investment move?

    A Real estate I bought in Spain, some time in 1996. The way I buy real estate is contrary to what most people advise, that you have to look at the return on investment.

    I always ask if the location is good, do I like it, do I feel good about it. So far, that has always proven to be right.

    I've never invested in things I don't like. If I see an apartment complex somewhere, and the style is not my style or if it is next to a highway, then I am not interested.

    The property in Spain is a villa with a pool. When we bought it, it was fairly secluded, so the price was pretty low. You had to go over a mountain to get there.

    Then, a tunnel was built. I didn't know it was going to be built when we bought the house.

    It is in one of the most beautiful valleys, and I should know because I've travelled all over the world.

    Then, the real estate prices there went up. It's in a traditional village so there's no new construction going on and many people want to come in but those are all the houses the place has.

    It's about location. If I had bought a house along the Costas, where you have thousands of the same houses that look the same, it'd have been different.

    The value of my villa has gone up about 10 times now, and has been going up every year, even during the whole Spain crisis.

    That is nice to know, but I'm not going to sell it because I enjoy being there.

    Rachael Boon

GoBear - which grew from three employees a year ago to more than 40 now - went live in March, and has grown 50 per cent month-on-month.

The idea was born out of his frustration with getting car insurance here in 2013, when he still had a car.

Mr Hesselink recalled having to answer 30 questions online and getting an error message when he entered the capacity of his car.

"I had to call the call centre to ask what was wrong. They said it wasn't 3,000cc but 2,979cc. I thought it was completely irrelevant and that the website was not made with the customer in mind."

He received a call after 45 minutes with a quote from the insurer, but said he "was already tired from thinking that I had to go through that process with another insurer again".

Mr Hesselink was inspired and determined to create a customer-centric tool, and said his search engine is unbiased, does not push products and has no advertisements.

He teamed up again with the investors who bought his first company to get GoBear up. The process may sound easy, but he noted the journey is still fraught with difficulties as he tries to get firms on board.

"The whole industry is completely not transparent, it's very traditionally organised, and the distribution is based on a 'push industry', where they make a product and push it through the distribution channel, and then the customer buys what they have produced."

He added that this works the other way in other industries, from shoes to travel, where the power lies in the hands of the customer, who gets to pick the product exactly the way he wants it.

"This is not so in the insurance and financial services industries. It's about time that the customer decided what he wants, when he wants it and where he wants it."

Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

A I come from a small village in the Netherlands at the German border. My dad had a small company, but we were just an average family and didn't have a lot of money. My parents always encouraged me to study, so you have choices in life.

My dad would keep telling me: "If you want to achieve something in life, you need to work hard and smart. You can do it for somebody else, but better if it's for yourself."

But he also said to work for yourself only if you can handle it, because your life and health are worth more than anything else.

I never had stress in my jobs because my father said: "If you do your best, that's good enough. You don't have to worry if somebody else is better, you just have to accept it. You can stress about it, but it's not good for your health."

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A When I sold my first company, I was not into investing. I had to run the business for five more years, so I didn't want to be distracted by caring about the money I got.

I went to the bank and they said they could take care of it very well. Within six months, 50 per cent of the money was gone, a six-figure sum, because it was managed by the bank.

After six months, I had enough and thought I could do much better myself. So it was a little bit forced on me because the bank was not managing it properly (laughs).

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A I don't invest in individual stocks because of that experience. The bank had put my funds in shares during the tech bubble.

I reversed everything and said to myself I don't need to make 30 per cent a year, I'm very happy with 5 to 7 per cent. I'm now more risk-averse, in that sense. And that experience was a lesson learnt.

I stopped listening to analysts and, since then, things really moved in the right direction. I invest in regions and businesses where I know a bit more of than average, and I diversify.


Mr Hesselink, 54, travelled the world after he sold his online travel company. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Most of the time I act contrary to what the masses are doing. I see when everybody is moving in and I am happy with profit-taking at certain levels.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A It now consists of a healthy mix of cash, growth stocks as part of funds, and income funds and bonds. I also got rid of exotic and exciting products from options to turbos (a kind of stock option).

Q What does money mean to you?

A It brings you independence and that's what I like. It gives you more freedom without the sorrow of having to make sure that every day you have to put food on the table.

I do understand that not everyone is as fortunate as I am.

Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?

A I don't buy that many extravagant things. Experiences make you richer, not possessions. But the latest item I bought was a Heuer vintage watch for $4,900, this year. Last year, I got a racing bicycle for about the same price.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A I invest in GoBear, and invest my time in it, and I really want to make this company a success across Asia because I think consumers deserve a kind of service like this.

Too many times I've seen consumers being served with the seller's interest, not the customer's.

I might be interested in buying a property here, but I still think the prices are too high. We like it a lot here. The first time I came here was in 1987, and I thought it was a nice stopover destination but now it has so much more to offer.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A I want to make GoBear a success first and we'll see how long it takes. I need to like the things I do, if I don't like it, I either retire (from it) or start something else.

So I invest in the company and it's also part of my retirement. I already retired a bit before, or "semi-retired" by doing two sabbaticals, so I already know what it is.

Q Home is now...

A A condo in town.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'Me&MyMoney Dutchman invests in memories & experiences'. Print Edition | Subscribe