BUSAN, South Korea — It’s a cool, mid-March afternoon on the third floor of the Netherland Art Gallery on Haeundae’s Dalmaji Hill. Unlike its uninspired charcoal grey exterior, the Netherland on the inside is awash with sunshine and style. It resembles a small lighthouse, squeezed square in the center, stretched out on either end and terraced going up. There is living space and gallery rooms on the third and fourth floor which sit atop a steep spiral staircase that ascends white walls on the outskirts of hardwood floors.
On a large glass table, in a paintbrush reach of an easel, the curator, Leeann, lays out coffee and tea and a plate of brownies cut into perfect little squares. I am sitting across the table from the gallery’s proprietor, Martin Vermeulen. He’s on the phone.
He’s speaking in his native Dutch peppered with the occasional mildly-spoken American expletive. Both our languages descend from the West Germanic tongue, so I am able to recognize a few words here and there, but I already know what he is talking about anyway.
Apologizing after taking the second of two calls, Martin explained that his guest for the week, the head of Indonesia’s largest mining concern, had been detained by immigration in Seoul after plying the gates to Korea with an Indonesian passport. He’s come to purchase tens of millions of dollars in Korean-made machinery, but there will be no special exceptions at Incheon Airport today – he’s been ordered out of the country.
Have a nice flight, thank you for coming.
On the three or four occasions I have met Martin Vermeulen over the past few months, I’ve come to find his personality best described as ‘buoyant’. There is a sunny air about him; he’s quick to smile, quicker to laugh and at light speed headed for the handshake. Yet as he deals with the dilemma of having one of Indonesia’s wealthiest men being held at Korea’s front door with blank check in hand, I am waiting for a crack in the Dutchman’s facade. Perhaps Martin is the inverse of this gallery he opened last November; bright and sunny on the outside but dark and grey within.
My conjecture proves wrong. He hangs up the phone, emits something short of a sigh, and then smiles. “Well, it looks like my schedule for next week just opened up, we should grab some dinner on Thursday!”
Perhaps it’s the boyish grin, or the slightly unkempt hair, but he comes across as well short of his 55 trips around the sun. And yet, if life experience were the gauge of age, he would look much closer to 100.
Martin Antoon Vermeulen was born in Utrecht, the Netherlands in 1957. His father was a man of adequate means, but decided that upon finishing high school young Martin should make his own way sans fatherly funding. He put himself through Cambridge, doing his undergraduate work in mechanical engineering and his graduate studies in automotive engineering. After leaving Cambridge he took a job as a junior design engineer with a small Dutch auto parts firm.
Whereas most stories of an engineer, stepping out into the real world, would coast right along to a middling “the end”, this is where much of what makes Martin Martin begins.
After Cambridge, he spent his 20s working up the company ladder, eventually garnering the attention of international automotive giants, who would later hire him away for his innovations, his fluency in seven languages and his gift for gab in each.
While his bread and butter would always be engineering, his work after work would be much of what would come to define him.
His first venture was restoring old cars and reselling them. “We would take cars that were totaled by the insurance companies, fix them up and then sell them for a really good profit,” he says, with a smile that implies it was a business at times a bit shady and the characters involved even more so.
In the 1980s, using his engineer’s salary and the money made from selling cars, he started buying houses near universities with the intent of renting them to students. To call them “houses” might cause you to summon up an image of habitability. That they were not, says Martin.
“The houses were derelict, most of them were singled out by the government to be torn down. Labor was very expensive and no one wanted to invest to restore them, so I did.”
After bringing a house to code, he would divvy it up into separate rooms with communal kitchens and showers, and pack as many students in as regulation would allow. Before long he owned seven houses in all, generating a tidy sum of monthly rental income.
Thomas Edison famously spoke of inspiration and perspiration, but the inventor, in his wealth of wisdom, neglected to factor in luck. Good luck for Martin was the Netherlands’s infamous housing bubble. So extreme was the rise in the Dutch housing market that The Economist then called it “the most overvalued housing in Europe,” with analysts as recently as 2010 pegging it at over 100% above actual value. Boom, suddenly Martin was loaded.
By now he was married with a young son at home, living the very definition of a comfortable life. Great job, nice car, big house and more money than he could spend. Ever the entrepreneur, Martin then started a soup and bagel restaurant, expanding to several locations before selling it off as a franchise, building even further on his financial success.
All the while he was still working as an engineer, over the years earning respect for his innovative work in the automotive field. With the golden tongue of a salesman and technical credentials to back it up, he was soon hired away by the century-old German conglomerate Bosch to push their newly developed anti-lock braking system.
The role of traveling salesman wasn’t easy on his family life. “I was always on the road back then,” he recalls. “When my son was a little boy he told his classmates that I was working at Amsterdam Airport, because he always picked me up and brought me there.”
After six years traveling to 86 countries and bringing millions in sales to Bosch, he decided it was time to go freelance and pocket more for himself. “It was then,” Martin says, “I had way too much money coming in, a decent amount in the bank and that’s when things went wrong.”
Though the analogy sounds trite for an automotive engineer, he took to life in the fast lane. He mixed expensive whiskey with expensive cars, one of which he drove into a river and a three-day stint in the pokey. He bought a yacht, shot lions in South Africa and partied around the world until finally, much to his surprise, his marriage was over and he had spent more money than he had.
“I was in the Bahamas and the bank blocked my credit card. I had to borrow money for a plane ticket from an American I had just met to get back to Holland. We’re still good friends today.”
One hundred grand in debt, he mined his connections back home for engineering work. His reputation as a bon vivant followed him and few firms would take a chance. A few months later, he was once again employed. He was glad for the second chance, but things weren’t quite the same.
“They stuck their neck out because they knew my reputation. They started me at a really shitty salary with a lot of commission. I said, ‘OK, I will accept that. I’ve got a history and you're very careful. Give me just enough money to live and a chance to make more.’”
He worked his way back to esteem, built more connections through corporate training for the Dutch embassy, and was on the road traveling again, spending much of his time in Korea, doing the work he loved with less of the reckless lifestyle that he had loved so much before.
For the past 20 years, working on the peninsula with different players in the auto industry, he came to love the life in Busan – though he can’t really explain why.
“I don’t know, I just feel it,” he says.
“Many years ago I had a Sunday off so I went to Sasang bus station. I couldn’t read where the bus was going, but I got on and I sat three hours. I ended up in a village in the middle of nowhere. I walked the streets, I felt very relaxed and the people were really friendly, though I didn’t speak one word of Korean. It was summer so I had short sleeves and children were coming up and touching the hair on my arm, so I thought, ‘This is special.’”
Twenty years on, and a long road behind, he’s finally settled in to life in Korea. A year and a half ago he married a Korean woman he first met at an automotive trade show and she gave birth to their son two days after the Netherland Gallery’s opening last November. When not introducing wealthy foreign businessmen to Korean manufacturers, he imports coffee and the machines that make it, while planning his next big venture – building a retirement home just outside of Busan.
As with most things in the life of Martin Vermeulen, there is always a bit more than a simple plan.
“I have some property about an hour west of Busan and I have designed what I call a ‘zero emission house,’ all green,” he says, with that characteristic inventor’s excitement. “It will be the first house in Korea that is completely self-supporting. I am actually going to produce more energy than I need in both electric and heat.”
As we wrap up our interview, the sun shines through a skylight down on the easel, which casts a long shadow across the studio floor. I ask him, looking back on his life, what he learned most from his failures and his successes, and what advice he would give to others.
He emphasizes that regardless of the failures, a measure of success is always there to be found.
“If you take a machine gun with 100 rounds in it and you hit one guy that wants to kill you, that’s OK, you don’t need the other 99. Sure, I had some failures, but at the end I still progress. People are afraid to make mistakes, but I don’t care. For me it’s just all the same thing, I just do what I like and that’s it.”
We help ourselves to the last of the brownies.
For more on the Netherland Gallery, check out the Haps Gallery Page.
Gallery photos by Peter DeMarco.