Walking the talk on sustainable innovation with DLG chair

Two enlightening days on the farm with Niels Dengsø Jensen underlined how important it is to be welcoming of innovation

Down on the farm: DLG Chair Niels Dengsø Jensen (left) with reporter Patrick Halford
October 29th, 2022 5:00 am| by Patrick Halford
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Management thinkers often use the metaphor about ‘snow melting at the edges’ of an organisation to highlight the phenomena whereby the top management of large organisations don’t get to see threats or change happening fast enough. 

Often, it is said that 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. This can be a big issue in getting the whole organisation 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 mobilise resources and partnerships to be able to exploit them. 

An offer we couldn’t refuse
Developing and maintaining an organisational 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, who is simultaneously leading one of 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, the chair of DLG Group and 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!”

You don’t get offers like that very often from the chair of the board, so off we went with Tech Mahindra (part of the global Mahindra Group corporation) to spend two days with Niels.

Reaching out for expertise
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 euros. Collectively owned by Danish farmers, this is a highly focused and practically managed business, with an acute sense of collaboration and technological innovation, along with a balanced approach to risk management.

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 cowshed. Others, such as AGROINTELLI’s Robotti, are being tested in the fields as we speak.

Artful balancing act
Of course, Niels does not just deploy robots on his farm out 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 and therefore critical to so many other organisations whose processes kick in to feed societies. So, experimentation with new technological innovations needs to be run carefully and be cost-effective. You cannot jeopardise a season’s crop yield. Accordingly, 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 Aarhus, 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 chairs) such as Niels Dengsø Jensen, they have access to business leaders who are prepared to offer their operations to consortia of research teams and companies to test their latest innovations.

Innovation in action
As we walked the fields of Niels’ farm, we got to see these latest robotic farmers in operation, as the AGROINTELLI Robotti was following its 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 that 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 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 also reflected in the DLG Group’s strategy.

Leaders who inspire
Our tour of Niels’ farm culminated in a lengthy discussion (link in online version) 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 the 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 is 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 who 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 very much in evidence after my two days on the farm with Niels Dengsø Jensen!

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