ASML CEO Peter Wennink worries about Dutch industries not keeping up with the world. Underneath his words of warning lurk tough political choices.
Could it have been a pinprick directed at Prime Minister Rutte, Peter Wennink’s speech at the opening of the academic year at Eindhoven University of Technology? As the PM who contends that vision is the domain of ophthalmologists is on his way out, the ASML CEO lamented the country’s lack of vision on the future. Europe and the Netherlands need a coherent master plan to cope with the major transitions of the times: digitalization, climate change and an aging population, he said. Not only because these problems urgently need solutions, but also because they offer economic opportunities. If we don’t act now, value will soon be created elsewhere in the world, Wennink warned. Our earning power is at stake.
CEOs nearing retirement tend to become more outspoken on societal issues. They foretell disaster and catastrophe, unless. The phrase “fat, dumb and happy” that fell from Wennink’s lips, for example, was used as early as 1981 by US Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige. He, too, warned that American managers had been sitting back far too long and were in danger of being blown away by foreign competition.
Often top executives predicting such doom and gloom arouse suspicion. They want something from politicians, such as tax breaks or the removal of red tape. Wennink didn’t address such traditional items on the agenda of the corporate lobby. When he joined current affairs show Nieuwsuur, he didn’t leave the interests of his company unmentioned, but he was more concerned with governments, industry and academia joining hands to take on the challenges ahead. And yes, that would involve higher corporate investments.
Nieuwsuur’s anchor didn’t drill down, leaving the viewer with many questions. The interviewer could have inquired, for example, about the vision behind the National Growth Fund, at which Wennink served as chairman and currently serves as vice-chairman of the committee assessing the proposals. The NGF made some great investments, but no one can claim that a strategy or vision is tying the projects together. What’s Wennink’s view on this?
The conversation also briefly skimmed past higher education. Wennink argued for maintaining English-language programs at technical universities because these attract foreign students who often stay in the Netherlands after graduation. Moreover, engineers typically end up working in an English-speaking environment, more so than psychologists and political scientists.
Allowing English courses to continue might not be enough. A recently published exploration of possible future directions anticipates that student enrollment needs to be steered toward the needs of the labor market and economy. Shouldn’t we start throttling students’ freedom of choice? We’re entering an era in which there are more jobs than employees. And in which major transitions are taking place. If we want to implement a master plan, can we still afford to let everyone study what they want? Wennink must have ideas about it.
A very shrewd interviewer might even have inquired about ASML’s share buyback programs. Last year, the company bought over four billion euros worth of its own stock. Can Wennink really not find a better use for that money at a time that, as he stressed himself, is fraught with challenges? Some companies are doing much, much worse than ASML in terms of ESG, but that kind of less-than-inspired and lily-livered thinking doesn’t fit in well with the picture he painted.
In short, Wennink’s warning is well worth heeding, but underneath its surface lurk tough choices. Hopefully, politicians are willing to take them on as the nation prepares for the formation of a new government.