‘Everyone had the feeling that we were doing something special’

Marcel van Leeuwen

The first person to dive fully into selling milking robots is Marcel van Leeuwen. He knows better than anyone how much persuasion it takes initially to get farmers to switch to robotic milking. “It was only when we got a good competitor that the product became more widely accepted,” he says.

Marcel is already familiar with the milk robot when he starts working at Lely in 1994: “The second robot ever sold was with my brother. That triggered me when I saw an ad from Lely for a full-time salesperson for the milk robot. The sales manager did the first sales on the side of his actual work. That didn’t work anymore, so they were looking for someone for the sales.

”Which someone ends up being Marcel. He initially searches for customers within a hundred kilometres of Maassluis. But the circle quickly expands. “We utilised the first few farmers as references. So, Karel van den Berg’s brother, who housed the very first robot, and my own brother, who had number 2. It’s hardly surprising that a potential customer wants to see the machine running first, before making a decision.”

Marcel is aware that a new product has both advantages and disadvantages. “On the one hand, people are critical of it and would not dare to buy it right away, but on the other hand, there are always innovators who think: I like that.” The early adopters. Among those who were intrigued in the robot were also adventurers. People who believed it was the answer to all of their farm’s problems. That is, of course, unrealistic. It’s a tool, not a remedy.”

The first farmers to install a robot dared to take a chance and were not afraid of the occasional glitches. “It was still exciting when we took a viewer to a farm. I have stood there with trembling knees at times, hoping that everything would continue to work during such a demonstration. Fortunately, those early adopters remained devoted to Lely and the product. I’ve had the experience of spending half a night tweaking with a machine and the farmer had only praise the next morning for a potential customer on how well the robot was performing. They too wanted the product to succeed.”

For years, Marcel has been the person who initiates contact with new countries and markets. “I have been pioneering for a very long time. Finland, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Russia, China, Korea, Japan. There, I was always the first to be deployed. If we cho-se to undertake real business, we formed a Lely organisation. I then supported that for a few years before shifting my focus to a different country. Many factors influence whether it is profitable to invest in a country. How productive are the cows? How much does labour cost? How far has technical development advanced? These are all questions that influence whether or not to invest in a milking robot. So the answers to all these ques-tions are important for us to choose whether or not we want to be present in a country with our products. Look at a country like India. Statistically the largest milk producing country in the world, but there it often involves very small-scale livestock farming with local distribution. In that instance, a milking robot is not profitable.”

Perhaps the key factor behind the success of the milking robot is the drive of the entire company to make the product succeed. “We knew we had a good product, and if anything went wrong, the whole company was ready to solve it quickly. Initially, public opinion was that the robot would disappear after a few years and that it was a fad for lazy farmers. Moreover, we were machine builders without experience in dairy farming. Sometimes farmers literally said, ‘How can Lely know anything about milking cows?’ And then I would say, ‘The technology in this sector has not changed in fifty years for the big companies. As a new player, we bring about that change.’ We really felt that, as outsiders, we could make history. And we have certainly proven that.”

Innovation will remain paramount, Marcel believes, as he looks ahead to the future of the company. “I see more and more intelligent systems that will enable the farmer to run his farm even better and in doing so take a step towards a better environment and better animal welfare. I do believe that soon there will be robots everywhere, so then you have to start differentiating in other areas. For example, on how much information can you give the farmer through your products? What do our products tell him about farm management and the health and welfare of his animals? That will become the deciding factor, even more than it already is. With Lely’s innovative capacity, I think we are in a good position: we will continue to be at the top.”

‘If we chose to undertake real business, we formed a Lely organisation.’