Interview: Thomas van Mourik, CEO, Culina Logistics

Thomas van Mourik, CEO of Culina Logistics, looks well: he's sitting, relaxed in jeans and a shirt, in the firm's new 110,000ft2 Avonmouth depot. The company currently boasts turnover a shade over £200m, employs 2,300 people across nine sites and has integrated two major acquisitions (Baylis Distribution and Wincanton's chilled operation - more of which later) over the past three years.

It's a far cry from its early days: £7.5m turnover, 80 employees and a sole customer in the form of Müller Dairy.

For so many years Müller and Culina Logistics were intertwined in the UK, not least by the ownership structure, but also by the fact that the latter was effectively the transport arm of the former. It was set up here in 1994 with van Mourik at the helm, as Müller looked to expand its presence into the UK.

Working seven days a week

Van Mourik says that in the early days, Culina went against the grain: while traditional operators in the chilled logistics arena were resistant, or at least their staff were, to seven-days-a-week working, Culina took a different approach. "We were quite the opposite," he says.

"We had nothing to lose, so we said - seven days a week operation? OK - how will it work? We just went for it. Very soon we got customers one after the other. When we did something new, it was really brand new."

Although Müller was initially the firm's only customer, an emphasis on quality (van Mourik says Müller drove him "absolutely mental" in the early days with emphasis on service levels) and the 'can do' attitude paid off.

He adds: "We started working for Müller initially and then, because of the spare capacity within the warehouse, we were able to bolt similar business onto the back of that."

The seven-days-a-week operation it was running for Müller enabled it to "sell our own business" to other manufacturers, leading to strong ties with the food and drink sector. Van Mourik adds: "We have been able to grow on the back of that quite well. We are trying to use that retailer delivery relationship to get ourselves into other markets."

The firm is now one of the leaders in shared-user chilled and ambient distribution, albeit that ambient currently represents less than a quarter of its turnover.

The shared-user aspect of the operation is key, stresses van Mourik, as the mix of goods in the warehouse is how the firm makes its money.

The reason for its success is simple, believes van Mourik: "We have stuck to our knitting: we started in food and drink and there's no reason to go away from that. We have simply grown across the temperature range."

Sticking to food and drink

That growth into the ambient sector came via - to the outside observer at least - a slightly roundabout route. Following the successful launch of Culina in the UK in 1994, van Mourik moved across to become CEO of its operation in Continental Europe.

However, in 2005 he left the company, buying into Bristol-based Baylis Distribution - a reasonably sized, family-run, ambient specialist. Two years passed and then van Mourik was back at Culina, having merged the two operations. However, as part of the deal, the UK business was decoupled from the wider European operation and Müller Dairy relinquished its ownership. However, finance for the merger was supplied by Müller CEO Theo Müller's investment fund and he retains 80% of Culina Group's shares.

Van Mourik says the rationale behind the move stems from the early days when the business was 100% Müller-owned: "We often had to fight that perception - certain dairy producers were reluctant to come across to us."

The investment is now very much at arm's length and Müller Dairy, could, theoretically at least, chose any logistics provider it wanted if Culina's service levels dropped. "They could, but they won't," adds van Mourik pointedly.

Getting chilly with it

The next stage in the company's development came in 2007 when it purchased Wincanton's chilled business.

The attraction of that deal was simple, says van Mourik; a chunk of additional revenue with no strings attached, as Culina had no obligation to take on staff, sites or vehicles. He adds: "We had the opportunity to take £76m-worth of business and add it to our network without also adding too much complexity or cost.

"It also meant that we took a very serious competitor out of the sector."

Wincanton's representation in chilled distribution is now effectively via its 20% shareholding in Culina Logistics, he says.

Given that van Mourik left his native Holland in 1985 to start working in the UK (to set up Dutch firm De Rijke's UK operation), I wonder what keeps him interested in the sector. He explains: "Building business, doing the next deal, that's what does it for me. There's not been a day when I get out of bed and think 'here we go again' .

"I truly mean it: the business we have created has a very nice feel to it. It's not just a run-of-the-mill distribution company - it's got a certain style and flair. The people who work with us and for us feel that and are comfortable with that."

And Müller? It now represents just 16% of Culina's turnover; a suitably slimline figure.