March 31, 2016

The Interview: Ton Otten

Ton Otten is a director and long-term employee of Jaarbeurs. Based in The Netherlands, they own and oversee the running of VIV exhibitions and events around the world. As VIV expands their reach - namely by hosting VIV Middle East & Africa 2016 in Abu Dhabi for the first time in February - it’s timely to understand the views of the man who is at the helm of both the expansion and changing role of this exhibition provider.

Can you tell our readers about your background and how you became a director of Jaarbeurs?
I am the 4th generation from long-established farming stock in southern Holland. I went to university and then took my first job in the conference event industry.

How did you end up in the animal production side of the exhibition business?
I was so interested in conference and exhibitions that I moved to Jaarbeurs, an exhibition company  in the heart of Holland that was founded in 1916. The Jaarbeurs is a foundation, independent from the state and government and was run like a family company. Agriculture is also a family business and that’s why it appealed to me.
I started out as an assistant. Only later did I become involved in the financial and commercial areas including mergers and acquisitions and setting up new companies. Internationalism is at the heart of the Jaarbeurs.

When did you first do an international event at Jaarbeurs?
Our first exhibition outside Europe was held in Japan and that was just one year after I joined the company. That was a big step as Japan’s borders were closed to most foreign companies at the time and we had to work hard to get a foothold for animal production and processing in Asia From that moment on the industry wanted to join us In 1993 we moved the show to Bangkok.

How have you achieved success in holding exhibitions for our industry around the world?
I have spent 32 years with Jaarbeurs and my career has been influenced by all the things going on around me including the decision in 2001 to partner with  the publisher VNU who was entering the exhibition business in Europe.. We established a new exhibition company, partly owned by VNU and partly by Jaarbeurs, which was overseeing the exhibition business of both entities in Europe.  History shows this was a very successful co-operation until the VNU ended up in the hands of an investor.
Jaarbeurs decided to  reacquire the shares in 2007 and we integrated the operation  back into Jaarbeurs. I was for seven years responsible for the entire exhibition business. Nowadays I am Chief Financial Officer of Jaarbeurs and  responsible for our international operations.
Working successfully in the international marketplace is not just following the words agreed on paper with our partners. Both partners need to have true dedication to the objective they jointly want to achieve and intensive communication is continuously necessary. Both partners must respect each other and be willing to learn which means willing to develop.
It’s like a marriage. You have to be flexible, understanding and trust each other.
Obviously, there are gaps in culture between partners. Jaarbeurs is a foundation, we don’t have shareholders. So all the money stays within the company. With this approach it is very much easier to co-operate with external partners.
Agriculture and agricultural production needs a long term view. If you want to build up a successful farming business you need a scope of at least 20 years. I think that’s why we are so committed within this sector.
The success nowadays is the result of hard work over decades.  Not only our team but the companies that have supported us, some for over 20 years now. Indeed it’s more than just individuals involved, it’s a network of professionals, companies and institutions.  It’s a community. Our role is to drive the development of the community with exhibitions, conferences, summits, digital platforms, etc. Give people the opportunity to search, find, meet and share with each other.

What of the future? How should exhibitions develop or should we just continue to expect them to be held in the same way?
The preferred place for us to exchange ideas and information is in an exhibition hall, but we also recognise we need our digital gateways which we have developed.
Our philosophy, as an exhibition organiser, is to be the best at combining onsite service with online opportunities for both exhibitors and visitors.
There’s a great future ahead but only if we combine our digital platforms and exhibition spaces that allow us to share news ideas and innovations. And this is another part of my work that I’m finding is most interesting and attractive.
When I look back at the past, I see my grandfather who had a great knowledge about horse breeding but only could share this with his sons. Today, we cannot stick to our small scale communities.
Today, everyone’s business model is different and changing and we each have to get knowledge from outside our own companies and communities. I say we have to learn from each internationally. Cross border communication is necessary to survive in each type of business.

Can our industries meet the growing demand for food over the next 35 years?
We are all trying to feed the planet but to achieve this we have to be realistic. In a lot of developing countries the first thing that governments are concerned about is how to feed their people. Urbanisation is growing so fast they need to rapidly develop animal production and processing. But we know that’s a part of the chain. It’s a complex problem which needs an integrated vision on water management, logistics, infrastructure, etc.
However, our producers, processors and retailers are already at a certain limit. High volume, low prices and minimum margins for the producers have created unsustainable production.
Contrast this desperate need from developing countries for more food from farmers who are localised and living within their communities and are a part of these local communities. So I’m for sure they know and understand the needs.
Governments will have to lean from the consumer and from their market attitudes, while farmers should be encouraged to respond to the needs of the consumers. We have to change the way of production to meet the needs of consumers.
Production has been growing so fast that farmers and other producers have overlooked this vital communication with consumers.
Producers, processors, retailers and consumers must be aligned in all communities. The companies that exhibit at our events are helping by bringing economical thinking of production to the producers.

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