The oil palm King, Danish born Tan Sri Dato’ Seri B. Bek-Nielsen, passed away in Malaysia on Friday 23 September at the age of 79. The great Dane who revolutionized the United Plantations Bhd and the Malaysian oil palm industry in general is survived by two sons, Carl and Martin Bek-Nielsen, who are now at the helm of his empire.
Mr. John Madsen met Bek-Nielsen some 25 years ago when Bek-Nielsen was already well-known for his grand work at the United Plantations Bhd (UP) in Teluk Intan, Malaysia. Bek-Nielsen who arrived in Malaysia in 1951 as an Assistant Engineer had by then transformed UP into what in general was acknowledged as the best run oil palm plantation in Malaysia. They first met when Mr. John Madsen had just been appointed as CEO for Carlsberg in Malaysia in 1981. The words “you are the new Carlsberg man I presume” and “you look a bit young for the job” was the start of a long and strong friendship and mentorship as Mr. John Madsen fondly recalls.
“Tan Sri was in the same situation some 25 years earlier and had offered his support and help from that first moment. We “clicked” as had we known each other for years, laughed at the same things and we never felt the age difference as an object. Bek-Nielsen was such an open person and we became friends easily and over the years this friendship not only developed, he also became my mentor. He was always willingly giving advice, support and help. There were never any secrets, not even when 6 years later I switched job and became Managing Director of EAC which were also running oil palm plantations and as such became a competitor. The late Tan Sri never even considered this but on the other hand introduced me to his techniques and his management principles of running the world’s best oil palm plantation. In fact, everybody wanted to hear from the “horses mouth” how Bek-Nielsen managed to upgrade UP to it’s very efficient state but he did not share his secrets with people he didn’t know well, so I felt very privileged and always have ever since.”
The World’s best oil palm plantation
“Few have managed what Bek-Nielsen has done and nobody in the industry has ever doubted it, UP is considered the best oil palm plantation in the world. I have never been on a plantation like UP… and I have been on many all over the world! It’s like being in paradise really, it’s so different, clean, orderly and well trimmed. The refinery from the outside looks like an office building but it isn’t… though it’s as clean as one. Not a single drop of oil or a spot on the floor. Everything is stainless steel and as clean as your living room! Bek-Nielsen was an extremely tidy, orderly and fastidious person. Everything just had to be right, to be perfect. “
Respected by his workers
Some of Bek-Nielsen’s colleagues told Mr. John Madsen at the memorial service at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Sunday 25th September: ”We could never have had a better leader. He was tough but always fair”.
“Bek-Nielsen won enormous respect by his workers by being thorough, never compromising on quality but by showing his passion for work. He also showed them how much he cared by providing all workers with the best housing, schools, nurseries, sports facilities, old folks homes and houses of worship for all religions. Even the lowest paid worker had his own house for his family. Bek-Nielsen did everything he could to ensure that all workers were treated well and respected as human beings. He was probably the only plantation owner who understood and lived by the philosophy that you get much more in return, business wise, by giving. A result of this philosophy has been over a 25% higher productivity than any other oil palm plantation in Malaysia.”
Honesty, integrity and hands-on leadership
“Mr. Bek-Nielsen lived and worked by the principles of honesty, integrity and hands-on leadership… or management by walking around! He was often spotted around the estate checking up on work, progress and so forth. He could go over to a worker or a supervisor and say “look, this is wonderful” or sometimes it would be “I’ll come back tomorrow because things are not as they should be” or “this is not exactly as we have outlined but I can see you have been busy so I’ll be back tomorrow at 5 and then we’ll have a look at it”. When he then came around later he would credit the worker accordingly if credit was due. The workers all knew that by the end of the year they would get well rewarded for good work so it was important to them to always show their best to Bek-Nielsen. UP paid their workers more than other plantations and rewarded outstanding work with attractive timely bonuses… with excellent business results on the bottom line to show.”
A great leader… the greatest mentor
“Bek-Nielsen was a very straight forward man; he always told his opinion and at the same time knew the fine art of presenting it amicably without offending anybody unless his counterparts were unreasonable, if so, Mr. Bek-Nielsen could by tough as iron.
He had the will to win, he was friendly and fair but firm… and he was a great leader! There is actually little difference between ordinary people and leaders. That little difference is attitude but the significance is whether the attitude is positive or negative. Bek-Nielsen was always positive and he had a good sense of humour. He cared, he was hardworking, extremely competent and he had integrity and the respect of his workforce and peers. I am sadly going to miss a great man, my mentor!
Bek-Nielsen was also a family man and great father and mentor to his sons. His foresight and selflessness has, together with appropriate education in both Malaysia and Denmark including a degree from the Royal Veterinary and Agriculture University in Denmark, helped developing his sons into fine young men and the most capable to take over his legacy of running UP. You could never find any outsiders who could do that job as well as they can. They are well educated and have work wise been under the guidance of their father for the last 4-5 years. They have during this time taken over more and more responsibility and eventually took over the full management around a year and a half or so ago when Bek-Nielsen was confident that they were competent and respected by the workers on the plantation. It was the most natural succession I have ever seen and nobody on the plantation has ever questioned it. Carl and Martin Bek-Nielsen will do a great job on their own merit and in memory of their father, a great leader and a great mentor.”