United Plantations gets the best out of people and palm fruit

AS our bright-red Mercedes-Benz four-wheel-drive screeched to a halt, Datuk Carl Bek-Nielsen, the blue-eyed and blond-haired chief executive of United Plantations, leaped out of the driver’s seat. 

They met their respective Danish girlfriends there, and both succeeded in wooing the women back to rural Perak. The brothers rose the ranks and eventually succeeded their father, Tan Sri Børge Bek-Nielsen, dubbed the oil palm king of Malaysia. 

The strong family bonds lead us to the second reason why UP is different from almost any oil palm plantation today: the Bek-Nielsen brothers have a sense of place. Even today, their lives are rooted in rural Perak. 

“I know these roads better than any manager,” Carl Bek-Nielsen told me as we zoomed along Jendarata estate about 90 minutes’ drive from Teluk Intan. “As kids, Martin and I used to play in the estate and hunt for monitor lizards and pythons. I love this land. I spend 80% of my time on the plantation. This is my home. That’s the key difference between us and many other plantations.”

Bek-Nielsen told me that not long ago, he spotted a crack on the ground that snaked between a row of oil palms. Cracks are a sign of impending drought. Concerned, he followed the crack for one kilometre. I was astounded. Who on earth follows a crack on the ground? But Bek-Nielsen told me the story like it was all in a day’s work for a plantation CEO. 

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