Albert Heijn: Dutch businessman who used his fortune to benefit Hereford
Friday 18 March 2011
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.
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.
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