If you ever happen to pass through a remote village in the Malaysian Cameron Highlands, the Philippino Bagio Highlands, or a village north of Adelaide in Australia, and you stop to buy a few things in the local grocery store and then, to your surprise, notice a row of ‘Ohlsens Enke’ seed bags from the Danish company Dæhnfeldt hanging on the farmer’s rack, then know that you’re seeing the result of Ole Johansen’s work.
But how do you sell Danish vegetable seeds to rural customers in places like China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia or Vietnam?
Covering all of Asia Pacific, his job entails trips to even the most remote areas to chat with the farmers, consult with storeowners, local distributors, and even the consumers of the final products. All in an effort to get under the skin of the local eating habits and production requirements of those who grow the vegetables – and, of course, to make sure that all of these links in the sales chain keep preferring Dæhnfeldt’s seeds to those of the other foreign seed supplying companies.
“One of the best things about my job is that I don’t just sit in air-conditioned conference rooms and negotiate. I stand face to face with the storeowner with the cans and the bags over in the corner, and I follow up with the local distributor who has carried our brands for three generations and who knows exactly what he and his clients want,” says Ole Johansen.
Apart from selling the Dæhnfeldt and the Ohlsens Enke brands, he also uses all these frontline observations to keep the developers at the main office in Denmark updated on the newest trends among the local producers and consumers. He stays with his wife, Soontree, and their two daughters about three to four months in Chiang Mai each year due to his frequent business trips – of typically 2-3 weeks’ duration.
From Danida to Dæhnfeldt
When Ole Johansen started as Dæhnfeldt’s Export Manager for Asia Pacific in January 2003 it wasn’t his first employment with the company. In the late 1980’s he spent four years as product manager with Dæhnfeldt, and later he spent the last half of the 1990’s in charge of worldwide production of various Dæhnfeldt seeds.
In between these two employments, Ole Johansen took a Ph.D. at Landbohøjskolen in Denmark. Part of these studies brought him to Chiang Mai, where he met Soontree, whom he married in Denmark in 1992. Then they spent a year in Zambia, where Ole Johansen got his first consultant job with Danida. The second one was from 2000 to 2002, where he worked on Danida’s seed programme in Vietnam until he decided to take his current – and third – position at Dæhnfeldt, which gave Ole Johansen and his wife the freedom to move to Chiang Mai.
“When we left Chiang Mai back in 1992, I told my wife that we would try to come back here one day – preferably for Dæhnfeldt,” Ole Johansen says while smiling.
“And so we did. It was a natural step for me, because I had never lost contact with Dæhnfeldt. So when two former colleagues retired, Dæhnfeldt offered to hire me to cover their two regions. The only thing I really had to think twice about was whether I would do well in sales, since I have a more technical background. But as it has turned out, all my technical knowledge about plant breeding and agricultural development is a great advantage when challenged by the capable questions of the distributors,” he explains.
Dæhnfeldt was founded in Denmark in 1850 and today it employs about 90 people worldwide, although most of them work in either Denmark or Spain, where the seeds are being developed and produced. Earlier, the company produced both flower, grass, and vegetable seeds, but today only the latter. Since opening a plant breeding facility in the hotter Spain, Dæhnfeldt has gained access to larger markets, including the subtropics. Today, Dæhnfeldt has a turn-around of approximately 100 million DKK, specializing in crops such as spinach, cauliflower, cabbage, European cucumbers, herb seeds, and some tomatoes.
Dæhnfeldt’s business window to Asia has been open for over half a century, since many of these type of seeds cannot be produced in the Asian region and thus have to be imported.
It Runs in the Family
The passion for seed-breeding was planted in Ole Johansen from early childhood as he grew up on the family farm in the Danish region of Southern Jutland. His father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather were also seed-producers, so the conversations at the dinner table would usually circle around the family’s traditional trade.
“We always talked about seeds at home. I was very involved with the work on the farm, and the passion of my forefathers was naturally passed on to me,” Ole Johansen says.
However, he has put his passion and expertise to use quite differently than his farming forefathers. Whether employed by Dæhnfeldt or Danida, Ole Johansen has traveled the world and put his fingers into the soil of many continents. Today, all his work takes place in China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and South Korea.
“We have a well-established distribution network, where our brands have been known for over 50 years. But I have to work hard to sell to even our oldest distributors, who constantly ask questions. The more developed a market is, the shorter the distance between me and the last link, but most of my sales are to regional distributors who then sell it to local distributors or directly to the farmers. But no matter who I sell to, I always visit a farmer in each country to hear his level of satisfaction with our seeds,” Ole Johansen says.
In spite of his many travels and in spite of their family having lived in Denmark, Africa, and Asia, there are only two places on earth where both he and his wife feel at home: Chiang Mai and Denmark.
“My wife and I met each other in Chiang Mai, so it will always be a special place for us. I have gotten much deeper under the skin of the culture in Chiang Mai than I ever did in Vietnam or Zambia. The climate is nice here, my wife’s family is close by, and our children get to experience the Thai culture. But as a family, we also maintain a very close connection to Denmark. Our kids take long-distance Danish courses, and we spend three months in Denmark each summer, where the kids attend summer school,” Ole Johansen explains.
“My wife actually rather wants to live in Denmark, although she likes it here too. At the moment, my guess is that I will stay in this job a couple more years to develop the Asian market, but sooner or later we will most likely move to Denmark,” he says.
Until then, Ole Johansen will continue to enjoy his rare spare time at home by bringing out his motorcycle and driving it up into the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai, looking at the crops and engaging in random conversations with local farmers. No matter when and where they move, his passion for the open fields will follow.