His invisible footprint: A conversation with Peter Kjellerup
● By J. Chambless
In 2012, Kjellerup and his wife redeemed their shares in Dansko, Inc., to establish a trust for the benefit of their employees, who now own the company. (Photo by Chris Barber)
By Richard L. Gaw
Growing up in Denmark, Peter Kjellerup dreamed of becoming a farmer. He
eventually achieved that dream, but at the time, he didn’t know the incredible
course his life would take, beginning with his marriage to Mandy Cabot in 1982
and the start of Dansko, Inc., in 1990.
Kjellerup is also defined by his dedication to making the world a better place, both globally and locally. For his service to his community and the world, Peter received the Outstanding Citizen of the Year Award from the Southern Chester County Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 23. On the eve of this honor, Kjellerup talked about his early life, his wife Mandy, his many passions and his commitment to the world he lives in.
No one gets to become Citizen of the Year without having inspired others, or by having served as a mentor to others. Who inspired you, particularly when you were growing up, both in Denmark, and later in Germany, where you earned an equestrian degree in Hamburg?
When I was young, my riding instructor, Gustav Martens, changed the path I was probably going to take, which was the path my parents wanted me to take. My father didn't agree at all with what I was doing in the horse world, and it was really my mother who protected me and let me develop my skills. Martens took me in as a protégé when I was 14 years old. I began teaching other kids how to ride properly, and ran an equestrian summer camp for him. I was very sure that this was the path I wanted to take in life, and as a consequence, it led me to run a farm for 12 years. I looked up to Martens as a father figure and mentor.
You and Mandy have had a tremendous partnership, and together, you've been able to accomplish so much. How does she inspire you?
Mandy's nature and her whole character is unselfish. It's never about Mandy, and that fits together so well for us. She has strengths that I don't have, and I have strengths that she doesn't have, and we figured that out about a month after we first met. I am more of a hands-on guy, while Mandy is very good at the administrative work that isn’t my strength. When we set out to build our business, we felt that the sum of our combined strengths would serve us well. Also, we bring the best out in each other.
You effectively retired from Dansko, Inc., at the end of last year. The word retirement implies an ending, but you're just beginning.
We've already started on our next chapter, big time. While we still work with several non-profits locally, Mandy and I had been looking for a place where we could both spend some time in our retirement and make an impact. We ended up in Belize, where we now have a house. Mandy and I are involved with programs related to the Waterkeeper Alliance in Belize, originated by its founder, Robert Kennedy, Jr. Now that the Waterkeeper Alliance is in place, Mandy and I are trying to get the government to preserve the bays and to protect mangroves and manatees.
We are also working to preserve a 22,000-acre parcel of land that is nestled in the Maya Mountains and contiguous with several key nature reserves. Twenty-thousand of those acres is virgin rainforest, and the rest has been poorly farmed in citrus and coconuts. We are looking to rehabilitate that smaller piece and introduce native cacao as well, so that local farmers can model a more sustainable way of making a living. We believe that the impact we can have in Belize is enormous.
Do you feel that the business prototype that Dansko, Inc., has developed will pay itself forward to future generations of entrepreneurs and business leaders?
The values of young people are changing. At one time, it was all about getting rich quick. The focus today is on impact. Where can you put your dollars if you’re an investor, or your skills if you’re an employee, so that you can make an impact consistent with the values that you believe in? It's a shift that's starting to come through today, and with this new generation, things will change for the better. I’m also hopeful that Dansko’s model of 100 percent employee ownership catches on in a meaningful way. Not only does it give employees a vested interest in the business that they help grow, but it allows them to invest back into our community.
Your motto is “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” To many who know you and have worked with you, it's a large footprint, but it's a footprint that, while being felt, has never been seen. Was that part of a larger intention you wished to achieve in life?
It all happened coincidentally, through a kind of serendipity. Mandy and I will both tell you that none of this was really planned. What was planned was our wish to share things – the idea that if you have something to share, please share. When we were starting out with our farm [Five-Star Farm, an 80-acre, 60-stall training facility], our philosophy was built on how we could share our knowledge and our background. With Dansko, it was about sharing great footwear with our customers and a great workplace with our employees. It was just in our nature to do these things, not something we needed to be acknowledged for.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email email@example.com.