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
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
News
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
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

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game