Founded 40 years ago in the United Arab Emirates by the Father of the Nation, late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nayhan, Al Ain Farms was the first dairy company in the UAE to start the dairy operations and provide fresh milk to the nation. Company CEO, Willem van Walt Meijer was appointed in early 2020 and he leads the company on its continued journey towards expansion as a major player in the UAE food industry. Recognised by CEO Monthly as Most Influential CEO 2021 – The United Arab Emirates, we explore how Willem is making his mark on the company and within the industry.
The company was founded by the vision of Sheikh to provide access to fresh food on the daily basis to the people of the UAE. At the same time, it had a social responsibility aspect to it, as the main owners of the company were also the Emirati shareholders, namely families and Emirati widows, who still own portions of the company to this day.
Coming from a foundation of a pivotal role for enabling the food security of the country, Al Ain Farms has grown to be the largest integrated local company in the UAE, running four farms under its brand – the dairy business, the juice business, the camel milk production, and the poultry section with fresh chicken and eggs. All products are produced in Al Ain, the heart of the UAE, and delivered to all regions on a daily basis, serving more than 13,000 outlets across the country, and delivering close to 20 million units of fresh, long life dairy and poultry products monthly to the United Arab Emirates.
Al Ain Farms is currently focusing on the expansion of current business venturing into new food industries, as well as finding ways to innovate the current business, with a leading theme of sustainability, animal welfare and the daily access to fresh food as basic need for people. Water recycling, usage of waste materials and decrease of plastic and ecological carbon footprint have also been an integral part of the company’s journey.
Indeed, the company is undergoing enormous changes at this moment in time, with its objectives being to improve focus, for all to be able to take clear accountability, and to improve teamwork. While this is the case, it is no surprise that the consumers have changed also. Hence, the Al Ain Farms team focuses on satisfying their requirements, whilst ensuring reliable consistent quality of its products. The team is developing new ways to improve what it does; an open sharp mind is required from staff, and teamwork is about local knowledge and new international expertise to develop preferred products and services.
Despite the challenging times of the pandemic, Al Ain Farms has continued to operate seamlessly, increasing its capacity to produce locally made, fresh products delivered daily across the UAE. The core functions of farming, production and sales remained operational 24/7 throughout the whole year to ensure continuity of supply, and it has tirelessly undertaken all necessary measures to prevent any health, safety or environmental breaches at the farms. Daily checks are conducted, and all employees remain safe and healthy.
Prior to becoming the CEO of Al Ain Farms, Willem van Walt Meijer held several positions in marketing, sales and general management at Unilever in the Netherlands, and from there, he lived with his family in Indonesia, Ireland and Russia, holding a series of director positions in Unilever operating companies and corporate roles. After 21 years working in the world of Unilever, he went onto a new challenge of becoming CEO of the Greenery, a co-operative of then 2,500 fresh produce growers. This was followed by heading the classic dairy and cheese division of Friesland Foods, a co-operative of dairy farmers.
He had also served as the CEO of MidOceanBrands, and as a member of the board of Polyconcept Ltd (US), which led him to become a Hong Kong-based managing director of the company’s international division.
In 2016, Willem return to the food industry as a managing director of Nedspice Vietnam. Next to the factor and sales operations, the development of Nedspice sustainable farmers network was key to what the company achieved for all stakeholders.
In early 2020, Willem was appointed CEO of Al Ain Farms, and today he is leading the company on its continued journey towards expansion as a major player in the UAE food industry, guided by the UAE leadership’s strategic initiatives to ensure the food sustainability and security in the country.
Willem was privileged to be coached over the years on how to lead. The opportunity to learn very diverse roles and cultures helped him enormously. By being in different environments, he learned that there are many ways to succeed. As a result, he became open to different leadership approaches. He tends to discuss in depth with colleagues the opportunity and to understand dynamics and how possible solutions could look. Then his colleagues lead the same, and make it happen within their teams. Continuous steering to results by reviewing progress of key actions, outcomes and their impact to results is the way.
He says, “Always tackle the underlying factors of culture to lead a long-term change within the organisation.”
Of course, going straight into management of the humanitarian crisis that was the pandemic was a challenge for Willem and the company. To ensure continuity, the company moved fast as a team and accepted it would have 80% correct decisions, which is better than being hesitant. Communication was top priority to ensure all 2,300 colleagues were keeping their calm whilst being in a stressful situation and unpredictable further developments were to arise.
Meanwhile, the major challenge for Willem is following in the late Sheikh Zayed’s footsteps. The foundation of the company set by Sheikh in essence in the concept of sustainability. He was way ahead of his time. Willem’s task is to bring Al Ain Farms’ further forward from that basis, to contribute to a sustainable world, which is probably the biggest challenge that mankind ever had in front of it.
Speaking about his plans to build upon his current success, Willem said, “I am very lucky to have this opportunity. First, to use my experience and skills to manage such a diverse group of people through a world of turmoil and crisis. Now, to learn how at a major moment of discontinuity of global food technology to develop response to fast-changing consumers, who are looking for healthy, great tasting and sustainable food experiences.”
He continued, “I believe the trend towards greater local production is clear, not just for reasons of self-sufficiency, but also because of the economic boost it can provide. Al Ain Farms continues to stress availability, affordability, and outstanding quality of locally made fresh products. All with a relentless attitude of continuous improvement in all we do.
“We are confident that the continued support we receive from the government on the farming part will further enhance the scale of the local output and ensure a fair level playing field for all manufacturers within our sectors. We also aim to work more closely with our retail partners to customise shelves and packaging to communicate the benefits of locally made and benefits of our products to consumers.”
For further information, please contact Willem van Walt Mejjer or visit www.alainfarms.com