Professor Børge Obel says goodbye

A long career in the university world, both at the former Aarhus School of Business and at Aarhus University, comes to an end. After many years as a lecturer, rector and dean, Børge Obel will become emeritus professor at the end of the year.

Børge Obel. Photo: AU Photo

Since his MSc degree in Mathematics-Economics from Aarhus University in 1974, Børge Obel has managed to leave a major personal and professional imprint on the world of academia, research and teaching. In addition, he has had his own business for approx. forty years. On 31 December, he will become emeritus professor.

"So far, I have worked in many different areas: research, teaching, writing books, my own business, advice to ministries, being a leader, being on numerous boards and involved in international collaboration. I have never just done one thing at a time – everything has been running parallel, but now I will focus primarily on three areas: my own business, my research and my international activities", says Børge Obel.

Børge grew up in Nørresundby, Aalborg, received a university degree from Aarhus University and was employed as an assistant professor at the Department of Mathematics for a short time later to become research fellow at the Department of History at the University of Odense. He worked for a number of years as head of department, degree programme council chair and dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences before moving back to Aarhus as a rector of Aarhus School of Business in 2004. He was rector until the merger with Aarhus University in 2007 and subsequently dean of Aarhus School of Business for four years. In 2011, Børge Obel founded ICOA, Interdisciplinary Centre for Organizational Architecture, of which he was the director until 2018.

In addition to his university work, he has also been involved in international collaborations, for example via the Organizational Design Community, which is based at the Department of Management, and he has been a member of a wide range of boards.

Gentleman and a great scholar
Børge Obel has made a big impression on everyone he has worked with. One of them is Professor Dorthe Døjbak Håkonsson whom he has known for many years and, among other things, has worked together with on founding ICOA. She says:

"Børge has always made great demands on himself and others. You had to do your best and meet the deadlines. He is also very disciplined – and razor-sharp. Today, he has changed slightly compared to his younger years. Now, he is full of anecdotes and more 'enjoyable' to be around, but still very sharp. He possesses both qualities and can make fun as well as get people to believe in themselves. If it were not for Børge, I would not have been here today. He always believed in me and fought for me tooth and nail – he does that for everyone he believes in. He is a noble and very fine person – what you might call a 'gentleman and a great scholar', and you can always depend on him. He works for the team and, naturally, he also likes to be in focus, but not at all costs – he is a team player.”

Former dean at Aarhus BSS, Svend Hylleberg, describes him in this way:

"He is a man of great stature. And he is also academically very talented and enterprising – he has a lot of good qualities!"

His great professionalism, commitment and expectations for other people can be described with a single anecdote which Dorthe Døjbak Håkonsson recalls with a smile:

"At one point, I was ill with chickenpox when Børge rang and asked if I could drop by and do some work. I was ill and felt really unwell, so I said that I would rather not go to see him. Børge quickly turned to his wife, who is a doctor, and returned with the message that he had had chickenpox. I would not infect him, so I could just come by! But even though he is, or at least was, a tough employer, he is also very caring. In many ways, he has been my bonus dad, he really has, and I love him a lot!"

Børge says that he has never had an actual career plan. He has pursued his interests and learning new things and, along the way, he has found out what he is good at – including mathematics, economics and creating business models, and through these interests, he has become involved in many different projects that have been both exciting and challenging. One of his favourite expressions is:

You cannot land an orange in your turban, if you do not wear a turban – which means that you need to be open, willing and ready for change in order to succeed. You do not have to make a whole lot of plans, but do your best and be open to the opportunities that arise. And Børge Obel has succeeded with a lot of things and had many interests over the years:

"Getting companies to perform well has always been interesting to me, that is, how they are designed and operate, and on this I have created models and case studies and projects, but the work that I am probably most proud of is my collaboration with Richard Burton from Duke University, and the work we have done within organisational design. We have written books and articles together on this subject since 1975. And this has meant that that I have been able to create a journal about this, teach students about this – and also apply the experience in my collaboration with different companies. Together, we have created a concept for organisational design which I have used in my company for many years.”

Another colleague, Pernille Kallehave, who knows Børge from the former Aarhus School of Business, where she was head of communications, is also familiar with Børge’s humorous side as well as his ability to see connections:  

"I know just about everything about the city on the sunny side of the Limfjord (better known as Nørresundby) where Børge grew up and apparently is related to everyone. Funnily enough, all other Danes apparently also have roots in Northern Jutland, because Børge has an incomparable ability to see patterns and find out how things, events and people are interconnected. In addition to making him always entertaining company, this ability is one of the keys to his success. As he says, you have to wear a turban in order for oranges to fall into it, and Børge's turban consists of a lively curiosity about people and the world."

Professor Jacob Eskildsen, head of the Department of Management (MGMT), has also collaborated with Børge Obel for a number of years, and he adds these final words about him:

"Børge has had a major influence on the academic environment for a number of years. He was one of the first in Denmark to publish in the very best international journals, and he has passed this on to countless young colleagues throughout his career. A big thank you to Børge for a huge effort through the years!"

Børge Obel has two children, a son and a daughter, both of whom live in Aarhus, and he runs his own company together with his son and his daughter-in-law. In his spare time, he jogs and plays the guitar. Not forgetting the seven grandchildren between two and seventeen - there must also be time for them. Børge Obel will not be sitting still any time soon.


Børge Obel’s CV