‘You do need to raise the bar’


Publisher, recruiter, president of a power company, and... cinematographer? Serial entrepreneur Harald Swinkels likes to do things the Rotterdam way.


NAME: Harald Swinkels
AGE: 42
STUDY: Econometrics, business economics (ESE)
CAREER: Entrepreneur


The Jack-of-all-Trades tale of Harald Swinkels, one of the first people to venture onto the privatised Dutch power market with his Nederlandse Energie Maatschappij (NLE), has often been told. Three times he started a business with partner Pieter Schoen, twice they were successful, once he filed for bankruptcy. The Erasmus alumnus is praised for his daredevil entrepreneurship, and welcomed like a rock star at his alma mater, were he often gives guest lectures. Thus, we have to make a short stop before our interview, because one student greets Harald with heartfelt fervour. ‘How are you, Mister Swinkels?’ he askes excitedly. A short conversation ensues. ‘I sold my company last weekend, I’m feeling pretty chill.’

Hollywood ambitions
He sounds casual about the sale, no amount is mentioned. Magazine Quote once hazarded a guess. Whether they were right remains unknown. What will he do with all this time on his hands? ‘Become a cinematographer.’ Sounds like a joke, isn’t. Swinkels, all of 5 foot 4 tall,  is very serious. What is he thinking of? The ultimate dream is doing a big production like Blade Runner 2049, by Denis Villeneuve. No small-scale Dutch rom-coms, no. It’s not a new idea. One of two brothers he grew up with in a small Limburg village and Harald himself had it all worked out, this plan to one day start a film company. It was going to work as follows. Harald would make a lot of money, and brother Niels would move to Los Angeles to learn the business. The money was made according to plan, and the brother held up his end of the bargain as well. As Executive Vice-President International Distribution at Universal, Niels gets to decide which movies get a go and which ones a no. Now it’s Harald turn again to live up to his promises, so he’s set to leave for Hollywood to get himself an education. And then what? An Amsterdam office, and probably one in Los Angeles. Because, and this bears repeating, the only small thing about Harald is his stature: ‘You do need to raise the bar, or running a business is pointless.’

His own scholarship
Swinkels means to inspire, during his guest lectures and as a financial supporter of Erasmus university. The concept of giving back is firmly internalized. Harald is on the development board of the  Erasmus Trustfund, and he’s currently mining his network to attract new donors. ‘Their first reaction is often like, ‘Does this mean I’ll be paying for the teacher’s lease cars?’ Until they find out you get to decide how the money is allocated.’ That’s how the Swinkels Scholarship came about; a scholarship for students who combine marketing with psychology or data science. He wanted to do something in return for the university that shaped him into the man he is. ‘The thing I loved about Erasmus University is that even though it wasn’t hip among students to start a business, it was stimulated nevertheless. My classmates and I started companies that made a difference to the Rotterdam economy - that tells you something about the quality of our education. Now the next generation gets their turn,’ says the father of three daughters. ‘It’s my pleasure to help.’

TEXT: Marjolein Stormezand
PHOTO: Aysha Gasanova

Harald Swinkels