Carsten Dencker Nielsen: A career among 35.000 colleagues

Where Oriental Avenue ends by the Chao Phraya river bank you have the old impressive EAC Bangkok Headquarters to the left. Behind a high wall to the right you find the even more impressive Oriental Hotel, once owned by Andersen & Co. The avenue is not wide here by the pier, maybe only 10 meters, but – well – Avenue.

Here, in 1984, the 100 years jubilee of the company’s presence in Siam/Thailand was celebrated with a real grand party, more than 2000 guests and HRH the Crown Prince of Thailand as the guest of honour.  EAC Thailand was in good shape and running very well. On this occasion, the wall between the hotel and the Avenue was demolished thereby providing direct access between hotel and the EAC Headquarters. The guests could freely circulate between the two establishments – an arena was created for the occasion. Host was the Managing Director of EAC (Thailand) Ltd. Bangkok, Carsten Dencker Nielsen. Afterwards the wall was restored of course, but a little door in the wall was made. To this door only a few people had the key!

Meanwhile this was also the last grand ball in the history of EAC, Thailand; the dark clouds were hastily gathering around the whole company – The Octopus.

Carsten Dencker Nielsen, former first year Trainee of EAC and former Managing Director of the same company  and I are, on 28th March 2013, sitting in the elegant lobby of the Oriental Hotel.  Mr. Dencker Nielsen is not so happy about this location for the interview, but Authors lounge is fully booked, a grand wedding is taking place. The lounge is filled with Air force officers, many of them, in uniform and with shining sabers by their sides. I have the impression that Carsten is seriously considering if he could request to have their function moved to somewhere else, but finally he doesn’t.

Esprit de corps

The trainee period in EAC was three years for Middle school graduastes and two years for High dchool graduates. The absolute majority came with their ‘Middle school examination’ (10 years).  Each and every year, 120 young men, no women, were accepted, but during the two-three years trainee period around 70 % left: “Some of them didn’t like the smell in the bakery, others left because of the heavy burden of work including evening classes Monday to Thursday”.

After school some of those who stayed on sometimes went to ‘Hviids Vinstue’ after evening class. Not very popular among the ordinary guests in their ØK jackets and ties: “but we showed them that we could drink just as many beers; we already felt as being a part of ‘The Company’, part of that ØK ‘spirit’” – and the young men would show up in the office the next morning at eight, all of them.

The offices were rooms with long tables, four work stations on the left side, four on the right. Nearest the door sat the two youngest trainees opposite each other, then second years, third years and by the window the head of office and his deputy. There was an absolute sense of hierarchy and pecking order among the trainees; “It was my first but very important achievement to move from first year to second year – the department head did not necessarily show any pedagogical interest”.

At five pm they could get tickets for the canteen, dinner and evening school.

So, almost all waken hours, six days a week, focused on The Company during these sensitive years; that must have had a severe impact on the mindset, the way of thinking: company first, I suppose. The more ‘symbiotic’ a relationship is the less you are inclined to think individually and if need be critically. There must also have been established very close links in the groups of peers from the same year. But “we were meanwhile somehow spiritually groomed to be sent overseas after the apprentice; that was the goal in front of us”.

I’m much interested in ‘company culture’ as key component in the decision making process. It is difficult here, Carsten mention the company Spirit again – and we cannot get closer than I have tried and Spirits slip away between your fingers, seeking hide in the nearest holy tree.

Sink or swim

After having completed the three year of apprenticeship the military service called but Carsten, like his colleagues destined for overseas service, was still enrolled as an EAC’s employee.  Thereafter an intensive course in business economics and off he went. With a little exaggeration you may say that after a most guided education the young hopes of the company were thrown directly into the water: Sink or swim.

Carsten was sent to Mombasa 1962. Here our young man’s first assignment was to sell fertilizer to shrewd Greek and Armenian traders! I have met those grey bearded gentlemen in the souks of Zambia and Sudan and don’t envy a young fellow of 22 that job.

An interesting personal aspect here, regarding the placements, is that the company rule: ‘No marriage the first four years abroad’ was still in force. As so often: Tradition overruled changes of time and new perspectives of life. I first learned about this rule in notes from a job interview, where H.N. Andersen himself joined in; this was as early as 1908, taking place in the old headquarters on India Quay, now Asia House.

In Africa the young man could soon forget the traders; more appreciating people came around, a new assignment. A German donor wanted to examine whether the Christian communities in Tanzania would benefit from having print shops. The 13 dioceses were all placed in hilly areas. In a little old Cessna, Carsten visited the 13 bishops, interviewed them and made decisions. The final report was then delivered by him to the first African Cardinal residing near Lake Victoria.  An experience which has made a lasting impression on Carsten. This also introduced him to ‘Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG,’ the world market leader in printing machines and equipment. Thereby he was almost brought back to his childhood smell of printing ink. Carstens father was for many years’ a typographer and factor at ‘Berlingske Tidende’, a leading Danish daily.

Up the ladder

From Kenya, East Africa it was then Nigeria in 1967, where he was in charge of EAC’s graphic business in West Africa. The long lasting cooperation with Heidelberg  became most lucrative for both parties. EAC started to establish Printing and graphic schools. This continued in Indonesia and finally Japan in 1972.

In 1977 Carsten was then called to Thailand, as Managing Director and troubleshooter because of serious staff controverses. From this point the whole EAC and his own formal and informal positions got more and more interwoven as a web. Internally he is said to have been quite a tough man and a no-nonsense leader of the now Thai Ltd. registered company. He returned to EAC-Copenhagen in 1986 and after the catastrophic year of 1991/92 he was appointed Managing Director for the Group. Later in 1992 Michael Fiorini joined EAC from A.P. Moeller-Maersk, (the first external ever) and became Spokesman of the Management Board.

Fiorini and Carsten were faced with the necessity of selling assets including some of the ‘Crown Jevels’ and at the same time to get the core of the company business, especially in Asia, back on its feet; but the collapse in 1997 of the Asian economies starting in Thailand in July of that year was the final blow to that strategy. The bits and pieces then left of EAC sat up camp in Singapore, but Carsten didn’t want to go abroad again and eventually retired in year 2000. In 1999 he was appointed Consul General for Thailand in Denmark and made his domicile in Asia House, now an independent foundation. The house has grown in importance over the years. We will return to that in another article

Back to the company culture

So back to the lobby at Oriental: As can be seen we started to talk newer EAC history, but for reasons mentioned, only at surface level, here is not the time and the space either. A full scale research on The Company is on its way, we must wait for that.

But I have two final company culture questions that I cannot let go of, although I have doubts how concrete the answers will be: “In many articles it has been argued that only EAC generalists from the stable in Holbergsgade were appointed to positions where a specialist might have been a better solution?”.

Carsten is not in agreement: “Always the best man for the job, look for example at the forestry industry and the graphic business”

And it must at least be agreed that the teak concessions from the beginning were managed by professionals, starting with Mr. Fenger and Mr. Jagd. But how the appointments in the company in general matched the ever growing complexity in the manufacturing sector I am not sure, especially after the IT revolution.

My final question was also about decision making. Again from so many sources it is claimed that the leadership of EAC for many years was not capable of changing the course of the ship, although losses grew. To this Carsten stated that the time for the great Trading Companies belonged to a different era and he then came up with a Charles Darwin quotation:

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent but the one most responsive to change’.

After more than three hours we say goodbye to each other. Also to Lise, Carstens wife, who had patiently waited nearby the last hour. To grandson Oscar. To  Carsten, at 72 still going strong. Just outside on the landing a richly decorated Rolls is waiting – to carry the newly wedded young naval officer and his wife to the moon and the stars, – these conquerors of the future.

TO COME: Asia House. In a coming issue of this magazine Carsten and I shall deal with with the role and function of the house on India Quay. The house is becoming important as a platform for strengthening of the relations between Asia and Denmark, both regarding cultural issues and business. The house is owned by the EAC Foundation and also a place for Asian business research.

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