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Aalt Dijkhuizen

Chairman At Topsector Agri en Food

He could have been a farmer, a business executive or a scientist, but it wouldn’t have made much difference to the happiness with which Aalt Dijkhuizen does his work; he loves it all. The common thread is the agri-food industry. "It's actually about something important, and it matters!"

Johan Cruyff isn’t the most obvious source of inspiration for a top agribusiness manager, but the football legend is often in the thoughts of Aalt Dijkhuizen, chairman of Topsector Agri & Food [The Netherlands government has defined a number of key sectors as ‘Topsectors’ - ed]. The reason isn’t Cruyff’s characteristic quotes or his talent on the field, but his independence. It reflects an attitude to life that is very relevant for Dijkhuizen’s career. “When I decide to go for something, I really go for it. And if things go wrong, I don't allow myself to spend more than an hour lamenting it. You have to stay productive and alert, otherwise you run the risk of being overtaken by the competition.”

You’re one of the best-known Dutch people in agribusiness. Did you ever imagine yourself in such a position?

“Not at all. I’ve never planned my career, so it could easily have gone in a completely different direction. I always think about two things; do I want to spend all my time on this, and can I do anything useful? Until I was 25 years old, everything was leading up to a life in farming. I wanted to take over my parents’ dairy farm in Vledder with my brother, so I enrolled in a higher education course at the agricultural school in Dronten. Then I went to study in Wageningen, to bridge the time until my father retired. There, I discovered another fascinating subject: science. When I became a Professor of Animal Diseases and Economics, I was so enthusiastic I thought I’d spend the rest of my life there." 

And then Nutreco appeared!

“True, and that meant I had to leave the researchers; that wasn’t easy. When Nutreco took me on, I was different to the seasoned businesspeople there, but that was a deliberate move by the animal feed company. They wanted a managing director from outside, to bring in a broad network and reinforce the long-term vision. From day one, I loved management, both the long-term aspects and the day-to-day running of the business. I was responsible for profit and loss, and I had to put right anything which went wrong. In this respect, the moment of intervention is crucial. There’s always something going on in a large business group; an outbreak of animal disease, a recall, an angry customer... incredibly dynamic! I learned a lot."

Did your rural origins and experience as a professor and in business create the right blend for success in your next step: chairman of the board in Wageningen?

“At an organisation like Wageningen with 6,000 people, you have to monitor costs closely and plan well, not least because the margins are already tight. A 1 percent ‘spillage’ in a turnover of € 600 million equates to € 6 million, not an amount to be trifled with. I considered it my task to grow the organisation and make it better and more well-known, which gave me a long to-do list. Sometimes I had to make decisions that didn’t please everyone, but I was always accessible to even the severest critics. At Nutreco, I learned that things have to run well behind the scenes to ensure the outside world has a good image of a company. Profiling yourself is difficult, because inaction means invisibility, but going over the top damages your credibility."

Which job gave you the most personal satisfaction?

“Impossible to say. All my life, my ambition had been to become a farmer, and I was completely satisfied with that. Science was also very rewarding, but the responsibility and management of a large organisation also gave me enormous pleasure. I noticed everywhere that working at an innovative company where things are going well is what drives people; they want to belong to a place with a winner's mentality. This mentality also attracts talent, and leads to further improvements, so it’s a snowball effect. It was Nutreco's CEO, Richard van Wijnbergen, who explained all this to me when I was working there. He was a brilliant CEO, and I learned more from him than 100 management books. One example; you have to maintain course during change processes. Lots of people will tell you why changing is a bad idea, not many will tell you to go for it! Then you have to steady your nerves and carry on. If I want to get somewhere, I go for it, I’ve never hidden from anything. I always say; if it goes wrong, just fire me. That way, everything’s clear to all."

Isn't that scary?

“Johan Cruyff is a great source of inspiration, and always at the back of my mind. After his team lost a few matches at Barcelona, a sports journalist asked him, ‘I heard that the club chairman isn’t happy. Do you think support is crumbling?’ Cruyff answered, ‘If the chairman thinks he can do better, I’ll leave and he can get on with it.’ He didn’t let the pressure get to him, and carried on believing in his approach."

What else do you find important?

“The facts must be right! A lot of external criticism of the agri-food sector is full of emotion. When aspects such as business operations or the future are under discussion, it’s particularly important that the why, what and how of doing things  differently are properly justified. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to take a wrong turn, and end up feeling deceived in the long term.”

What does that mean for your current job as chairman of Topsector Agri & Food?

“As a key sector, everything we do is concerned with the future. If we look back in 25 years, I believe the biggest change will have been the digital transformation. The agricultural sector currently uses less than 10% of the IT opportunities that are necessary and possible in the future. I’ve got high expectations of the wealth of smart farming technologies that are being proposed as financing projects for this key sector; drones, sensors, robots, satellites, personalised nutrition, and genomics. There are still so many things to measure and monitor in processes, diseases to be discovered before they can even be observed, raw materials that can be better valued by keeping streams separate, data analysis that provides insight into chain transparency... the digital transformation is relevant everywhere. If we use it effectively, we can produce more accurately and more cleanly, and use our resources more efficiently. Dutch agribusiness has always been an example to the rest of the world, and we’re admired for our incredible knowledge, productivity and exports. Now, we have an opportunity to be a leading country guiding others in precision agriculture and smart chains. With this key sector we’re investing in the future, the objective being climate-neutral production of tasty, healthy and safe food. This requires innovation."

The environmental impact of farmers is a hot topic. Will a consensus ever be reached?

“Let’s make it happen in practice. Agriculture is so much more than conventional and organic, there’s a whole range of production systems and concepts. Only the best will remain. The customer is always right, and ultimately decides what he or she buys every day. Sometimes people think I’m anti-organic, but that’s not the case at all. If it meets a need, you have to respond. It's just not the best for the whole planet; it doesn’t save more nature worldwide or require less land, quite the contrary. The importance of high productivity and efficiency isn’t being properly highlighted, especially in terms of the climate, environment and biodiversity. It’s strange that some people are arguing for shrinkage in the Netherlands, even though Dutch farmers have the lowest emissions! This results in production shifting to countries where more land and raw materials are needed per kg of product, and greenhouse gas emissions are higher. In my opinion, the farmers with the best technical results and therefore the lowest carbon footprint should be given every opportunity. This group is also the best and fastest at implementing innovations."

Agriculture is in the news almost daily.

“That’s part of the appeal of working in agri-food. It's actually about something important, and it matters! I would never had had this much fun if I’d worked in the same job at Apple or Google."

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