Drives are the real engine behind growth and development, but to what extent are companies in the Northern Netherlands consciously working on them? And how do they approach it? NOM is curious and, for this column, interviews organizations that are actively exploring their motivations.
At Zuco's townhouse in the heart of Dokkum, passion can be seen, tasted and heard. Especially when you talk to Hessel Jan Sinnige (30), one of the inspired founders of the artisanal dairy cooperative. He sees a future in a small-scale approach while thinking big. 'What we are doing now locally is to expand into a sizeable platform that includes small, powerful companies willing to add value to the cooperative themselves.'
He went from big to small, but now strives to be big in a different way: that is the movement Hessel Jan is making in his entrepreneurship. He sold his dairy farm with about 200 cows in 2016 due to chronic back pain and then conceived the plan to start a cooperative dairy in Dokkum with locally produced milk. For his motives are fortunately not lacking; he still has a heart for the white gold. 'It is a wonderful challenge to add value to milk,' says the Frisian entrepreneur. 'Zuco controls the entire dairy chain: from soil and grass to traditionally prepared culinary products. We sell basic products such as milk, yogurt and butter, although we mainly make a difference with our exclusive products, such as pannacotta and ice cream creations.'
From a modern farm to a completely new concept in which craft returns: this step stems partly from Hessel Jan's conviction that in our current economy we add too little value. 'In earlier times, towns like Dokkum brought in raw materials, which local entrepreneurs processed into products themselves. Nowadays everything comes in ready-made and it's all about selling. Still, craftsmanship is getting a revival. We see a growing market for our approach: we bring quality milk from small-scale local farms ourselves with a small milk tank to the city, where - visible to consumers - we process the milk into tasty products. In a trendy setting, but with traditional knowledge of how to make really good dairy'.
Expressing his ambitions, Hessel Jan came into contact with chef Sander Wijnstra, who loves working with fresh local produce and has a penchant for ice cream. 'We started this dairy cooperative together, following the example of distant ancestors, who were involved in establishing the very first cooperative in Wergea in 1876. The plan was that I would still keep a small number of cows myself to supply quality milk, but soon a calf dealer friend joined as a partner in the cooperative. He dreamed of becoming a farmer, while I - partly due to my back problems - was better able to focus on Zuco's strategy. Because we soon saw more opportunities. What started small and local in now offers opportunities as a platform for a much larger setup.'
'If this can be done in Dokkum, it will work anywhere,' asserted the entrepreneur, who dreams beyond the Northern Netherlands. 'Our concept has the potential to roll out further at home and abroad. The idea is that enterprising professionals with passion will run a small-scale store with their own dairy under the Zuco cooperative flag. Of course, they need regional suppliers of fresh milk. We want to work with small-scale farmers who keep a maximum of around 25 pedigree cows and focus on healthy soil and grass so that they supply top-quality milk. That small scale is possible because we pay a euro per liter of milk, while the going price is thirty cents on average. We can pay that euro per liter - as far as the current market allows - because in the dairy we are able to add value to the fresh quality milk with artisanal craftsmanship and culinary creativity.
Close to the base
'We realize that the market for exclusive products is smaller. Many citizens are enthusiastic about our initiative, but as consumers they find the products expensive. Still, there is a category of customers who are willing to pay for it and that is what we are targeting. In the West that group is much larger than here in the North. Moreover, our set-up fits in beautifully with the developments going on in the dairy industry. Our business plan had just been completed when Carola Schouten came up with her vision for a circular economy. We fit seamlessly
into it. And we also get industry colleagues visiting us. They curiously follow what we do. We want to grow as a platform, but what we do has to be right. We want to stay close to the basics, respecting the value of small scale and craft.
To further expand the cooperative, Hessel Jan and his partners are looking for new entrepreneurs who - like themselves - are willing to make a difference. 'The core of our business is adding value ourselves. Through a combination of love for the profession and insight into financially sound business management. It's about balance between heart and head. And a willingness to keep learning and to make conscious decisions. We chose to build this business from scratch, with a few private investors and further by selling bonds. This is how we actively involve customers in our business. Visibility is essential. Through the physical store and dairy in town, but also online and through Zuco lectures or talks. What we do has a real story behind it. Then storytelling is not a trick, but a unique selling point.'