Pulling up trees | Monocle

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“It’s definitely a feel-good product; it’s the central point of the most important family celebration of the year,” says Bernt Johan Collet, chairman of one of the Europe’s largest Christmas tree companies, as he surveys the fields of firs that surround his Danish estate. “I do feel privileged to produce something that brings so much happiness.”

It was Collet’s father, Harald, who first started growing fir trees back in the 1950s as an experiment here at the family home, Lundbygaard Gods, an 18th-century neoclassical manor some 100km south of Copenhagen. Collet, meanwhile, was busy completing a stint in the Royal Life Guards, a mechanised infantry regiment in the Danish army, and studying at Copenhagen Business School. He went to work for a while in the then nascent US computer industry before eventually taking over the family business in 1971, but his CV since has been equally eclectic. While growing sales from a few thousand to almost one million trees a year, he has also found time to be a member of the Danish parliament, the headmaster of Denmark’s most prominent private school and, for a short stint back in the 1980s, the country’s defence minister.

What started as a family affair is now a much larger business, divided into Collet, which manages the 500 hectares of forests (including beech and oak “for everything from ice-lolly sticks to flooring”), and wholesaler Arbodania. Both companies are based in buildings on the estate. Collet’s surprisingly humble office is in the basement of the manor house, next to the gym where he trains most mornings, keeping the sprightly 76-year-old fit and on top of his game.

The Christmas-tree world is a cutthroat industry, according to Collet. He prefers not to go into details: “Let’s say, it doesn’t really run on normal business ethics.” To keep ahead, Collet is constantly working to innovate and streamline things. Together with Copenhagen University, Collet recently successfully cloned a Christmas tree, although until it’s a more economically viable way to grow them they’re sticking with grafting.

The company introduced palletising to the market in the 1990s, now industry standard. Six years ago they introduced variable pallet sizes and every stage of the process is now digitally controlled to maximise efficiency. “In the old days I had a spreadsheet that covered the floor out there,” says Collet, pointing at a marble-floored room outside his office. “One guy who had to run it went down with PTSD.” Peak activity is during the three weeks from early November. That’s when the company grows from about 20 employees to 210 and “all hell breaks loose” to get trees felled, graded into four categories of quality and in shops by the last week of the month. Planning for all eventualities, particularly machinery breaking down, is the key to handling this extreme seasonal fluctuation, says Collet.

Up to 600,000 seedlings are planted on site every year and another 500,000 trees are sourced from elsewhere in Denmark and beyond. The finished products are exported to 21 countries in Europe and Asia. Arbodania’s main market is central Europe, although it has sent trees to Hong Kong and Tokyo. The tallest one ever went to Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. “It was 15 metres high and cost €4,000,” says Collet.

Collet meets his estate manager and the ceo of Arbodania every Tuesday to monitor progress but otherwise prefers to be hands-off. “I’m not a boss who looks over people’s shoulders all the time but I like to involve everybody in the company.” Recently he asked employees to each come up with five suggestions for improvements, with great success. “Our mechanic, not usually a big talker, came up with several solutions that saved us 30 per cent on manual-labour costs [during peak season]. It was such a positive process.”

This collegiate approach is only possible in smaller companies with few layers of management, he concedes, but he relishes the agility it allows for. “We can turn 180 degrees in a few seconds.”

That agility is useful when it comes to meeting the varying Christmas tree demands from around the world. In continental Europe, for example, people prefer larger gaps between branches – “whorls” as they are known in the trade – to hang lit candles and other decorations. In the UK and the US, which are a little more timid about open flames on trees, people prefer smaller gaps more suited to tinsel. The French have a penchant for smaller trees, the Germans like them slender, the British prefer fatties and the Swiss demand trunks sharpened like a pencil. “We’re happy to supply those,” says Collet. “Whatever people want.”

The rules:

What time do you like to be at your desk?

Before 6am.

Are tough decisions best taken by one person or a group?

In a small company, in a group.

Do you want to be liked or respected?

I think you can be both. Nice and determined.

Do you run in the morning? Have wine with lunch?

I run 6km every other day. Wine: never on work days.

Where do you go for advice and guidance?

I have been married for 50 years to a very smart woman.

What would your key management advice be?

Utilise the manpower you have to the extremes of their abilities.

Is it OK for employees to disagree with you?

Yes. They get praise for telling me better ways to do things.

Have you made a mistake you wish you could take back?

If you dwell on these things you can stop moving forward.

What one thing would you fix about your company today?

If there was something, I would have done it.

Do you read management books?

Yes but also history books, biographies. Everything.

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