The Aarhus University Distinguished Alumnus

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About the distinguished alumnus award

Since 1928, Aarhus University has celebrated its birthday with the annual celebration. On the occasion of the university’s 80th anniversary in 2008, the university established a distinguished alumnus award. Each year, the award honours a graduate of Aarhus University whose impressive achievements have drawn positive attention to the university. The recipient of the award must be a graduate who has made an extraordinary contribution to society through his or her work, either nationally or internationally.

My life is technology

The distinguished alumnus 2017 is Niels Due Jensen, mechanical engineer and former Group President and CEO of Grundfos. Niels Due Jensen has created products that have made the world more prosperous and life easier for millions of people – while also running Grundfos as an inclusive workplace with room for the most disadvantaged members of society.

In 1944, the machinist Poul Due Jensen founded a metalworking business in Bjerringbro in Jutland, Denmark. One day, a local farmer contacted him to order a small water supply system. Poul was unable to obtain a pump of sufficiently high quality due to the war, so he decided to build one himself. It worked, and within a short space of time his order book was full.

Thus began the story of Grundfos – one of Denmark’s most exciting business adventures. Poul Due Jensen’s young son, Niels, was there on the sidelines. He was fascinated by his father’s work in the smithy, unaware of the fact that one day he would find himself heading his father’s business, which would grow to become a billion-kroner business. 

“My childhood was greatly influenced by my father, who took a keen interest in technology – as did I. I accompanied him around the workshops, and it was completely natural for me after finishing my secondary schooling to become an apprentice machinist.”

Niels Due Jensen’s training as a machinist ended well – with an apprenticeship exam with a distinction. This encouraged Niels to continue his studies by taking an engineering degree, and in 1967 he started at Aarhus Teknikum on Dalgas Avenue, (now Aarhus University School of Engineering).

Demanding studies

The programme was exciting, but tough. Niels Due Jensen worked extremely hard at getting to grips with the theoretical side of engineering, and he often sat at his desk working late into night in his study in the small single-family house in Højbjerg, a suburb of Aarhus, he and his wife Minna had just moved into.

“Studying to become an engineer demanded everything I had. I’ve always taken a hands-on approach to things, and I wasn’t particularly strong academically. But when I throw myself into something, I get the hang of it,” he says.

Niels Due Jensen’s practical background soon proved to be an advantage on the engineering degree programme.

“As a machinist, I have a practical understanding of the physical products that engineers design. It’s important that, as an engineer, you don’t just produce lines on the drawing board – you also need to have a sense of how the products can be produced and function in practice,” says Niels Due Jensen.

Pumps are everywhere

A few kilometres away from Niels Due Jensen’s home lies his life’s work – Grundfos – on Poul Due Jensens Vej in Bjerringbro, the company which he took over from his father in 1977 and turned into the world’s biggest pump manufacturer with approx. 18,000 employees in 55 countries and annual revenues of DKK 24.8 billion.

Grundfos manufactures products that are found everywhere, but which almost no one thinks twice about in the course of their daily lives. It’s all about something as basic as transporting water. When you step into your shower in the morning and turn on the tap, it will most likely be a pump from Grundfos that causes the water to flow from the shower head. 

Grundfos pumps can also be found in water treatment systems all over the world, where they filter sewage, wastewater and contaminated river water.  The pumps help to provide clean drinking water for millions of people, for example in Asia. Sustainability is integral to Grundfos’ DNA, and the company manufactures the world’s most energy-efficient pumps. Grundfos also works to promote sustainability in its product development:

“Developing physical products which can be reused, repaired and finally taken to pieces so that you can reuse the individual parts is a task in itself,” says Niels Due Jensen with a note of satisfaction in his voice.

Inclusive workplace

At the same time, he emphasises that he does not see sustainability as purely a question of natural resources; it is also about human resources. Grundfos is one of the leading companies in Denmark when it comes to social sustainability, and the company employs people with both physical and mental disabilities as well as others who face barriers to the opportunities in life that most of us take for granted.

“Unfortunately something went wrong when my older sister was born which badly affected her cognitive skills. This – combined with the fact that my father grew up in straitened circumstances – meant that he went out of his way to assist people who need a helping hand to join the labour market. So social responsibility has been part and parcel of Grundfos’ mindset right from the outset,” says Niels Due Jensen.

Today, it is Grundfos’ ambition for at least 5 per cent of its employees in Denmark to be employed on special terms (so called ‘flexi-jobs’). There are special ‘flexi’ departments in the company, but there are also employees on special terms in the general production and administration departments.

Niels Due Jensen has always been very keen to continue the Grundfos tradition of social responsibility, in order to run the company to the benefit of society. As a manager, he was known for looking after his employees, also when they were suffering from an illness or facing problems on the domestic front. 

Engineers foster development

Niels Due Jensen was CEO and Group President of Grundfos for 22 years. As CEO, he moved in elevated circles, but he also enjoyed visiting the company’s production facilities. Every day, he made use of his background in engineering, and was involved in the development of new pumps. Among other things, he is the inventor of the intelligent pump – a pump fitted with a small computer which enables the pump to adapt to varying demands, for example by slowing down at night.

“I developed Grundfos as a technology company which is focused on product development. The way I’ve managed Grundfos is based on my background as an engineer. And then I had senior executives around me who concentrated on finances and sales. The focus of my interest was and still is technology and product development,” he says.

In future, Aarhus University will educate even more engineers, and Niels Due Jensen fully understands this. Because engineers are indispensable.

“The world’s population is constantly looking for new products and new development, and this is what engineers are trained to create,” he says.

Skilled engineers are vital for the development of new Grundfos products.

“Worldwide, pumps are some of the most basic and important products in relation to the development of the world’s population. There is lots of water in many places, but you can’t drink it. So water treatment will be a key area for Grundfos in the coming years. We have to keep on developing outstanding and groundbreaking technologies and products,” says Niels Due Jensen.

Cooperation with Aarhus University

In this connection, the company’s cooperation with universities is extremely important, including Aarhus University in particular. Over the years, there have been several partnerships, for example in connection with PhD projects.

“The cooperation with Aarhus University means that we get an inside view of some research projects we wouldn’t get otherwise. We also get to meet students who we might be able to work with in future. And we can also have an influence on the engineering research that takes place at Aarhus University. Cooperation serves both parties extremely well,” says Niels Due Jensen. 

Still working, still inventing

Niels Due Jensen stepped down as CEO and Group President of Grundfos in 2003, but he is still a lodestar for the company. His entrepreneurial spirit pervades the buildings in the mid-Jutland town of Bjerringbro which, thanks to Grundfos, has grown considerably and today has an upper secondary school and other institutions, such as the House of Natural Sciences.

Niels Due Jensen is still chairman of the Poul Due Jensen Foundation, which owns Grundfos, just as he is active on other Boards of Directors. In his free time, he is involved in the operation of Ormstrup Manor and its forests, and he spends time with his family – his wife Minna, a daughter, a son and five grandchildren. His son, Poul Due Jensen, is Group Executive Vice President at Grundfos. Niels Due Jensen and Minna purchased and completed renovated Ormstrup Manor in 2000, where they have lived since.

Niels Due Jensen continues to devote time and energy to thinking up better pump solutions which can make life easier for people around the world. As he says: “My life is technology.”