Award-winning entrepreneur, driven by curiosity and love for people, turns 70
The man behind one of the most impressive business adventures in Southern Denmark in the past decade has reached a milestone. The co-founder of Aller Aqua, Hans Erik Bylling, celebrated his 70th Birthday on 15 March 2023, and looking back at seven decades of being part of what began as a family business over 100 years ago, he is ready to embrace what will be the fourth generation of Byllings.
The foundation for the family dynasty was laid in 1912 when Bylling’s grandparents, Frederik and Ane Kirstine, took over the operation of the local mill, Aller Mill. The couple developed the business to include fodder for traditional farm animals, and after Hans Erik’s father, Hans Joergen, took over, high-quality fish feed was added to the portfolio, too. That, in particular, turned out to be a very good idea.
“My father succeeded in making dust-free fodder for pigs,” Hans Erik Bylling explains. “A Swedish consortium heard about it, and they asked him if he could develop a similar feed product for fish farming.”
Despite knowing next to nothing about fish metabolism, Hans Joergen took on the challenge, and over the following 20 years, he meticulously continued to improve and refine products for fish, slowly allowing the company to expand its radius of action. However, it wasn’t until the founders’ grandchildren, Hans Erik and his brother Povl, took over that the fish feed production turned into a true business adventure.
Open-minded curiosity spawns good ideas
That part of the family’s history begins at the end of the ‘70s. As the youngest sibling of four, taking over the family business was not at all on young Hans Erik’s mind. He had left the hometown of Christiansfeld and was busy finishing his education as a technical assistant. But then disaster struck. The old factory mill was destroyed in a fire, and seeking a way to rebuild the mill, his oldest brother Povl asked Hans Erik to return home to help the family business back on its feet. Fortunately, Hans Erik said yes.
“We always found it difficult to say ‘no’ in our family, when a big challenge presented itself,” says Hans Erik. “My father hadn’t thought about fish feed when he was asked. But he took the challenge upon himself anyway and said, ‘Yeah, let’s try that’. I think that’s a healthy attitude to have. Sometimes, of course, it blows up in your face. But usually, it works out just fine. You just have to give it a go – that’s what I did, too.”
The story about the Byllings taking on tremendous challenges with something brand-new underlines the key element in the family DNA. Courage. This showed itself again in 1996. Despite all advice and recommendations, the two brothers decided to create an independent sister company, dedicated to the development and production of fish feed. Together they formed Aller Aqua, and ten years later both the family mill and Aller Aqua had grown so much, the brothers decided to split their shared responsibilities in order to give both companies the attention required. Povl took over full responsibility for the mill, while Hans Erik continued the development of Aller Aqua.
“Curiosity has always been part of being a Bylling,” Hans Erik explains with a wry smile. “As a miller, my grandfather always lent a keen ear to the farmers, taking the time to hear what they needed and when. He was a very attentive man and he always took the time to listen to people. I have tried to hold on to that standard. Giving people time to explain or suggest new ideas. We should always promote and encourage that.”
Another example of that genuine interest in other people was experienced by an Irish fish farmer some 20 years ago. He heard someone knocking at the front door and when he opened it, Hans Erik and his wife, Grethe, were there. They had seen the ponds from the country road and were inspired to pay a visit. The surprised fish farmer invited them in for coffee, and a few hours later he was the first-ever Irishman to order fish feed from Denmark. But he wasn’t the last. In fact, soon after, Ireland became the first country to have an Aller Aqua subsidiary.
”I was born with a human radar, I think. When I see someone, I immediately think ‘there is a new friend’.” Hans Erik laughs out loud and continues: “We all come with a unique story. And I’m curious to hear it. Always!”
He points out the fact that his childhood home was always someone else’s workplace.
“With 25 employees, we often had four, five, or six extra people around the dinner table. I grew up with people talking, socializing, or discussing the news of the day.”
International Award put Aller on the map
The lively yet respectful debates around the dinner table are among Hans Erik’s fondest memories. To him, good discussions are still a valuable source of continuous development.
”You should never be afraid of opposing opinions,” he says. “As long as we respect each other, accept different views, and listen to worries and reservations, we can always find the best compromise and make the best decisions. This is really important!”
This approach has not only helped the 70-year-old CEO to achieve consecutive decades of success. It also led Aller Aqua towards international accolade, culminating in 2017 when Hans Erik Bylling was invited to Copenhagen to receive the national “EY Entrepreneur of the Year” Award. A recognition to have a major impact on the company and its employees.
“That acknowledgment did something for our self-image – not just here at the headquarters. We received congrats from colleagues from all over the world. Everybody expressed their sincere pride in being part of an enterprise capable of winning such glory. Everybody just stood a little taller after that.”
Aller R&D Center became the cherry on the pie
Though grateful for the international accolade, winning prestigious awards is not what Hans Erik finds the most satisfying as the CEO of Aller Aqua.
“Apart from being lucky enough to have some of the best minds and most skilled people in our field here at Aller Aqua, I think our R&D facilities in Büsum in Germany are what I’m most proud of,” he explains and suddenly raises a finger:
“This is actually a good example of what we just talked about earlier – about having good discussions. When some of our people presented the idea of an R&D center, I just couldn’t see what the fuss was about. I also found it to be an awful lot of money to spend on something. But I sensed great enthusiasm and took time to listen to arguments and finally, I gave in. Today I’m happy I did. The amount of new knowledge about nutrition and minimalizing waste we get from the center is invaluable.”
Both aspects added to Aller’s motivation to work more focused with UN’s 17 ‘Sustainability Development Goals (SDG)’. Here the environment, food safety and supply, and education play a key role.
“Of course, we all need to preserve and care for the aquatic environment. That is our shared responsibility. But we also feel obligated to help educate our customers, so they get the most out of the product they buy from us, and at the same time protect their local environment. We simply won’t just dump a pallet of feed on their doorstep and say ‘bye-bye’.”
As an example of Aller Aqua’s care and involvement in local communities, Hans Erik points out the company’s support of a school in rural Zambia. Here the Danish manufacturer funded the construction and establishment of a school, allowing local kids to attend – including those of Aller’s own employees.
”Who knows. Perhaps some of these kids will be kind enough to join Aller Aqua, too, in the future,” says Hans Erik with a grateful smile. “However, local responsibility is not just about schools. We also support and help local farmers by buying their goods – corn or soybeans, for example. This way we also support entire communities. That, too, is important.”
The fourth generation in the Bylling dynasty ready
At home, the next generation of the family business is ready to take over. After working at the company’s Chinese branch for a few years, Hans Eriks son, Anders Bylling, is now ready to hold the reins. He will be the fourth generation of the Bylling dynasty in Christiansfeld.
”The entire family went through an open and honest process, where everybody had their say and everybody listened. We have three children, and they all played an equal part in the solution we ended up with,” the 70-year-old CEO explains. He can’t hide his pride in all his three heirs as he underlines: “And they are all fully behind the solution we reached.”
”I find the future looks very bright indeed. Not just for Aller. Fish farming is growing rapidly, and it WILL play a key role in the world’s food programmes looking ahead. Here Aller stays true to our commitment to both local farmers and the communities we operate in.”