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Sir Henry van der Heyden: A vision for sustainable success in agribusiness

Category leadership
Sir Henry - Insights and Vision

In 2001, Sir Henry van der Heyden achieved enormous success for New Zealand agriculture with the formation of Fonterra. It may seem like a cliché, but the dairy industry veteran credits his success to simply having a vision, and delivering on it.

Milk in the veins
Born into a family with more than a century of dairy farming experience, Sir Henry jokes that milk runs through their veins, so there was only ever one career path to follow.

After purchasing his first dairy farm in 1985, it was not long before Sir Henry’s long-term approach to business and passion for the dairy industry got him involved in co-op governance.

“Being involved in the governance of the co-operative was the most natural thing to do. The dairy co-op is a natural extension of the family farming business, which is something I knew considerably more about,” he said.

By 1992 Sir Henry was actively on the board of New Zealand Dairy Group. He then led the co-op into the merger with Kiwi Co-operative Dairies which created Fonterra Co-operative Group Limited - the nation’s largest company by revenue - and became chairman of the new entity in August 2002.

Taking Fonterra global
Sir Henry oversaw the transformation of Fonterra into one of the largest dairy companies in the world, and attributes much of that success to uniting New Zealand’s dairy farmers under a common vision.

“Everyone said it was impossible to have one entity represent over 90 per cent of New Zealand’s milk, but the co-operative model is the only one that allows farmers to control their own future,” he said.

In establishing a unified farmer-controlled co-operative with a fully integrated supply chain, Sir Henry’s vision for Fonterra thrived. He helped deliver billions of dollars back into local communities, not a simple feat during the global financial crisis especially.

“We had to remain focused and stay on strategy with our eye to the long term, which was challenging when we saw farmers and their families in severe financial stress every day.

Every business leader has to understand that they are what stands between their business being successful or not. Once they get into that mindset, great things can be achieved."

Leadership through succession
Sir Henry’s long-term vision is further exemplified through the importance he places on succession. With the belief that he has accomplished what he set out to do at Fonterra, Sir Henry was comfortable in passing the co-operative on to the next generation.

“Good leadership is also about succession planning," says Sir Henry, winner of the 2015 Rabobank Leadership Award. "Farmers plan ahead and look after the farm for future generations. The same principles are true at a co-operative.

“There comes a time when you know you have achieved what you set out to do, and after 10 years, it was the right time for me to pass the baton on,” he says.

Advice for the next generation
Above all else, Sir Henry credits establishing a clear vision as being the fundamental function of strong leadership.

Developing a culture of leadership in our industry is the way to ensure businesses are sustainable for the long term. We do that by establishing a clear vision for the future, sharing that vision, and translating it into a business strategy and plan that will deliver growth."

Sir Henry also acknowledges that the industry needs to adapt to the changing world of agribusiness to continue to meet the world’s needs.

“The reality is that the strategies we have relied on for years to produce food are limited. We need new ways to produce food that balance limited resources and environmental impacts with increasing nutritional access, stability and security.

“The ones who can meet this challenge will succeed in the long term," he says.

Co-operatives remain the way forward
He may have retired from Fonterra, but Sir Henry continues to work in co-operative governance roles with organisations that share the same values as him.

Co-operatives are all about investing and growing for the next generation. This is how companies like Fonterra and Rabobank are like a family. We keep looking to the long term."

Do you know of an exceptional business owner implementing innovative and forward-thinking initiatives in food beverage and agribusiness? Find out more about the Rabobank Leadership Awards