Entrepreneur takes aim with new business

  • 1999-10-07
  • By Blake Lambert
RIGA - In the world of business, there's an often-heard cliché: Go
big or go home.

When translated into the global corporate-speak of the 1990s and
beyond, it means a great risk equals a great reward.

Call it what you want, but, in any case, Ferdinand Balfoort has
accepted the risk and inched a few steps forward on that great big
business plank perched above the Baltic Sea. Balfoort recently
started the Umbrella Group, a company specializing in executive

He's hunting down the big game: the finance directors and managers,
the chief number-crunchers, and, in some cases, the presidents of

He is working in the fields of finance, marketing, information
technology, sales and general management.

All of this, with no apparent gasps of air, no shortage of optimism,
at a time when Latvia remains mired in a recession brought on by the
collapse of the Russian ruble next door.

"I think, in essence, it's where you end up in life. I guess it's a
partly Buddhist philosophy then. Fate has a lot of deciding factors
also," said Balfoort, who was born in the Netherlands, but moved to
New Zealand as a teenager. "Sometimes you end up in an area or a
region that you just make it work and if you like there, then that's
what you do."

Translation: Balfoort came to Riga with Deloitte and Touche, the
international accounting firm, as a senior partner, until, he said, a
decision was made that it was better if both sides went their
separate ways.

He liked Latvia and Riga and needed to find work.

Managing partners with Deloitte and Touche were out of the country
and could not be reached for comment regarding the separation.

For inspiration, post-separation, Balfoort resurrected a name and an
idea from his past to provide for his future. The name Umbrella
Group, he said, came from a similar company he started in Cambodia
and Vietnam that was involved in recruitment and personnel selection.

Yes, Cambodia, a country that makes Latvia's revolving door of prime
ministers a mere sideshow to chaotic violence and death.

From Cambodia, he moved to Poland to work with "one of the big five
accounting firms" and then came to Riga, liked the city and the
country, and decided to stay.

"Of course, there's also the attraction of working in developing
markets because they present their own opportunities in terms of
education and general sort of improvement of the environment, but
also the fact that in more established markets, it can sometimes be
not so easy to establish a company," said Balfoort.

So far, the Umbrella Group is small, he said, with five clients or
so, though that number will grow.

But he'll try to maintain a small base of clients so he can emphasize
his service on a personal level to each client, focusing, as he said,
on quality not quantity.

Fewer clients will translate into few employees, or a
"small-is-beautiful" company that may hire people temporarily or
expand, depending on the market conditions.

"I think, in general, people are having to get used to the concept of
recruiting people on a temporary basis. Once you start to see how it
works in one or two organizations, then it will definitely open up
the doors," said Balfoort.

"So I'm unable to say exactly how big the market will be, but take,
for example, foreign companies involved in the market in this
service. They grow very rapidly in the United States or Holland. So I
think things will happen here as the market develops further and
people get comfortable with the concept."

He spoke convincingly about a five- or six-year-old Netherlands
company, which concentrates on recruitment for the information
technology sector, that is now listed on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange.

"I think this is the essence of entrepreneurialism: to find a niche
and to develop it, and exploit it, in spite of competition."

His ideas about personal service, what it takes to be a president or
a manager, and recruiting the best person for a company, and not an
available relative, are not new, he claimed, but effective imports
from other locations that will succeed in Riga.

"If I didn't like this sort of environment, I might as well go back
to Holland and have a much more quiet and stable life, but not
necessarily the opportunities that would arise here."