Disruption and sustainability in agriculture: A conversation with Anders Nørgaard, CEO of FirstFarms

Disruption and sustainability in agriculture: A conversation with Anders Nørgaard, CEO of FirstFarms

Anders Nørgaard, CEO of FirstFarms, discusses the current disruptions in the agriculture sector and how his leadership style is adapting as a result.
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In this next episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Jacek Chodzko speaks to Anders Nørgaard, the CEO of FirstFarms, a Danish public company focused on investing in and operating agriculture farms in Central and Eastern Europe. Nørgaard discusses the current disruptions in the agriculture sector and how FirstFarms is responding to the various challenges and shares how and why his leadership style has become much more collaborative. He also talks about the importance of being a purpose-driven company for both attracting and retaining talent, why FirstFarms takes a very locally minded approach to business, and how he is looking ahead to new regulations aimed at preventing climate change.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Jacek Chodzko: Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. I'm Jacek Chodzko, a principal in Heidrick & Struggles Warsaw office, heading the EMEA agribusiness practice. In today's podcast, I have a great pleasure to talk to Anders Nørgaard, who's the CEO of FirstFarms, a listed Danish public company focused on investing in and operating agriculture farms in Central and Eastern Europe. To give a quick introduction, Anders brings previous experience from the financial services world. He was a relationship banker in his early career, followed by becoming the CFO of Eskelund, before joining FirstFarms as the CEO in 2012. Anders, welcome and thank you for taking the time to speak to us.

Anders Nørgaard: Thank you. Thank you for the invitation. 

Jacek Chodzko: A real pleasure. So, Anders, maybe starting with kind of high level, could you give us a perspective on where the agriculture sector is right now and how FirstFarms is responding to all the changes happening around us—Ukraine, the weather conditions, and so on?

Anders Nørgaard: You can say the farming business is disrupted a bit at the moment, as are a lot of the businesses around us. We are a listed company and we have a headquarters in Denmark, but we have owners from many countries and also a lot of our employees are owners. And we are operating in four Central European countries: Slovakia, Czech, Hungary and Romania. In general, our core business is crops, land, milk production, and peat production, with a high focus on circular operations and [corporate social responsibility], which is highly in focus for everybody at the moment. And what we like to do is work very close to the customers with high-quality products; that's mainly our deliver to the local markets. Now, people want branded products from their home country, and they want us to be and we want to be a more sustainable company. This is part of our DNA. In general, when we look at it, it's very important to be part of this new transition that's going on. Consumers are demanding a new normal and producers need to adapt to that. It's not only in farming business but that's in broad perspective. And you can say it’s sped up a lot. It started with our climate discussion first and then it was stressed by the Covid. That was a small boy, you can say, against mankind. And then the war in Ukraine was coming up, and then followed by a huge mass of inflation, high interest, extreme volatility on prices and so on. And it's actually the new norm that we need to adapt to. And then on the top of this, then you have the new cap rules coming from the EU, and the CSRD are pushing this transition heavily. It started in the beginning of January, when this directive was entered into force from the EU, and this is kind of the new directives in modernizing and strengthening the rules concerning the social and environmental information that we need to report to our customers and to the market through our annual reports from 2024 and 2025. So that's a huge transition going on, which we are very happy to be part of from the farming and food industry.

Jacek Chodzko: Is that affecting your leadership style and how you lead the company?

Anders Nørgaard: Yes, that's a very, very interesting question because there's a change going on in the leadership style, followed by the prior movement that I mentioned, and we need to adapt the demands from the next generation. I felt the movement going on for the last five years or something like that, and you can say now you have these new generation with generation Z, millennials, generation X, and boomers. And, you know, I'm part of—not the bottom, but nearly the bottom, and what you need to work with is the one in the front, generation Z, and they have huge demands to be part of the workforce. And that's why, when you look at the leadership style, you're changing from command and control to collaborative. So, you can't demand; you need to work with all the employees. Leadership is a relationship. You need to work within it. It's not as a boss–employee relationship, but as a normal relationship. Using emotional intelligence, you need to interact with your people, understand each other; you need to work with psychological safety. So, you need to be sure people around you feel safe, that they can actually ask questions, they can ask stupid questions, and so on. And then emotions as the key motivator, that's the new normal—you need to use emotions, because normally emotions were not part of leadership.

Jacek Chodzko: So, from top down to much more collaboration. 

Anders Nørgaard: Yes, exactly. So, actually, you can see leadership is a manifestation of my leadership story. I'm my own author to help people see me. And when they see me, they see the company, how we work and think. In general, we need to use more time, talk about the solution, disagree, adjust, agree, and in a positive way but also with a lot of emotions, and working with psychological safety during this process. So you actually work with disagreement as part of finding the best solutions. That's the style that I like a lot. So we actually can test the corners, having the best solutions. And then the last thing I could mention is that we need to push our colleagues to be kind and not only nice. What we mean is that kind is curious to make the waves and nice is fear to rock the boat. So you need to work with a kind mindset, instead of just a nice mindset where you just please people around you. We need and so on to seek a better truth by thinking together. 

Jacek Chodzko: I found on your website, and I've seen that part of your mission statement of FirstFarms, is to take responsibility for the communities across Central and Eastern Europe.

Anders Nørgaard: Yes. 

Jacek Chodzko: Tell us maybe, Anders, a little bit about what skills and capabilities your leadership team needs to achieve this.

Anders Nørgaard: In general, we try to be local. We are listed company so everybody can actually own us. We are not a privately owned company, so everybody can be part of it. Then we try to be with local management a lot, be present, educate, train, talk to people, be local partners. And if I could mention an example here: three weeks ago, we had the grand opening of a new production site in Hungary. We had the Agricultural Ministry represented at the opening, and we used this event to have all fellow citizens and local partners together with our management, network, and connect partnerships. And after the official assemblies, we had celebrations with the full management locally. We had a small party in the woods with food on the fire, very nice. And there we were able to talk openly and relaxed, which is part of our foundation for how to work, providing a protected environment and responsible environment for the employees to talk. We need to be local because people want local products. 

Jacek Chodzko: And has this connection to the local context and that positive mission helped you to attract and retain talent in those markets? I know it's quite tricky in some of them to recruit talent.

Anders Nørgaard: Yes. During this process, we found it was very important to have a core narrative. You have to have your DNA so you can actually tell people how we're working, how we’re thinking. And there's a new trend also that you need to have a purpose; you lift yourself to a higher level, saying what you actually leverage in the local society. And people must identify themselves with that, and they also want to identify themselves as working with that in the company, a company that is part of their lifestyle. We say that our purpose is to contribute to a healthier world with food products that are produced with respect for people, animals, soil, and climate. And that's why we try to raise ourselves. You can't be totally green and so on, because you know there's always a negative side when you make it for top crop production somehow.

Jacek Chodzko: I wanted to ask you about the European Green Deal as well because it's very much connected to what you just told us. 

Anders Nørgaard: Yes. 

Jacek Chodzko: How will this affect your leadership and culture in the company going forward?

Anders Nørgaard: In general, we want to be part of this culture, because it's very interesting. There's also bottom line in it, if you look at the shareholder issues, because, of course, we are here for the shareholders in the end. But that's also how we attract employees and customers. But I'm trying to find my way in the company to do it right, because we have these new cap rules coming up from EU, we have the CSRD I just mentioned, and there's actually no actual way through yet. There's no way to measure things, to report and so on. But we are following it closely and we are trying to also make some measurements to be a bit ahead of what's going on, because you need to have the license to produce and you only keep that by being in the front line.

Jacek Chodzko: And, in order to kind of meet your targets, your bottom line, you know, your value targets, how do you think agriculture companies will have to adjust in the next couple of years?

Anders Nørgaard: You need to be closer to the market, you need to be very good at networking to find out what people want, and then you need to work with your people. It's quite simple. You need just to be agile, to be very fast to adjust. The society around us is changing so fast and when you're working in farming, it's quite a super tanker from this perspective, we are not moving easy from one side to another. Normally, when we make investments, it's for 20 years, so you can't adjust very fast, but we need to think ahead all the time. 

Jacek Chodzko: And, for you, as a CEO, given all this uncertainty—you just mentioned the volatility in those markets—what have you learned in this process, Anders? 

Anders Nørgaard: I've learned to always be curious and to talk to people. Education: always try to educate yourself, never stop educating yourself and being around, being out there, talking to your employees, being close to them. Because if you try to work with things from a framework, then you will not get it. 

Jacek Chodzko: Tell us a little bit about when you look ahead. We talked about talent, we talked about the regulatory change. What do you think will be the most important leadership skills for a company to meet its goals over the next three to five years? 

Anders Nørgaard: Our organization is growing in volatile surroundings, which puts new demands on our company. So, when you look at our group strategy for 2025, it’s adjusted to challenges and possibilities that we are facing. And we have defined that in the four areas in which we focus in our strategic work, to be able to continue to run a good business ahead and achieve our goals. These four areas are organization development—that meets people which we are talking about here; leadership and how do we work with that; business development, how do we make more of what we are good at but also improve the value chain closer to consumers, think circularly; and then last is sustainability—we need to reduce the greenhouse gases and we need to not only talk the CSR, we need to walk the CSR, we need to show we are making some movements ahead. One of the plays that we need to do is we need to make a war against the company. We need to find out what is the fastest way to kill the company, and then the day after you work with the defense, then you find out how to make the company survive. So, that's more or less what I think in my mindset, that you need always to try to find your way through so nobody is actually able to take the life out of your company.

Jacek Chodzko: That's really reassuring to hear that. Anders, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. Really, really enjoyed the conversation. And yes, I think all the best with all these initiatives. I think the next couple of years will be very busy for you.

Anders Nørgaard: Thank you. My pleasure to be here.

Thanks for listening to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don't miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you're listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time. 

About the interviewer

Jacek Chodzko (jchodzko@heidrick.com) is a principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ Warsaw office and a member of the Industrial, Financial Services, and Corporate Officers practices. He leads the Europe and Africa agribusiness and food sector.

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