- On 2. December 2016
If you want to apply a label to Henrik Bjørn Linnemann, then the word “change specialist” would hit the nail on the head rather accurately. On the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, Henrik tells us about how he got to where he is today, as senior partner at AlfaNordic A/S.
I started out as a paper boy, he says with a smile, when you ask him about his work life. He doesn’t recall whether his grades from his high school graduation were something to be particularly proud of, but the grades took a turn for the better when he started attending DTH (as the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) was called in 1993) where everything was more interest-oriented. He was 26 when he graduated with a Master of Science in Engineering, and a speciality within corrosion, and his first job was quite literally a treasure hunt. His father was chief of the Navy’s Divers Unit and recommended Henrik for a consultant job with Karsten Ree, owner of Den Blå Avis, where he participated in hoisting up a German submarine. His first task was very specifically to analyse a piece of railing that had just been hauled up from a depth of approximately 60 metres.
They never found any treasure on the submarine, and Henrik started on a PhD in atmospheric corrosion in Manchester, but was 3-4 months later offered a job with NKT in Middelfart as a development engineer. In this position, he took part in product development and quality control. Henrik’s superior quit his job after six months and recommended that Henrik take over his position as laboratory manager. Henrik remembers that he learned a lot about environment and particularly about being cost-conscious. Unit prices do matter when you manufacture and sell nails and screws. In 1998, Henrik joined Novo Nordisk’s filling plant in Kalundborg as QA in validation. This is when he started his career within validation in earnest. From Novo Nordisk, he transferred to NNE as validation project manager and later department manager.
Henrik was almost 30 when he met his wife, Anne Cathrine. They had been seated next to each other at a wedding. Some of their mutual friends thought that that was a really good idea, as indeed it was, Henrik laughs. They were married in 1998. Anne Cathrine is an MA in Russian, Danish and English, she is an upper secondary school teacher and a lecturer. Today, she teaches at Copenhagen VUC (Adult Education Center). The family has always been a great part of Henrik’s accomplishments. In the beginning, they lived in Slagelse on a tiny farm where their first boy, Alexander, was born. Henrik had fun playing at being a leisure farmer and discussed all kinds of issues with the local farmers. He knew nothing about farming – nothing whatsoever – so he borrowed books on cattle keeping, talked to the locals and learned from his own experiences. All went well and he sold quite a lot of meat to Kalundborg and the surrounding country. Later on, they bought a bigger farm with 34 acres of land in Gundestrup near Holbæk, with a view of Issefjorden. They lived on that farm for a couple of years with cows, sheep and other animals. After that, they dropped life in the countryside. It was time to try something new. Henrik was assigned to Brazil by NNE, and he then moved with the entire family to Clayton in the US where Alexander started school.
After the US – and except for a brief stop with PFA in Copenhagen – Henrik worked as a freelancer in a guns-for-hire bureau where he commuted weekly to and from countries like Spain and Holland. Technically hired by NNE, but not as an employee. All this commuting business began to be a bit hard, but, like he says, sometimes we must apparently expect it to hurt before we understand the message. It was during this period that he began talking to Thomas and Ole (Thomas Meldgaard Petersen and Ole Bækgaard) who combined constituted AlfaNordic at the time.
In 2008, Gustav was born, in 2009 Henrik joined AlfaNordic as a third partner, and about six months later, he and Thomas went with AlfaNordic to China to act as builder consultants on a plant for Novozymes. Henrik moved his entire family to China for three years. Those were exciting times. AlfaNordic founded a company in China and tried to make it on the Chinese market, but it wasn’t easy. They experienced many funny and slightly bizarre things and obstacles. An example: When it was time to finally have a company approved, then the police was the last authority you had to deal with. Henrik remembers that a police woman behind her desk held out her hand and expected something to be placed in it – a small token of appreciation in exchange for the approval. In such ways, the Chinese business culture was somewhat different from the Danish culture. They also participated in several tender rounds and at some point, they won one, but after that they heard nothing even though they mailed and called several times. When the project for Novozymes in China came to an end, it was time to go home again. It was time to establish AlfaNordic in Denmark in earnest.
What did you want to be when you were young?
”I actually didn’t know. After Secondary School, I first did my military service with the Hussar Regiment, and I was then a trainee with the savings bank SDS, but quit after two months, – that was not a position for a restless soul like me”. He laughs. ”They had never had a trainee quit his or her position, so they had to call the head office. I actually don’t know for sure why I ended up with DTH (now DTU) and corrosion. It is often by opt-out rather than by choice that we figure out what we are good at. These things more or less happen by chance. I had been talking earlier to Helsingør Teknikum because I knew somebody who was a student there, but I was a few days late making the application deadline. So DTH it was. I was interested in Materials Technology, and I liked the instructor, professor Maahn. He was demanding, but good as an instructor. Studying there was self-supporting and I really liked that. It was a very good period of my life.
How were you able to take the plunge from NKT to Novo Nordisk?
When I was holding a nail and a screw in my hand at NKT, it was not exactly written that I was to help build insulin plants, but I have a degree as a mechanical engineer, so those skills are closely connected to constructing process plants. My employment was based on those skills. Their quality department was looking for a person who was able to understand their engineers when they were to have something approved. At NKT, we were ISO-certified, so I knew something about quality and quality control, even though I was in no way an expert at the time. It was always quality applied to some technical aspects that I knew quite a bit about, so the collective package was apparently sufficient for them to hire me and then teach me some more about validation.
How do you keep your family together alongside with everything that you have been up to?
The times when we travel together, we are actually closer than when we are at home. The rest of the family and our friends are in Denmark, – that alone makes us move closer together. And my family has been very flexible. We have always been allowed our space. That is very impressive. Sometimes it may also have been advantageous for us to be apart a little. That has given us some space and made it possible for us to retreat into ourselves for a while. But Brazil was actually rather hard on us, with Alexander being just a small boy. The first time I was at home in two weeks, it was hard to go back to Brazil again. The second time, it was even harder. So I decided that this was not what our lives would be like in the future. Luckily, Anne Cathrine has always been game for travelling out in the world, and the timing has often been good as she has also felt that it was time for something new.
When you were leisure-farming, was your regular job then an 8 – 4 job, thus allowing you time for farming?
No, it wasn’t actually. I was just younger, he says with a smile. I didn’t view it as a duty, on the contrary. I greatly relaxed observing those animals. It was something quite different, highly tangible. That was also when I learned how to haggle. When you want to sell something, you need to be a bit cheeky. You have to observe the opponent, you have to see what they want, and you don’t have to be overly polite. You must have the guts to state your price, and that is something that I have later been able to put to use.
Can you express in words what it is that you can do?
I am very goal-fixated. No doubt about it, much more goal-fixated than process-fixated. How do we get from A to B? It is about having a strong will. Will is the ultimate.
What does “will” mean to you?
It means that we do not give up. If we set our goal and decide on a timeframe, we do it. You cannot use all kinds of excuses, we don’t accept all kinds of violins playing the good story. It is the will to achieve the goal – even if it hurts, and it always hurts at some point or another. It may be easy to quit, to throw in the towel, but if you want to get something out of it yourself, then the only way is to grit your teeth and get on with it.
Do you yourself remember having to give up?
Yes, indeed. Otherwise I would be a bit of a superhuman. This is what you learn from. You have to pull yourself together and look at what went wrong, and use it to move on. You can only discover your top performance pattern by also looking at when it goes wrong. Age means something in this context. Over time, you learn in what areas you function optimally. I have no doubt that I am at my best in a setup where I am a sort of start-up promoter. In a setup where an intensive will is needed when something is to be kick-started. As soon as it is up and running, becomes more process-oriented, it gets less interesting to me. That is not where I am at my best. That is another phase.
You are in good shape. Is the physical aspect a part of the entirety?
It means a lot to my well-being, both physically and psychically, that I practice sport. When I was young, I played badminton a lot, also at competition level. Later, I started jogging and I always liked that. I still jog approx. 10 km three times a week, and over the years, I have participated in 10 marathon races. In addition, I have started swimming. I got started with this at a rather late point in my life. My goal is to be able to crawl lengths. Right now my face sometimes turns blue, and it seems like I swallow half of the pool, but I’ll get there.
Why did you become part of AlfaNordic?
I had already decided to become self-employed when Thomas and Ole approached me. Like me, Thomas and Ole are both mechanical engineers, but more on the project management side, whereas I am more on the validation side. I had met Thomas a number of times in NNE contexts. They wanted to talk to me because I was on the market and I have this QA background. I am actually not sure precisely how they had heard of me. I think they knew that I was independent / a freelancer, and they needed a quality leg in their constellation, so we talked and agreed that I was to join them as a partner.
Was your family prepared to go to China just like that?
We talked about the project and what could happen if we accepted. They suddenly needed to assign a validation manager to the project. I remember talking on the phone with the project manager in China, an Australian. He wanted me to come out there right away, but I needed to finish and hand over some projects in Denmark first. We agreed that I was to go out there immediately to inspect the project and then move out there with my family as soon as possible. Not long after that, we moved out there with solidly packed suitcases. Anne Cathrine was on maternity leave at the time, with Gustav 9 months old. His hair was snow-white, so the Chinese were very impressed and wanted to touch him and tousle his hair.
Was the contract that you had with Novozymes the only contract you had at that point?
Yes, and Ole was working in Denmark trying to generate some more business. We landed a few, small jobs outside of Novozymes, but we didn’t have enough to make it really work. We submitted bids for projects. This was often a very formal process – you had to hand over your project wrapped in brown paper and stand all in a row while it was unwrapped and presented.
Was Novozymes the first big project for AlfaNordic?
Thomas and Ole had been working with a few things before that, but these were minor tasks.
Did you intend to keep working in China when the task for Novozymes had been handed over?
No, at that point we agreed that we wanted to go home. We would have liked to employ some people who could continue running the business in China, and we almost succeeded, but then, that fell through.
How many were you when you had your peak work load in China?
About 30 people considering themselves to be associates of AlfaNordic. The actual core was a bit smaller.
When did you start talking with Christian (Christian Ilsøe)?
That actually started when we were still in China. We needed to get some networking going in Denmark, and Thomas and Christian began working on this. Ole had decided that he preferred having his own business and just being on his own. A lot of things happened in China. We had to make a lot of decisions with regard to the company out there, and it had been hard for Ole to participate in these decisions. I saw on LinkedIn that Christian was looking for challenges. We knew Christian from NNE, so we called him. We needed somebody with a network different from the network that Thomas and I had, and furthermore, Christian was able to bring with him a lot of skills within quality assurance. He came directly from DS Certificering.
Seeing that you have been very successful, what do you think is such a good fit in that constellation, Christian, Thomas and you?
We are rather different and we each have our focus areas. That means a lot, no doubt.
Has that partnership always been easy?
No, it has not. We all have strong attitudes, but we have created a framework, some rules that apply to us. It is about AlfaNordic. We have always strongly agreed on the vision for AlfaNordic. This is what keeps us together. The values and the goals are in place.
What is your focus area?
I enjoy the freedom that I have now to try out some things. I initiate things. A good deal of stubbornness is needed when you have to start up something new. It requires will and a lot of work energy. I can clearly feel that I am no longer 20 years old. Starting something new has become harder, but that doesn’t mean that I have any intentions of stopping. Not at all. I just need to relate to the situation and find some solutions, he says and laughs, and I now tend to follow my interests. That is one of the reasons why I study the history of art.
Why exactly did you choose to throw yourself into the history of art?
I really wanted to start studying again. It was one of these restless moments. With the job that I have, it would probably have been more relevant for me to throw myself at an MBA, but I simply didn’t feel like doing that. I believe it has something to do with age. The liberal arts have become more interesting,” he says with a smile. ”I looked for subjects that I could study at the university in the evenings and outside normal work hours. The history of art caught my eye. I have always liked history so I started selecting subjects and passing examinations. This went well, so I bought a lot of art books and began getting a Bachelor of Art at the university – until I found out that you cannot complete the actual bachelor degree at the Open University. You can complete all the subjects, but you cannot write the actual examination paper. With that, my goal sort of vanished into thin air. A lot of people would probably say that I could just study the subject, enjoy it and have fun doing it, but, I definitely also want to have a goal, so I took the consequences and signed up for the Open University in England. You can do your studies there from a distance. So I am at the moment in the process of getting an MA (Master of Arts) instead. I am on my second year now. I spend about 1-2 hours a day reading, and the process gets more intense when I have to write papers. I usually get up early in the morning, drink a cup of coffee and read for about an hour while my head is still clear. This is a very rewarding process – a completely different way of thinking from what I have been used to.
I don’t understand why the open university culture is not pursued more in Denmark. If I chose to stop now, I would receive a piece of paper stating that I have accomplished the first year. Lots of people outside Denmark take a subject here and there and they thus slowly but surely end up with an academic degree that they can use in their work life. People for example achieve a degree as an engineer in this way. They may have been working with the production line for some years and slowly but surely they have obtained an academic degree. And suddenly they have in-depth knowledge of machinery and they have also accumulated some theory on top of that. People evolving from this process are strong people. These possibilities are often not available in Denmark and that is simply frustrating. But let’s hope we’ll get there.”
What kind of art are you looking at?
My taste runs along much broader lines after I have learned something about art. I particularly like art from the second half of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, but the more I learn about everything the more exiting I actually find it. At the moment, I am mostly into paintings and sculptures.
Are you interested in any particular artists?
The French artist Édouard Manet. I really like him. He was very controversial in his time and very pathbreaking in relation to the establishment at the time. It took many years for him to be recognised and accepted.