Looking out of his bedroom window, 7-year-old J?rgen Audenaert stares across a small expanse of concrete at a well-kempt but otherwise nondescript structure built of wood and stone. A large metal sliding barn door is locked. Two windows that straddle opposite sides of a front corner are covered from the inside. It is winter 1975, and the young boy’s father has told him to stay out, both in actions and words.
Located within the building is a workshop, the epicenter of the family farm’s daily operation and the boy’s favorite place to be on the Sas van Gent, Netherlands, homestead.
The story Arnold Audenaert would tell his son is one of intrigue. A special sprayer nozzle is being tested and “really, really dangerous” chemicals are being used. This does not sound suspicious to the boy as the workshop is a place of frequent equipment maintenance, construction, and modifications.
There is one odd twist, though. The testing lasts for four months, into early spring. The only saving grace for the father is the son’s attention span.
Yet, more than 40 years later, J?rgen Audenaert wonders now why he wasn’t more curious then.
“I think I probably should have asked more questions or at least tried to get a closer look,” he said with a laugh. “But, that would have maybe ruined the surprise.”
Ah, yes. The surprise.
Life in the Fast Lane
The Audenaert family shares three passions — arable farming, machinery, and motorsports — most specifically Formula One racing. J?rgen would eventually see a common link between those interests and use it to separate himself in a career where uptime, technology, and customer understanding are the tenets of success.
Getting behind the wheel and navigating tight turns was a dream the 7-year-old often chased. So, on his 8th birthday, when his father rolled out a custom go-kart manufactured in secrecy, young J?rgen was thrilled; the memories — and colors — still as bright today as they were then. A red and orange frame with black bumpers and silver wheels transformed him into his favorite F1 driver at that time, Niki Lauda. At his birthday party, J?rgen and his friends took empty chemical barrels and mapped out a famous course and did their own time trials. When they wanted a new course they simply repositioned the barrels.
“It was amazing at that age,” he recalled. “My mom even made trophies. I don’t know how my dad kept it from me for so long. He eventually finished it and then hid it from me until my birthday. He was always working on something in the workshop.”
The intricacies of racing were learned from his father.
A driver is a customer just like a farmer, Audenaert said, adding he understood early on the connection between a product working and the desired outcome of success. “Your crew keeps you running, just like strong customer support keeps our equipment running,” he said.
Those memories, especially the ones centered on utilizing the workshop to improve machines and farming, were not wasted. Audenaert not only viewed his father as the head of the household, but somehow, intuitively, saw him as a customer.
“I remember him commenting on what worked, what didn’t, and what he wanted to change. We went to farm shows when I was a kid,” Audenaert said. “It was a great way to see new technology.”
Audenaert, John Deere’s customer segment manager for arable, contractor, and livestock in Europe, Russia, CIS, North African and Middle East, is known for his ability to extract and understand customer needs. He has been credited with a dramatic shift in the company’s customer focus in the region. His Fellow Award nomination praised him for transitioning Deere from a traditional equipment supplier to a solutions provider, and now, being viewed as an “effective partner” with our customers.
That’s quite a journey, from supplier to solution provider to partner — basically, from part to person.
And, for Audenaert, those first steps started at the arable farm pushed against the Belgium border in southwest Netherlands where the family continues to grow wheat, potatoes, sugar beets, and onions on fertile clay soil in a piece of low-lying land between two dikes. The farm is so close to the Belgium border, in fact, that the road (Vrijstraat) outside the home’s red front door is the border. Literally.
“We say that you can drive down the street and one person in the car is in the Netherlands and the other is in Belgium,” he said.
It was in that home and on that farm that he observed and helped his father. His dad would seek out opportunities to learn and understand more. He was contracted by a sprayer nozzle company (Delavan) to help market and distribute emerging technology. It soon became a family activity as J?rgen and his sister helped package nozzles while his dad sold them.
His dad was highly interested in farm mechanization and crop production. When the family bought a John Deere 4230 tractor — getting a U.S.-made tractor was typically reserved for “bigger” farming operations — it generated a lot of excitement. The purchase allowed Audenaert’s father to travel to Waterloo, Iowa, where he returned with “endless stories” and a reinforced admiration for the brand.
Formal, Practical Education
Audenaert loved the farm and would have been completely content becoming a full-time farmer. He fondly recalls the smell of fall potato harvests when the earth is turned and the produce is stored. But his father wanted his son to explore other opportunities beyond the patchwork countryside. He motivated him to get the best possible education and technology opportunities away from home.
The son obliged, eventually earning his master’s degree in Agricultural Engineering from the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, rated as one of the top agricultural universities in the world. He would then take a job with Douven, an innovative leader in sprayers. The two would have conversations on such topics as cost reduction as it related to durability and reliability, a concept his father refused to grasp.
“My dad could not understand why there would be even the slightest compromise on making things not perfect or not durable for life,” Audenaert said. “He is a perfectionist and that was the standard he set for equipment and the suppliers he worked with. That’s probably why our equipment lasted so long because we maintained it so well.”
Audenaert said his father almost refused to take part in a new product trial because of his fear of downtime. In addition to installing the new electronic rate control system on his sprayer he made sure the old manual system remained “just in case.” It was conversations like this that continued his education into customer needs.
“I learned it’s not only about being in the customer’s shoes, it’s also about being in their head,” Audenaert explained. “What are they thinking today? What are things that are changing that will impact their business and needs in the future? How can we anticipate that even before it’s asked?” “When you go out and talk with customers and experience the equipment in real life that is where I gain the biggest insight. You truly are getting the connection between the environment and the crop.”
It was, ultimately, those connections that earned Audenaert the Fellow Award. In talking about the acknowledgement, it is obvious he is humbled by the recognition.
“I was very surprised and honored to know that this was given,” Audenaert said with a pause. “To see the others on that list … well, I would not have expected to be on that kind of list. “It’s very rewarding because I’m a true believer in that we need to have both very good managers with a broad experience and great people managing skills. But just as important for success is to have the best industry experts with knowledge leadership and innovation skills in areas such as engineering, agronomy, and precision farming.”
Back to Racing Cars
Audenaert’s family still lives in the same farmhouse he grew up in, choosing to drive to his office duties whether in Mannheim, Kaiserslautern, or Horst — admitting it keeps him away from home more days than he’d like.
“The ability to still live on the farm keeps you closer connected to agriculture,” he stressed. “As employees, we are sometimes too far away from real farming, too far away from equipment and crops in the field. We talk about being linked to the land. I truly enjoy being closer to the land and agriculture. It helps me do my job better.”
Audenaert also gives credit to his “extreme passion” for motorsports, something he has handed down to his 11-year-old son, Thomas. And, because taking care of equipment was a common practice, Audenaert’s childhood go-kart now belongs to his son.
“It’s been modified a couple of times and repainted, but it still runs just fine,” he said.
Thomas also represents the next generation of customer.
“He will regularly give me drawings and say, ‘Here’s an idea, hand it to your boss.’”
The family’s love of racing has not waned either. During the Formula One season, Sunday race days are a time for three generations to get together to watch — and admire — drivers, teams, and competition.
“The sport, to me, is the culmination of being on the cutting edge of technology, being at the limits, and the continuous development and skills you need to do it,” he said. “There are a lot of parallels between what they do and what John Deere must do to stay in the leading edge.”
And, just like in Formula One, according to Audenaert, innovation cannot be delayed.
“Because when the race starts you need to be ready.”