A Dutch Tragedy

How the financial crisis continues to claim lives

Last weekend, Dutch banker Jan Peter Schmittmann murdered his mentally handicapped daughter, his wife and subsequently, himself. Family tragedies like this are unfortunately not all that unusual, the media takes note and the world tends to move on after a few days of debate and analysis. This case however has just too many aspects to it to just pen it down to the ubiquitous ‘deep depression’ and stress references and forget about it. The reasons to look further into this are manifold. Schmittmann not only pretty much had it all — even after his forced early retirement — he also is part of a steady trend of financial crisis related deaths, one of his close colleagues from the same bank took his own life only a few years ago. But also being Dutch and a former banker myself and knowing some of the people that knew and worked with Schmittmann ensured that I could not get this out of my head quickly and had to start probing into the drama a bit more.

First the facts. Schmittmann, aged fifty-seven, had enjoyed a rapid career at the largest Dutch bank, ABN-AMRO, but never landed one of the top jobs, a case of visible frustration for the ambitious man according to some press reports. When his career did eventually peak it coincided not with big success but with high drama. ABN-AMRO was acquired by a conglomerate not of senior management’s choice and not long after that the financial crisis resulted in the domestic arm of the bank being nationalized by Dutch government, a process that included a fairly public dismissal of Schmittmann. The latter event focused on the golden handshake, which ended up being much lower than what Schmittmann had initially bargained for. Still, the approximately $11 million was splattered across Dutch media as a sign of how financiers created a mess and then accessed public funds to gently exit with a nice cheque. Schmittmann must have looked at this very differently. With 14 years to go to retirement, the care of a handicapped child, the sum, or whatever what was left of it after taxes, was probably not the princely amount that some had interpreted it to be. Good enough to live on comfortably for sure, as a banker Schmittmann probably ran his numbers, but at fifty-one his career and his chance to hit the proverbial big time were pretty much gone.

Therein lie two other crucial aspects of a banking career. Not only is it a career that is financially rewarding, it more importantly provided very high social status and access to all levels of society, in particular the ones higher up the chain. Having gone through a similar bank training program, having seen the wave of turbocharged liquidity in an ever globalizing world I can confirm that it was not exactly rocket science to participate in the upswing and derive the necessary benefits from it. But, the money is only a small part of the story. The status conferred on international bankers, even after the financial crisis, is quite phenomenal. To this date I leverage my years in that world to the fullest and they provide a welcoming ticket to many deals, contracts and contacts. But rather than let others make the call, I picked the timing of my own exit years ago and was young enough to reinvent myself, maybe because subconsciously I sensed the high potential of the role to be an unfulfilling one in the long run. Schmittmann had progressed beyond the point of no return and presumably had less of a hand in his eventual career exit. Bankers are not all that well prepared for a post-career world, certainly not one that ended as dismally as it did Schmittmann’s. It must have been a devastating experience for him and quite possibly triggered some latent potential for depression in the man. It is not a stretch to argue that it terminated not only his career, but also the notion he had of himself at a point where it was too late in the game to reassess and more importantly, reconstruct himself.

We can only make assumptions on the marital stress he may have endured or the difficulties posed in his relationship with and care for his mentally handicapped younger daughter who was twenty-two at the time of her death. He may have been on medications; he may have used other means to regulate his mood swings, some financial or other mishap may have occurred, who knows. We can only speculate. But coming down from a high status and easy access to power role to a forced to ‘reinvent yourself in your fifties’ scenario most likely set the stage for what tragically unfolded in his house last weekend.

His downward journey in all likelihood compounded or unleashed potential stress factors in Schmittmann’s personal life that as time moved on proved to be too much for him. We can only be deeply saddened and fathom at what prompts a man to kill his wife and daughter and probably never gather his final thoughts and motivations at that point in time. His final text message to a friend asking to take care of his older daughter raises as many questions as it answers.

So far the family has been quiet and the press has probed with some tentative explanations, none of which are particularly insightful. Time will hopefully give us more clues to attempt to reconstruct this terrible tragedy and the motivations behind it. Above all, Schmittmann’s sole surviving daughter is entitled to that. But given the many sequential upheavals that our economy and financial system are going through, so are many others. Not every high flying professional is wired to quickly adjust to life and the inevitable hard landing once the perk-ridden corporate show is over, something for which the Schmittmann family paid the ultimate price.