16 August 2018

Setting the foundations for a global career

Linley Boniface

As President of Unilever Europe, Jan Zijderveld has had a truly global business career.

He has worked in almost every part of Unilever since joining the company in 1987, after completing a general management degree at the University of Waikato.

Originally from Holland, Jan says he can trace the foundations of his career to his time at university in New Zealand.

“The University of Waikato gave me a very good quality of education. Some of my lecturers were inspirational, and I have great memories of the campus, the community and the friends I made there,” he says.

Jan also had his first experience of running a business at Waikato. He and another student paid their way through university by setting up their own riding school.

Jan and his friend had no money, but found people willing to let them use their land and six horses for the school. Cheval Riding Centre paid all Jan’s bills and living expenses, and his marketing lecturer allowed him to write a marketing papers about how he set up the school.

“There’s no way I would have been able to start a riding centre if I’d been studying at university in Holland. There would have been far too many regulations,” says Jan.

Another formative experience at university was getting involved in student politics. Jan was head of a university political party by 19, which involved setting up a party magazine, speaking on a local radio station each week and regularly meeting party officials.

“At an early age I was able to meet senior politicians and realise they were just human, like me,” says Jan. “It gave me an early sense of ambition and a feeling I could do anything. That set me up for my career. 

“New Zealand is really great at giving people those kind of opportunities. The barriers are very low,” says Jan.

Jan moved to New Zealand with his family when he was 15. “We moved because New Zealand was healthy, clean, open and free, and had fewer rules than Holland,” says Jan.

His family settled in Kerikeri in Northland, about three hours’ drive from Auckland. He still remembers being amazed by the range of sports offered at Kerikeri High School, from sailing to whitewater rafting.

Jan says he and his family quickly felt at home in New Zealand, although there were challenges.

“Learning English wasn’t easy, but that kind of experience shapes you – you learn to be brave,” he says.

While Jan’s career has taken him all over the world, from Iran to Stockholm, he still has strong ties to New Zealand. His wife, Susan, is a Kiwi, and he has half a dozen strong friendships from his days at university.

“I bring the family back to New Zealand every year,” he says. “I love New Zealand, and I have great memories of studying here.”

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About the contributors
Linley Boniface

Linley Boniface is a contract writer for Education New Zealand. She is based in Wellington, her favourite city in New Zealand. A former journalist, Linley spent a year in Montreal, Canada, as a secondary school student.