Paul Van Vlissingen

Dutch billionaire who applied his business philosophy to conservation and became an ideal Highland laird


Paul Fentener van Vlissingen, businessman, conservationist and philanthropist: born Utrecht 21 March 1941; executive chairman, SHV Holdings NV 1984-98, board chairman 1998-2005; married (two daughters); died Langbroek, The Netherlands 21 August 2006.

The Dutch businessman Paul van Vlissingen was best known in Britain for advocating the release of wolves, lynx and other wild animals. However, after acquiring a large Highland estate and a smaller shooting estate in Hampshire, he left a deeper mark as a conscientious and principled landowner. He brought to land-management problems the Dutch tradition of dialogue and constructive debate. And he used his personal fortune to support good causes from Africa's run-down National Parks to cancer research and promoting the Scottish Gaelic language.

In his native Netherlands, van Vlissingen was regarded as the embodiment of free enterprise. The family firm, SHV, is the largest privately owned trading company in Europe, employing more than 30,000 people in 25 countries. During his stint as company chairman in the 1980s, Paul van Vlissingen developed SHV's interests in gas distribution, oil exploration and scrap-metal recycling. He also expanded the Europe-wide Makro chain of wholesale stores. Sales tripled during his tenure at the top before he stepped down to pursue his other interests in 1998.

By 2005, van Vlissingen was described as the fourth richest person in the Netherlands and the richest foreign landowner in Scotland with a personal wealth of £1.1bn.

He extended his business philosophy to the natural world. His solution to falling numbers of lapwing was to market their eggs. The birds, he argued, will lay again after losing the first clutch. By making a small profit from the bird, the landowner would be committed to the survival of the lapwing. This idea did not appeal to the RSPB but apparently works well in Holland.

Eager to put his Utopian ideas about land management and public responsibility into practice, and in love with the Scottish Highlands since childhood, in 1978 van Vlissingen bought the wild, roadless 80,000-acre (32,000-hectare) Letterewe estate in Wester Ross. His approachability and generous instincts made him an unorthodox laird. In 1993 he made a " Letterewe Accord" with ramblers, climbers and others in which he offered unlimited public access in exchange for a pledge of responsible conduct. "All we ask," said van Vlissingen, "is that people take out what they bring in and respect the land." This agreement led directly to the establishment of the National Access Forum in Scotland and subsequent access legislation.

"I don't call myself the owner," he said of Letterewe. "You can't own a place like this. It belongs to the planet. I'm only the guardian of it." He sometimes saddled a pony with a week's provisions and disappeared into the hills, staying at a bothy without lights or a toilet. He was in the habit of inviting everyone, whether landowners, journalists, birdwatchers or ramblers, to visit the estate and talk about issues face to face.

Broadly speaking his philosophy was to work as far as possible with nature. It was partly to introduce a more natural way of controlling deer and partly to encourage debate that he held a press conference calling for "the return of the wolf". In the latter aim he certainly succeeded, although the return of the wolf is no nearer to accomplishment.

Van Vlissingen also acquired the 2,500-acre Conholt estate on the downs near Andover, which he made his permanent home in 1994. He and his long-term partner Caroline Tisdall, the writer and art historian, developed the estate into a showcase for sustainable land management, game rearing and nature conservation. As far as possible he kept the estate free of fences with informal open access for local people. He also encouraged the Game Conservancy to use his land as an outdoor laboratory to study partridge and songbirds.

Africa became the main focus of his energies after stepping down from everyday company matters in 1998. Discussing the neglected state of so many of Africa's National Parks with Nelson Mandela, he was challenged by the latter to come up with a solution. Van Vlissingen decided that the answer lay, in effect, in privatising the parks. He started by putting €25m of his own money into relaunching Marakele Park in South Africa as a public-private partnership.

However it was clear that poorer African countries needed help more. Van Vlissingen's African Parks Foundation took over the management of other parks as nonprofit businesses. He ploughed back revenue from tourists into protecting wildlife from poachers and human encroachment. The foundation currently manages 10 parks across sub-Saharan Africa, covering over two million hectares in Zambia, Ethiopia, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and employing around 750 people.

As well as protecting wild animals and their habitat, van Vlissingen was committed to creating lasting benefits to local communities in terms of jobs and opportunities. Typically he insisted on minimal bureaucracy, with decisions being taken locally. The foundation's work won endorsements from Mandela, the World Bank and many conservation bodies, but has been criticised by local politicians who believe the land should be under the people's control.

Paul van Vlissingen was born near Utrecht in 1941 during the German occupation of the Netherlands. The youngest of three brothers and a sister, he was a thoughtful child who spent much of his time outdoors wandering about the countryside. His parents joked that they had three children " and a gypsy". After secondary school he studied economics at the University of Groningen - reluctantly since he was more interested in philosophy.

He joined the family firm in 1960, initially in the financial department but later moving into its oil business. He gained experience working for the Amoco and Chevron oil companies in America before returning to the Netherlands to a senior management position in SHV. He joined the company board in 1974 and, 10 years later, succeeded his brother Frits as executive chairman.

Paul van Vlissingen's management style was characterised by his energy and personal charisma, and an aversion to bureaucracy and formal management structures. He was famous for his ability to find unconventional solutions to business problems. He evolved a management style which was brisk, thoughtful and emphasised respect for people, whether in business or in his charitable work.

Throughout his life van Vlissingen read widely and systematically, setting aside time each day to do so. He published poetry and illustrated books on issues and places he thought important. In 2001 he wrote Ondernemers zijn ezels ("Entrepeneurs are Asses"), in which he discussed his experience at the head of SHV Holdings. It was followed by Overstekende ezels ("Crossing Asses", 2002), in which he reflected on business, corruption, money, change and life generally.

Van Vlissingen was an enthusiastic stalker and a skilful fisherman, though friends sensed that he seemed to get at least as much pleasure from watching as participating. He supported field sports and the Countryside Alliance, seeing shooting and hunting as a necessary and desirable part of rural life and as a bond between humans and nature. He was a generous host and valued his friends, among them members of the Dutch and British royal families and the poet Ted Hughes. He loved animated conversation, laughed a lot and had a ready sense of humour, but little or no small talk.

After a near-fatal brush with pancreatic cancer in 1980, van Vlissingen became intensely interested in medical research. He founded the Van Vlissingen Cancer Fund, now one of the largest such charities in the Netherlands. Another good cause to which he and Caroline Tisdall were devoted was Gaelic. Their "Letterewe Scholarships" to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye, are designed to further the study of Gaelic culture and history.

Last April van Vlissingen announced publicly that he had terminal pancreatic cancer and declined any further treatment apart from painkillers. " Chemotherapy would merely prolong my life by a couple of months," he told the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf. "And what sort of life would that be?" To him death was "a philosophical notion - more mysterious than frightening".

He used the same interview to plead for better environmental protection. "Our planet is in a much sorrier state than it was when I was a child," he said:

The destruction cannot go on at this pace. My generation should be ashamed of the condition in which we are passing on our planet to future generations.

Peter Marren

Paul van Vlissingen was above all a wilderness man, writes Duff Hart-Davis. Goaded by the fact that in his native Holland almost all open country had vanished - as he remarked, "If you're detected so much as setting a mouse-trap, the Greens come and camp in your drive" - he bought Letterewe. There, amid 80,000 acres of mountain, rock, water, grass and heather, he established himself as an ideal Highland laird.

A powerful walker, he strode over every yard of his huge domain, and learnt the Gaelic names of every loch and burn, every corrie, ridge and ben. Over the years he resisted all suggestions for opening up the place with new roads or developing it in any way: his ambition was to keep it in its pristine state for future generations.

He was a formidable deerstalker, with a bent for scientific study. The antlers and jawbones of every stag shot on the forest, preserved in a small museum, demonstrated how selective culling raised the quality of the resident herd to a remarkable degree. He and his partner Caroline trained two deer-hounds, Tuesday and Wednesday, to go to the hill with them, and, when he crawled into a stalk, the great dogs crawled as well.

He delighted in the fact that the main lodge, on the eastern shore of Loch Maree, was accessible only by boat, and that there were no roads to either of the outlying lodges - Carnmore (eight miles over the mountain) and Larachantivore (17 miles). Friends sent out to stalk for a week had to fend for themselves, without electricity or communications, but were supplied with fabulous wine. "You'll find some bottles under the stairs," Paul would say. "I hope they're all right." Who will ever forget drinking perfectly aged Château Cheval Blanc or Château Palmer by candlelight, with stags roaring in the dark outside the windows?

In Hampshire it was another wilderness that lured him. Conholt Park had fallen derelict under its previous owner, an old lady, and Paul was enchanted by its wonderful, curving valley, two miles long, with woods hanging on its sides, and overgrown grass banks dotted with yews of immense girth and antiquity.

The first time he walked down that magical lost world, he stopped to answer a call of nature; and, when two woodcock - most elusive and mysterious of game-birds - sprang up from under the jet, he decided there and then that this was the place for him.

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