12. May 2023

Adventure, cheese and generosity

The Kavli Trust story is about an adventurous, ambitious and innovative Norwegian. It is a story about the world’s first spreadable cheese and a wish to share with others.

The next time you enjoy a slice of bread with Kavli spreadable cheese: Close your eyes and imagine Fannestranda shore in Molde, where you have a view of the proud Romsdal Alps, green fields and a fjord full of fish. This is where the Kavli adventure began.

On 7 January 1872, Ole Knudsen Kavli was born, as the fourth in a group of six siblings. The family’s farm is small, and everyone has to pitch in to put food on the table. With cows, sheep, chickens and pigs, fishing and logging, they make ends meet through hard work.

Ole, or Olav as he eventually calls himself, quickly learns that frugality and hard work are important virtues, and at the young age of seven he starts saving. He earns his money from various small jobs, and his goal is clear: He wants to travel abroad and start his own business.

Good timing

When Olav turns 18, he has an equity of NOK 60. This roughly corresponds to one month’s salary. The money will be the start of what is today the Kavli Group. Just a few days after Olav has come of age, he goes to Bergen. The plan is to take evening courses at the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH), work during the day and gain valuable experience before starting his own business. On 28 March 1893, three years after he arrived in the capital of Western Norway, the energetic 21-yearold registers the company O. Kavli.

His business sells cheese, butter and meat products, with whey cheese from Trøndelag as the most important products in the early days. Kavli is lucky with the timing of his startup. Bergen is growing rapidly. Dairy products are produced industrially, and luxury goods such as cheese and butter are becoming increasingly popular. With a general increase in prosperity in the population, success is around the corner for young Kavli.

Success and downturns

And it will be a success. Through a century marked by two world wars, economic collapse and reconstruction, cold war and nuclear armament, Kavli builds up its food group, product by product. Sometimes one step forward and at least two steps back. In 1924, the company O. Kavli goes bankrupt after liquidity problems and some bad investments. However, only one month later, the limited company O. Kavli AS is established, and the business continues.

“The story of Kavli is fascinating,” says Ola Honningdal Grytten. The professor of economics knows the Kavli history well, having written “Kavli – an Industrial Adventure”, together with Kjell Bjørn Minde. The book was published in 2013, on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of the Kavli Group.

“The Kavli Group is very atypical for Norway and Bergen: a multinational company based on cheese, not fish. Olav Kavli became a pioneer in product development, Norwegian exports and international industrial start-ups,” Grytten points out, adding:

“Olav Kavli was a true adventurer who travelled with his suitcase full of cheese. He realised early on how important marketing and publicity were, and he considered each country where he left his suitcase packed full of cheese, as a new export country. This way he could eventually claim that the Kavli Group exported products to several dozen countries.”

Then came Primula

Olav Kavli strives to be the first on the market with his products. Around 1920, there is a competitive race in the international cheese industry to make a soft, tasty and not least, long-life spreadable cheese. Combining all three in one product is demanding, but whoever manages it will be successful.

In 1923, Olav and his staff have managed to make a processed cheese that tastes good, is not too salty and has a long expiry date. In September that year, he invites an exclusive collection of guests to the secret launch of Primula, packed in a crescent-shaped box with a healthylooking milkmaid on the label.

The cheese becomes popular, mass production starts up and in 1924 the trademark Primula is registered. Primula is launched internationally in 1925 as the world’s first long-life spreadable cheese, and quickly takes large chunks of the market at home and abroad. The cheese becomes the foundation for the Kavli Group’s further success.

Factories abroad

The Kavli Group is also the first in the world to sell cheese in tubes, as early as 1929. When export and import regulations in the 1930s make it difficult to sell Norwegian products to other countries, Olav decides to establish his own Kavli factories in Austria, Denmark, the UK and Sweden. In fact, the international part of the group gradually becomes more important than the Norwegian one. After World War II, the turnover volume almost quintuples in a few years.

“In everything Olav did, his ambitions shone through. He was the visionary entrepreneur who travelled the world and who charmed his audience with cheese. In the course of 65 years, he managed to build up a multinational food corporation from Norway. Part of the success lay in his ability to recruit good employees, show them trust and let them work independently,” says Ola H. Grytten.

From pioneer to philanthropist

Working alongside Olav is his son Knut, who starts working in the Kavli Group after being educated abroad. He becomes the general manager in 1924, aged 28. Throughout much of the 1930s, he is the general manager of Swedish O. Kavli AB, and he plays a central role in building up Kavli’s export business.

However, he will be remembered for some very different efforts in posterity. Knut’s new role starts when Olav Kavli’s adventure ends. After a brain haemorrhage in the summer of 1953, Olav never recovers. He withdraws completely from the daily management of his company. On September 22, 1958, Olav Kavli passes away, aged 86. When Olav dies, Knut Kavli becomes the main shareholder and director of Kavli. Like his father, he values his employees highly and sees workers’ rights and their well-being as important ingredients for success.

ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLE: Karin Kavli (1906-1990) and Knut Kavli (1896-1965).
Karin Kavli was a famous Swedish actress.

Generous and passionate

Knut is passionate about culture and humanitarian purposes. He has a reputation for being generous and socially engaged like his father, and is happy to help young people both with their education and professional ambitions. He often does this discreetly.

But Knut is struggling with a number of health problems. He is thinking about what would be best for the company in the future. He and his wife Karin never had children. Thus, there were no heirs to take over the Kavli Group after him. Knut does not want his father’s life’s work to wither away and be distributed among many owners. His goal is to ensure that the ownership remains with one or a few owners, that it will grow and develop further and not least: that the Kavli Group will continue to be based in Bergen.

A foundation is born

After considering a number of solutions, Knut finally makes a decision. “Christmas 1961 may have been a decisive time for Knut. He reflected on the Christmas spirit and his father’s upbringing in a strongly religious community, where doing good to others was highly valued. For Knut, it was crucial to manage his father’s legacy in a way that benefited society. At the same time, he wanted to ensure the future of the Kavli Group,” says Grytten.

In a letter to director Olav Jacob Dreyer in May 1962, Knut writes:

“As I am getting older, I wish to secure the future of our company in such a way that after my death I will not risk the company falling into the hands of or under the influence of outsiders, and by outsiders I mean people who are not working in the company in higher positions. I have therefore, after many long considerations, decided to establish a charitable foundation…”

On April 25, 1962, the O. Kavli and Knut Kavli Charitable Trust, today called Kavli Trust, is established by Knut Kavli. The statues make it clear that the purpose is ”to promote humanitarian work, scientific research and culture”. This is to be done by distributing profits from the company. Kavli Trust cannot transfer its shares to outsiders.

This is how it happened that as long as the Kavli Group exists, Kavli Trust will be the sole owner of the whole company and distribute all its profits to good causes.

Here for others

Knut Kavli only got to experience the very first allocation. In the autumn of 1965, he became seriously ill and died.

“Everyone in Kavli Trust and the Kavli Group is very proud of our founders. Olav Kavli and Knut Kavli were not only innovative and skilled businessmen. They demonstrated social responsibility in an exemplary manner long before the concept existed. Thanks to them, Kavli Trust, as one of the few owners of its kind in Norway, can distribute all the profits from the Kavli Group to good causes, and create ripple effects in the lives of individuals as well as society,” says Inger Elise Iversen.

“We are here for others!”