Management thinkers have been known to use the metaphor about ‘snow melting at the edges’ of an organization, to highlight the phenomena whereby the top management of large organizations don’t get to see threats or change happening fast enough. Often, it is said that the people working close to the customers in the field, such as the engineers, sales, and project managers, can see change coming faster than top managers. Which can be a big issue in getting the whole organization to shift its operations before they become disrupted.
But there are also great examples of leaders of global companies who are curious enough, out of passion and necessity, to be able to identify conditions for change on the horizon, and then mobilize resources and partnerships to be able to exploit them.
Leading with Passion
Developing and maintaining an organizational culture of sustainable resilience is a common practice amongst the farmers who feed us. So, what happens when you have a farmer whose family’s agricultural heritage goes back over a hundred years, is simultaneously leading one Europe’s top industrial companies focused on agriculture, energy, and housing?
Well, we wanted to learn more about this, so we went to ask Niels Dengsø Jensen, Chairman of the Board of DLG Group and Denmark’s AP Pension, about how his grounding in farming helps his DLG business to expand its markets in a sustainable way.
Niels’ response was, “Well come to my farm, outside Viborg in Jylland, and I’ll show you round some of our robotic innovation activities, and we can have a discussion on my philosophies for partnering and innovation!”
I had met Niels a couple of times before, so I knew what to expect. He is forthright with his practical opinions on leading his businesses, but also intensely curious about new technological and process innovations that are coming over the horizon. So, with Niels you can expect a lot of questions and direct feedback about possibilities of applying new innovations in the real world.
The DLG Group is one of Europe’s largest agribusiness companies, and it has employees and activities in 18 countries, with a 2021 turnover of €7.93 billion. Collectively owned by Danish farmers, this is a highly focused and practically managed business, with an acute sense of collaboration, technological innovation, and a balanced approach to risk management.
Seeding New-Age Tech
With that mix of characteristics comes the attitude of reaching out for expertise to help solve existing, and more importantly, future business opportunities. To demonstrate this, Niels took us on a tour of his farm to show us the various robotic machines he has in operation, each contributing to the core processes of the business. Some of these robots have been a feature of the business for many years, such as the milking machines, and feeding robot in the cow shed. Others, such as Agrointelli’s Robotti, are being tested in the fields as we speak.
Of course, Niels does not just deploy robots on his farm because of a love of new technology. The farm is a complex operation requiring both, long- and short-term planning and decisions. It is also one of the first links in the food value chain, thus it is critical to so many other organizations whose processes kick-in to feed societies. So, experimentation with new technological innovations needs to be run carefully and cost effectively. You cannot jeopardize a season’s crop yield, therefore innovation in the farm’s operations, as in the bigger agribusiness of DLG, is a balancing act of risk/reward.
And this brings us to the partnerships. One of the things that Denmark is known for globally are their robotic innovations on land, in the air (drones) and at sea. Many of these innovations continue to come out of research collaborations with Denmark’s leading universities and research institutions in Århus, Aalborg, and Odense and of course DTU. What these institutions seek are industrial collaborations where they can test their new robotic and data analytics capabilities in the real world.
And with farmers (and Chairman of the Board) such as Niels Dengsø Jensen, they have access to business leaders who are prepared to offer their operations to consortia of research and companies to test their latest innovations.
As we walked the fields of Niels’ farm, we got to see these latest robotic farmers in operation, as the Agrointelli Robotti was following it’s carefully programmed journey across his fields, using its various sensors to navigate the optimum path. And of course the drone can be the eye in the sky, keeping watch on the operations of the farm to speed up decision making, and allow the farm workers to focus on higher value activities.
These robots also produce a lot of data which allows the farm’s team to monitor their activities in the crop production lifecycle, and it allows suppliers, such as Agrointelli to gain valuable test data to allow them to improve their products. Naturally, all of this is monitored closely by Niels and his farm manager. While being open to new technologies, there can be no interruption to the critical timing of the harvesting of the crops.
All of the innovations we witnessed on Niels’ farm have a number of key components that have to balance investment decisions. One of those is that sustainable production must drive commercial growth. Indeed, it is the only way to go. And we see this reflected also in the DLG group’s strategy.
Thriving in Agribusiness Despite Complexities
Our tour of Niels’ farm culminated in a lengthy discussion (teaser trailer here) on how his philosophies on partnering, innovation, sustainable resilience, and leadership are based on practical approaches to running very complex businesses, using outside expertise to keep ahead of the competition.
One of the other learnings I came away with was how sometimes in this industry the competitors in one field, or country, can simultaneously be partners in another area. This requires astute judgement on partnering strategies.
Thriving in agribusiness, with its complex demands of sustainable resilience and cost control, requires a flexible and practical mindset, one which knows how to harness new innovations and partnerships, and be able to spot gaps or dangers in the weather on the horizon. Niels’ passion for both his DLG Group and farming business shines through, inspiring those which come into his orbit to offer up new ideas.
Curious leaders are also approachable leaders. And leaders need their teams to come forward with new sustainable ideas to help the business to thrive. This was much in evidence after my two days on the farm with Niels Dengsø Jensen!
About the Author:
VP Digital Industries @ Spinverse.
Patrick Halford, VP Digital Industries at Spinverse, leads the business unit focused on electronics, healthtech, compute/telecoms, and smart cities/mobility. Patrick manages a team of 40 scientists, engineers, project managers, and consultants to help to accelerate the commercialisation of R&D across the EU. He is an expert at Singularity Group, a startup mentor for European accelerators, and an advisor to Nordic Space and healthtech VCs as well as on advisory boards for drone, AR, and space startups. Patrick is a frequent technology and business conference moderator, and interviewer of global CXOs across industries addressing their business and technological agendas. He is also a guest business writer at The Copenhagen Post.