Albert Heijn: Dutch businessman who used his fortune to benefit Hereford

The name Albert Heijn is as familiar to the Dutch as Sainsbury is to the British, being that of the biggest supermarket chain in the Netherlands. It is similarly well-known in pockets of the Welsh Marches, where the grandson and namesake of the company's founder lived for the last 20 years of his life, investing part of his fortune in redeveloping a run-down part of Hereford, becoming one of Hereford Cathedral's leading benefactors, and restoring the neglected North Herefordshire estate of a Victorian coal baron to its original grandeur.

Albert Heijn, the company, grew out of a single grocery shop in Zaandam, just north of Amsterdam, opened in 1887 by a retailing visionary who advertised his wares with the slogan "cheap enough for the man in the street and good enough for the millionaire". Within a decade he had established 23 shops, and by 1911 he was selling Albert Heijn-branded biscuits, chocolate and buttermilk soap.

The business continued to flourish, and shortly after the Second World War, his grandson started as a trainee, folding paper bags. By the time Albert Heijn II retired as president and CEO in 1989, having tried never to waver from his grandfather's founding principle that "what is good for the customer is also good for the business," he had overseen the creation of a multinational empire, renamed Royal Ahold, with annual sales of 17.7bn guilders (€8bn). Moreover, he had also played a leading role in refining the bar code. The Americans had started developing the idea in the 1950s as a way of minimising queues and managing stock levels, but it was Heijn, one of the world's most influential grocers, who championed the standard 13-digit bar code that is in global use today.

In 1992, following the death of his third wife, Heijn remarried. The fourth Mrs Heijn, Monique, whom he had known since she was in her teens and he in his late thirties, was Dutch but lived in England. A keen Anglophile, Heijn agreed to relocate. They bought a huge, castellated Victorian folly in Herefordshire called Pudleston Court that had been built in the late 1840s by a Lancashire coal baron named Elias Chadwick. The property had been an RAF convalescent home during the war (the author James Herriot was a patient there) and more recently a local-authority borstal. The Heijns painstakingly oversaw its restoration, which included the removal from the walls and ceilings of rubberised yellow paint, the remnants of a consignment used by Herefordshire council to mark yellow lines on roads.

They also installed a formidable security operation. In September 1987, Heijn's younger brother, Gerrit Jan, an executive in the company, had been kidnapped. Heijn negotiated with the kidnappers via a series of gnomic ads in a Dutch newspaper, one of which was "Johan. I recognised your voice on the train. We must talk. Maria." The kidnappers demanded a ransom of 8.4m guilders, and posted Gerrit Jan's left little finger to show their serious intent. A huge cause célèbre in the Netherlands, the case continued for more than seven months. Tragically, it eventually emerged that Gerrit Jan had been murdered, and buried in woods near Arnhem, on the very day he was kidnapped.

Despite the high walls and electric fences at Pudleston Court, however, the Heijns refused to be reclusive, embracing their adopted county of Herefordshire with gusto, and better still, finance. The swish Left Bank complex of shops and restaurants was built on a near-derelict site next to the river Wye in Hereford, not so much with an eye for profit but more with an instinct, as Heijn put it, "for fun". It must have tickled him no end that the cafe there was called De Koffie Pot, and sold delicacies previously unknown to many Herefordians such as gouda with cumin.

His was a gouda-ed, guildered, but not entirely gilded life, however. If the murder of his brother was its most heartrending tragedy, the onset of polio, in 1944, was its most debilitating. He never walked unaided again, and in his later years was wheelchair-bound and, finally, bedridden. Yet self-pity was alien to him.

I last saw him about five months ago, when I sat by his bedside at Pudleston Court for well over an hour listening to his fascinating recollections of the German occupation, and of his early years in business. Despite his great wealth, his entrepreneurial skill and his tremendous influence in the world of retailing, he remained to the end a man of exceptional humility; gentle, generous and kind and with an ever-present twinkle in his eye.

Brian Viner

Albert Heijn, Dutch supermarket tycoon: born Zaandam, Netherlands 25 January 1927; Knight of the Order of the Netherlands; married four times (one son); died Pudleston, Herefordshire 13 January 2011.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
science
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
tv
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders were pictured embracing in 2012
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

HSE Manger - Solar

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: HSE Mana...

Data Governance Manager (Solvency II) – Contract – Up to £450 daily rate, 6 month (may go Permanent)

£350 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently looking...

Powertrain Design Engineer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I hope you are well. My client based in ...

Java Developer - Banking - London - Up to £560/day

£500 - £560 per day: Orgtel: Java Developer FX - Banking - London - Up to £560...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried