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Inga Verbeeck

Cupid in the C-suite

Financial Times February, 2013

Like everyone else, high-flying international business people are looking for love. But it seems their demands, when it comes to dating, can be surprisingly stereotyped.

“Italian men don’t want to meet Italian women. They think they will be very demanding and high-maintenance and give them a hard time. French women are a different story. They obviously have some feeling that French men are not very loyal.”

So says Inga Verbeeck, head of European operations at Berkeley International, a dating agency for the very wealthy that is expanding across the continent to meet rising demand from wellheeled lonely hearts.

When it comes to the British stereotype at this rarefied end of the matchmaking game – Berkeley membership costs a minimum €10,000 a year – the much-maligned (uptight, unromantic) British male is regarded as a good catch, she continues, possibly remembering she is talking to one. “There is this idea that they are very gentlemanly, they have that British humour, they are tall and classically handsome.”

Speaking in the breakfast room of an upmarket hotel on the Rue de Rivoli, in the elegant heart of Paris, the 30-something Belgian is chic and relaxed as she discusses sorting out love matches for the super-rich. But until just three years ago Ms Verbeeck was chief executive of her family’s €100m steel trading business in Antwerp, where she lives. Then, she spent her days haggling with mills and manufacturers for reject steel to flog to clients around the world.

Now she spends her time finding partners for singletons in the fast lane of global business. “It is the same thing,” she says. “In spot dealing, you have to do new business every day . . . [It’s about] what deals can you make today. That’s the same as I do now.” The dating business involves moving quickly on to the next potential couple once you have successfully paired two clients to keep the business going.

Ms Verbeeck made the move after Prodac, the steel business founded by her father, was sold to private equity. “I knew a lot about steel, but I wanted to do something else.”

She was already providing consultancy advice to her friend Mairead Molloy, who owns Berkeley International’s original UKbased business. They set up a joint venture for continental Europe, which Ms Verbeeck runs.
Just as business is increasingly international, so, it seems, is dating, especially in the executive suite. Constant travel and packed diaries mean it is difficult to form lasting relationships.

Berkeley has grown in 10 years from 300 to 3,000 members. Ms Verbeeck says the plan is to reach 10,000 members within three years, including a move into same-sex dating. The business has opened offices in Brussels, Paris and Milan and will add Geneva, Amsterdam and Copenhagen this year. It also has a small presence in the US that it aims to expand.

“We saw that [a dating agency] was very appealing to international business people, people who travel a lot for work, work very hard, have no time and for whom it is hard to meet somebody,” says Ms Verbeeck.

To join up for the minimum one-year membership costs anything from €10,000 to €50,000 – “and beyond for special requests”. The price depends on frequency of introductions and how wide a geographical spread clients want to tap into.

“Some people want to speed things up and meet more people and then it becomes more expensive . . . How many people in your life do you meet that you think you could have as a partner? We’re trying to make you see them all in one year. It takes a bit of work.”

New members are all interviewed personally – hence the need for offices in different cities. The decision about who meets whom is made by Berkeley’s staff, who receive special training, rather than by computerised datamatching. There is no online posting of photos and individual details. Discretion is vital. Ms Verbeeck says that entrepreneurs and financiers are “well represented”, along with senior business managers, lawyers, doctors and some “high-profile people” including actors and sportspeople.

About 60 per cent of Berkeley’s members are women and roughly the same proportion is divorced. Ms Verbeeck herself is divorced but in a relationship.

financial-times-inga-verbeeck

Vetting potential members normally takes a couple of weeks. About one in 10 applicants is politely turned down, usually because they have unrealistic expectations – “there’s no such thing as superman or superwoman”, says Ms Verbeeck – or because staff judge there is no current match on the books. The high entry fee tends to keep out any opportunists.

Nevertheless, bona fides must be established, identities or divorce pap ers verified. Potential members must produce the necessary proofs, but Berkeley will also check.
“If necessary we work with companies that do screening,” she says. “We have some high-profile clients. We couldn’t risk anything going wrong.” But she adds that it is rare for clients to be dishonest about their background.

The preponderance of women is easily explained: “For these kinds of women it is quite hard to find men. People think you are an ice-queen and very tough because you are entrepreneurial.”
Berkeley’s business model has an inherent challenge. If, as Ms Verbeeck says, the average member finds a match and drops out after nine months and there is little repeat business, the company must constantly attract new clients to keep growing.
Part of the plan, therefore, is to expand in two new directions – same-sex relationships and a kind of after-sales service.

There is a lot of demand for same-sex introductions, says Ms Verbeeck, but the move will involve big changes. “It’s different, with different intuitions for matchmaking. We have to employ the right people.”

As for persuading clients to remain part of a longer-term members’ club, Ms Verbeeck says this will involve counselling and couple-specific concierge services. “It’s about how to keep the flame alive. People don’t have time so they need our help to keep it going.”

From matchmaker to marriage counsellor: another big step away from trading steel.

Great expectations
Inga Verbeeck, above, has blunt views on how some people’s ideas impede starting a relationship that could turn out to be successful.
Female clients “want a guy who is strong and ‘puts food on the table’. Even though they are independent and strong [themselves], that instinct is still there”. Attire can be an issue too: “Women really like stylish men. They like it when a guy is into the Prada shoes and the Gucci suit.”
Male clients “are intimidated by women who make more money than they do. They want a good-looking girl, preferably younger … and they want someone highly educated and intelligent. They want it all.” Many have fixed views about supposed national traits. Ms
Verbeeck and her colleagues try to “break through prejudices”, she says. “It’s our job to coach people, to manage expectations.”

By Hugh Carnegy