From windmills to wellbeing: a story of growth
Planting the seed
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Netherlands was one of the world’s greatest trading nations, with a huge merchant fleet that carried new and exotic materials between Europe and the far-flung ports of the Far East, the Americas, the Caribbean and Africa. The hub of this activity was Amsterdam where many of the ships docked and unloaded their cargoes into the warehouses that lined the River Zaan.
Among the owners of the warehouses was the merchant Adriaan Wessanen. In 1765, the 41-year-old Wessanen teamed up with his 31-year-old nephew Dirk Laan to trade in ‘Mustard, Canary and other seeds’. The new company was called Wessanen & Laan.The company flourished as new uses were found for all sorts of seeds. It was helped by the contemporary popularity for keeping caged birds, particularly canaries. The energetic Laan traveled the length and breadth of the Low Countries looking for new markets and building up the business. In 1789 the elderly Wessanen retired from the business, leaving Dirk Laan to run the company alone. Laan decided that his own surname was too common in the Zaan district and so abbreviated the company name to Wessanen.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the landscape around the Zaan river was dominated by merchants’ houses, their warehouses and, most distinctively, their windmills. In the pre-industrial age, the windmills functioned as sophisticated processing plants, using wind power to crush, grind and mix all manner of ingredients.
Dirk Laan and his successors bought windmills and introduced wheat, oats, barley and garden seeds into the trade package. The company became active in Belgium, Germany and France. With new products coming in from the Dutch colonies, the company entered the rice trade and opened up a rice-husking mill. It also began to trade in cheese.
In 1839, Wessanen bought the Het Fortuin (The Fortune) oil-pressing windmill. The warehouses grew larger as markets expanded. Processing and manufacture became a core business. In 1857, the company took a significant step forward when it acquired an oil press called De Tijd which was steam-driven rather than wind-powered. Industrialization was here to stay. In 1865 Wessanen, now employing about 100 people, celebrated its centenary. Its activities were distinguished by a commitment to growth and innovation. For example, it established a flour mill with humidifying units and sorting machines. It invested money in researching the structure of wheat and rice grains. In 1883 Wessanen’s steam-powered De Unie (The Union) rice-husking mill produced almost 20% of total Dutch rice imports. Husked rice was also a major export product serving markets in the United States and the Dutch East Indies.
By the start of the 20th century, the grain trade had fallen away. But Wessanen was by now a large company, and following the award of royal warrants it was now known as NV Wessanen Koninklijke Fabrieken (NV Wessanen Royal Factories). With a diversified global sales market, it was able to survive war, tariff barriers and the demise of colonialism. But it was still a typically Dutch company, with production facilities on the Zaan River.
Expansion into Europe and beyond
After World War II, new production facilities were created in Germany, Belgium, France, Italy and Spain. Wessanen became a modern European company. It upgraded and extended production and storage and, after selling its flour mills in 1992, successfully transformed itself from bulk manufacturer to multinational marketer of consumer products. A new phase in Wessanen’s history began.
Between 1972 and 2003, Wessanen acquired over 20 companies, mostly in Western Europe but also in the United States. All of them were engaged in the food and beverage industry, either in production or distribution. In 1993, Wessanen joined forces with Bols, a Dutch spirits producer with a history even older than Wessanen’s. But five years later, Wessanen became a separate company again in order to concentrate on developing and marketing natural health food products in Europe and North America.
In 2010, Wessanen’s strategic focus was further refined when the company decided to focus on organic and 'to make our organic brands most desired in Europe'. We are moving increasingly towards a role of orchestrator, while leaving ample decisive power in the countries. During 2012 we further implemented this by setting up European Category Brand Teams (CBTs) and local Innovation Boards, by streamlining our Export operations and by new SAP implementations (such as in the UK and part of our French HFS business).
In March 2012, we acquired UK-based Clipper, the market leader in organic and fair trade teas. Clipper strenghtens both our UK business and our tea portfolio and is fully in line with our strategy to grow both autonomously and via small(er) add-on acquisitions.
Looking ahead, adapting to change
Nearly 250 years after Adriaan Wessanen and Dirk Laan set up their seed business by the River Zaan, the Wessanen name continues to stand for energy, industry and innovation. The old warehouses and windmills may have fallen into disuse, but they have been replaced by modern production facilities and distribution systems designed for international trade, just as the originals were. The modern Wessanen has inherited at least one key characteristic from its founders: they constantly looked to the future, adapting their products and processes to changing markets – and so does the 21st century Wessanen.