The boss of Brabant

How a poor guy conquers the sugar industry

It’s the first thing you notice: that look in his eyes. Thoughtful, desicive, self-concious. Judging purely on appearance you can immediately tell that this is man who has left his mark. And that guess is right. For this is Jan Frederik Vlekke, the Steve Jobs of the sugar beet industry.

This is the Mecca of sugar

At the end of the 19th century sugar goes from being a luxury to being a mass product and the southwest of the Netherlands quickly becomes the Silicon Valley of the sugar industry. With Stampersgat being Cupertino. Here you can find the Apple Campus, or the

Gastel Sugar Factory.

Vlekke becomes head of the factory in 1881. And this quickly sets things in motion. The shareholders are the luckiest people on earth with unprecedented high dividends: at the peak, in 1894, they receive payments of 40%. Among them is Vlekke’s complete opposite: mayor Mastboom of Oud Gastel, notorious for his stinginess. Given the profits, it’s not surprising that Vlekke is also made president of St. Antoine, the other large sugar factory in Halderberge. The white factory located at the St. Antoinedijk is now on the national heritage list, as a prototype for traditional artisanal architecture.


Pioneering on clay soil

How does Vlekke get it all done? There is no shortage of outlets. There is high demand for raw sugar, the semi-finished product delivered by the sugar factories. The competitive game revolves around sourcing raw materials. Sugar beet do well on the West Brabant clay, or 'the sugar corner', but there are more corsairs in the market

Vlekke is an innovator. Other manufacturers are putting pressure on farmers to grow and sell their beets as cheaply as possible. Quantity over quality. But Vlekke does things differently. He wants beets with an extremely high level of sugar. Vlekke opens laboratories to examine sugar beets. He publishes a magazine containing articles on how to grow beets with a higher sugar level. And he doesn’t just pay farmers a fixed price per kilo, but also takes the sugar level of their beets into account. Translated to modern times: Vlekke invests in research & development, stimulates sharing knowledge and introduces a performance and reward system. We now call this progressive entrepreneurship, and in the 20th century it’s revolutionary.

Everyone benefits

It’s not just the capitalists who benefit from Vlekke’s efforts, the farmers who grow the beets also profit. He offers them participation agreements, which means that they get a share of the profits made with their beets. By doing so, he ensures large supplies for his factories.

And the factory workers? Vlekke treats them well. He pays relatively high wages to keep experienced workers aboard. He establishes a good work environment that includes bathing facilities, a library, brass band and a cycling club.

Vlekke arranges a pension fund, health insurance and a fund for widows for the employees of St. Antoine and the Gastel Sugar Factory. He introduces collective insurance, a factory savings bank with high interests and a cooperative financing arrangement that provides the construction of houses for his staff. Vlekke gets all this done because his financers have absolutely nothing to complain about. Even before the year 1900, he single-handedly proves what the benefits of coporate social responsibility are.

Breaking through the glass ceiling

Vlekke’s achievements are even more impressive if you know where he was coming from. Jan Frederik Vlekke is the oldest son of a simple family. His father worked as a bargeman’s mate, his mother was a maid. In an era where social mobility was extremely limited, he went from being a teacher on a primary school to an influential factory owner.

Surely, he works hard. After a day of teaching, he works as an office clerk in the Gastel Sugar Factory. But hard work is normal in those days. Vlekke is also in the right place at the right time.

The sugar business is booming. After working parttime at the office for five years, he gets a fulltime job as an accountant at the sugar factory. Which is a strong move upwards for a young man with such a simple background.

But it’s marriage that really helps him break through the glass ceiling (though hardened steel ceiling is more appropriate in regard to the 20th century). He marries a woman with status, the daughter of wealthy farmer. And that’s when the big boys really start to notice him.

The comparison with Jobs?

What Vlekke did with beets can be seen as a blueprint for Apple. He’s dominating THE booming business of his time with innovative thinking. He knows how to bind the best employees to his company. And he’s a charismatic speaker who can win over influential people. Vlekke belongs to the great industrials of his generation, such as Van Marken and Stork.

Like Jobs, Vlekke dies relatively young, he’s in his mid-50s. After his death, administrators cancel most of the arrangements and funds. But his legacy is a very interesting CSR case and a fruitful period for capitalists, farmers and factory workers and traces of that are still visible in Halderberge.

Jan Frederik Vlekke is honoured with a plaque at the Stampersgat church, which was built thanks to his efforts.