12 January, 2009 – The Dutch Way
How many Dutch men does it take to put Trafford Park on the radar of every alcoholic beverage producer in Europe? Well, apparently one is enough. His name is Hans van Gurp and he is doing great… with a little help from his Mancunian friends.
The walk up to Hans van Gurp’s office in Trafford Park is long (especially if you are wearing three-inch heels) and erratically signposted. Half-way there one gets the feeling that this is all a hoax and that the Royal Nedalco plant that he supposedly manages does not exist. But then you smell it, a sickly-sweet scent of yeast and sugar, and a few steps later there it is – a 20,000 m state-of-the-art development rising from the ground like a mini futuristic city of steel pipes, pumps and barrels.
You half expect van Gurp to look like a villain from a James Bond film, laboriously plotting a dastardly blow to world peace from his top secret HQ in ehm…Trafford Park. OK, maybe not, but you certainly do not expect the down-to-earth family man that the 41-year-old Dutchman turns out to be after all.
Still, it is better to be safe than sorry, so the first question is designed to get to the bottom of this new addition to the industrial heart of Manchester. So, what exactly is it that you do here?
Van Gurp’s words are measured and delivered with a soft accent. “This is the first plant outside the Netherlands of Royal Nedalco – a Dutch company established in 1899 that is a leading producer of ethanol [ethyl alcohol] in Europe.”
If chemistry was not your strong point at school, here is a watered down version of the process of alcohol production:
Natural alcohol is produced by fermenting products that contain sugars or starch such as molasses, grains, or potatoes. This Royal Nedalco plant only uses wheat.
First you transform the starch into glucose with the help of enzymes. Then you use yeast to convert the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide in large fermenting vessels. The result of fermentation is a mix of alcohol, yeast and CO2 called mash. In a big distillation column the alcohol is separated from the mash and transferred to a storage tank. A rectification phase follows to remove impurities and end up with very high quality alcohol. The mash is eventually sold as a liquid and moist feed for the pig and cattle market.
The process is obviously much more technical than it sounds but, with years of experience in the large-scale production of chemicals in the Netherlands, van Gurp was deemed the right man to supervise Royal Nedalco’s first overseas branch.
“I arrived here in 2006 to develop this plant from scratch,” he says. “Two years ago this was just a field with some trees, and now look what we’ve built here.”
The plant, which had its official opening this May, started production last September. And although many alcohol producers have now shifted their focus to bio-ethanol, the alcohol that comes out of this Royal Nedalco plant is very unlikely to be used to run Prince Charles’ eco-friendly Aston Martin. Instead, it will go primarily into high-end beverage brands like Smirnoff and Baileys.
Van Gurp explains: “Royal Nedalco’s strategy has been to strengthen our position in the traditional market. We are conducting research into second generation bio-ethanol, which does not take anything out of the food chain for the production of alcohol as a biofuel, but this is more of a long-term plan. For now we are focusing on supplying the key players in the alcoholic beverage industry in North-Western Europe with top quality neutral alcohol as a raw material.”
So how does Manchester fit into Royal Nedalco’s strategy? “The UK and Ireland are very important for Royal Nedalco because they are home to many of the big alcoholic beverage companies, and Manchester is ideal as a base from which to supply this market. In the past, all our customers were supplied from the Netherlands but it makes more sense to be closer to your customers – there are environmental benefits, lower transport costs and shorter lead times.
“But the decisive factor that brought us to this location was Cargill. Cargill are our key supplier of wheat based feedstock in the Netherlands and when they changed their process from corn based to wheat in Trafford Park we took the excellent opportunity to open next to them.”
So van Gurp, who had never been to Manchester before, googled the city, liked what he saw, packed his bags and moved here with his South African-born wife and three young children. “I didn’t know anything about the city except that there were some Dutch football players there. In fact the moving company I used was taking Ruud van Nistelrooy’s things to Spain.
“But I found that it was a massive city with a lot of opportunities – there are 15 million people living in this region, which is almost as big as Holland. I looked at pictures online and I thought OK, it looks fine. A bit wet, but I don’t mind the rain.”
The rain was the last thing on van Gurp’s mind when he first moved here on a mission to get the plant up and running in just over a year. “I had to set up operations, recruitment and staff training, and get the team ready for commissioning.”
A project like that would be difficult enough in one’s homeland, but this plant manager had the additional challenge of doing it in a place he knew nothing about, which is where an organisation like MIDAS (Manchester’s inward investment agency) would be able to step in and assist. “I didn’t know where to start so I just put an advert in the Manchester Evening News and I received an overwhelming number of responses. Fortunately I was able to recruit very qualified and highly motivated people – the perfect team.”
Van Gurp is the only Dutchman among the 15-strong workforce at this plant, so a bit of culture shock was inevitable. For example, apparently the long working hours culture has not caught on in the Netherlands. “I’m always amazed by the team’s willingness to help by working weekends or late when needed,” he admits.
Workaholic staff is obviously a perk, but van Gurp soon discovered a few more pleasant surprises. “Whereas our plants in the Netherlands are located in small cities, Manchester is huge and so it offers a lot of benefits. In addition to qualified staff, you have good training facilities, a large choice of suppliers and excellent rail and road communications. The international airport is another big plus, making travel easy to and from the Netherlands.
“But also the fact that Manchester is such a vibrant city to live makes it easier to recruit and retain staff. I moved here myself and I don’t regret it at all. It’s a very good place to live – my family is happy here and so I’m happy.”
The Dutchman and his family live in Timperley, Altrincham – a leafy village 20 minutes and a thousand miles away from Trafford Park. “Proximity to work was an important consideration in choosing a place to live, but so was schooling. My children all go to school in Altrincham with English kids. I don’t believe in special schools; we live here now so I think it’s important to integrate with the local community.”
He may be the boss at the plant, but at home it is the kids who call the shots. “I’m always driving my children to parties and picking them up from soccer and other types of activities. But there is also always something to do as a family. There are some really nice parks around here and you can easily drive to the Peak District or the Lake District. There are some great shopping malls and, in terms of entertainment, all the big names in music come to Manchester for concerts. Plus there are two great football stadiums to take the boys.”
Van Gurp looks like a man who is genuinely content with life. But surely there must be something he misses from home, right?
There is a moment of awkward silence but he finally gives in. “The food now and then,” he concedes. “With all due respect, I have days when I really can’t stand English food. And I sometimes also miss the efficiency in Holland. If you have to deal with companies like British Gas and Sky it can really get your blood pressure going. I’ve spent many, many hours on weekends on the phone on hold. It’s really frustrating but I think everyone moans about that; you can’t beat the system.”
Bland food and notorious call centres aside, van Gurp would recommend Manchester to anyone wishing to invest from abroad, but cannot stress enough the importance of doing your homework before setting up in a foreign country. “Invest in research. Find a good consultant, go to an organisation like MIDAS or the Chamber of Commerce and talk to other foreign companies that are here. Things work differently in every country and if you don’t do your homework you will find things out the hard way.
“Keep an open mind and respect the people around you and you’ll be fine – especially in Manchester where everyone is so open and friendly.”
Definitely not a Bond villain. Although fish and chips and call centre queues have been known to turn a good man bad.
This article was first published in the September 2008 issue of All About Manchester magazine.
© Selini Publishing Limited.
Source: All About Manchester