The origin of the Van Moeriaan
There comes a time when you no longer work ‘for’ Van Moer Logistics, but you work ‘at’ Van Moer Logistics. And then, before you even know it, you are a Van Moerian. Once you are one, you will be one for the rest of your life. We met up with five of the very first Van Moerians for a unique look back at an unlikely entrepreneurial adventure…
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Do you remember how it started? How was your very first day at work?
Peter: Not good … (everyone bursts out laughing, the atmosphere is set).
Can you tell us why?
Peter: I got stuck with my truck…
Gino: He was trapped in the ditch.
Peter: The weather was very bad. It was very slippery and it was snowing heavily. I went to unload wood and had to turn somewhere… Before I knew it, my truck got stuck.
On your first day at work…
Peter (confirmed dryly): On my very first day at work … yes (burst of laughter). I was still inexperienced of course, but anyway, the weather was very bad. I had just dropped off Jo (Van Moer) at a client’s place. He had forgotten his appointment.
Steven: Ah, he forgot his appointment? It was the same back in the day? (Everyone laughs)
Gino: When I arrived, I found myself in an empty warehouse. Jo hired me as a warehouse operator. Anyway, he still had to find a customer to fill his warehouse; 3300 square meters. I had just swept that warehouse when he came in with a customer: ‘Just sweep it clean again’ he said to me (laughs).
Wim: For me, it was a working day that started like any other. All I remember is that my parents came to look for me in the evening (everyone bursts into laughter again). It was 8 or 9 p.m. and they thought something had happened. It was immediately clear what the ‘spirit’ was like in the company. We worked until the job was done. And in fact, it still is.
Steven: When I was 16 years old, I regularly came to help Jo and Anne in the evenings. A few years later I started working here. At that time, it was still very small. Gino was in the warehouse, Anne and Anja were in the ‘office’ and Jo helped where he could or drove the truck. This was also a great advantage because he knew exactly what he was talking about. He could also do everything himself and knew perfectly how everything worked, both in terms of transport and the warehouse.
Gino: And it would also command respect.
Anja: I remember very well the day I applied. Basically, I heard that day that I was working for the wrong employer (laughs), or rather the wrong ‘colors’… Jo and Anne let their hair down and asked me if I didn’t want to come and work for them. The work appealed to me and I saw it as a challenge to help build the small company that it was then.
What was that early period like?
Anja: We were all available for each other. We literally did ‘everything’. If I had no work at the office for a while, I would go and help in the warehouse. Putting covers on pallets or writing numbers on trucks. And if the phone rang, I would run back to my office😊.
Steven: No one went home until work was done. And then chat after work with a pint. It was a bit of a second home, in fact.
Wim: You are there from the beginning. That means something. You feel a sense of responsibility to keep doing your job and making sure everything keeps running.
The tabasco fiasco & pickles
If they had told you back then that the company would be this big, would you have believed it?
All together: No!
Gino: Oh no, who could have predicted that?
Steven: But at the same time, it was very simple. Jo basically never said no. It was not part of his vocabulary.
Were you always able to follow Jo in his ‘storm and stress’ and his wild plans?
Wim: It just had to be done, it just couldn’t be any other way 😊.
Gino: It was always possible … (laughs). But Jo did the same as we did. He joined us in the action. That was also motivating.
Anja: Sometimes we should have said no, I think. Like with that tabasco.
Everyone: Oh yes, please don’t talk about it…
Anja: That was a job that Jo had accepted that he thought would be very lucrative… ‘We were going to get that job done quickly.’ It kind of backfired. 😊
Gino: In the beginning, we accepted everything, sometimes without a clue as to what it was all about. In fact, it didn’t always work out the way we had hoped (laughs).
Steven: A freight forwarder from Antwerp had a container…
Gino: 2 containers!
Steven: 2 containers … full of small tabasco bottles and he said: ‘Those small bottles of tabasco all have to be transferred into small boxes.’ We were going to get a very tempting amount of money for this. Jo thought: ‘We’re going to make a good living out of this, it’ll be done in three days. Let’s do this.’
Anja: Instead of 3 days, it took 2 weeks. Day and night!
Steven: Even on weekends. He had called all of us, the whole family, and basically everyone who knew Jo. Packing thousands of mini bottles of Tabasco into boxes…
Anja: In hindsight, that was a little too fine a job for Van Moer!!
Gino: When we thought we were going to make an entire container, we made 1 pallet.
Steven: At one point my T-shirt was completely ripped where I was rubbing against those boxes. We were constantly looking for ways to make this more efficient, but whatever we came up with … it wasn’t moving forward. (Everyone lying on the floor laughing)
Gino: But nobody gave up or got in a bad mood. Not even with those pickles!
Steven: Oh God, yes, that’s true. I still don’t eat pickles (laughter).
Steven: There was an action going on in the retail sector at the time. Containers full of pallets of glass pickle jars. If some of them would accidentally fall and break on the floor, it would stink for hours.
Gino: Yes, it stunk! And that smell would stay for a long time.
Anja: No more pickles for me since then (everyone agrees)
Steven: No tabasco, no pickles. So, no Martino sandwiches for us 😊
You guys had a lot of laughs, huh?
Steven: Yeah, by the end we did! 😊
Anja: At the last pallet yeah... 😊
Peter: Yes, honestly, we laughed a lot. No matter what was going on, at the end of the week we would get together and put it all into perspective.
Stumbling from time to time
Can we say that you learned by trial and error?
Steven: Falling and getting up … (thinking), maybe tripping now and then. We did face some headwinds. But we were always looking for solutions.
Gino: Just think about the fire in Melsele (where it all started). The warehouse and the private house of Jo and Anne burned down completely.
Anja: But we had so much work to do that we went back to work the next day. Jo & Anne lived in a small caravan for a while. That’s how it was. We didn’t look back.
Steven: I also remember that when we moved from Melsele to Kallo, people in the port community looked at us and laughed. We were growing so fast that they said, ‘Let those guys do it, they’ll screw it up,’ like: ‘They’ll never make it.’ Yeah, um...
Anja: Persistence and flexibility.
What was it that appealed to you so much that you are still working here today?
Steven: I think the drive behind it. We were always moving forward. And we also had the freedom to do our own thing a little bit. It wasn’t all set in stone. We didn’t have a manual on how to do it. It was often like: ‘Just find a solution.’ We were all sort of entrepreneurs within a company. That is still the case today.
Anja: It takes a lot of energy, but it also gives a lot of energy. I need those challenges. People really listen to what you have to say here. That was the case then and it still is the case today. There is a lot of respect.
Peter: You also learn a lot here, every day. I really grew up here.
It had to succeed ... or it would fail
It seems obvious, but … has much changed?
Steven: Not much and at the same time a lot, not to say everything, but the family atmosphere has been preserved.
Peter: We used to be cowboys sometimes, but now we work according to strict procedures. That’s a good thing. But the ‘spirit’ has remained the same.
Anja: You can't compare the company itself anymore, of course, but everyone still addresses each other by first name. It's not a rigid place... it never has been. You can really be yourself here and grow.
Steven: And when we organize a party or other activities, you can see that everyone enjoys it. For example, we recently had a staff party in October. The atmosphere was great and what stood out was a very striking togetherness, really one big family.
Are you still doing the same things you did when you started?
Anja: Well, I really grew with the company. First at the counter, then in records management, helping to develop systems. I was given a lot of opportunities to learn and grow. Today I am the Customer Service Coordinator. I have been almost everywhere in the company. I just know a lot about the company, inside and out, and that is a very nice feeling.
Peter: Because of the constant growth, everything changes very quickly, even if you’re doing the same job. That makes it exciting.
There are now more than 2,200 people working here. That is quite a different dynamic from the early years?
Steven: A lot has changed, but a lot of the values from the beginning still apply. For example, Jo still likes things to be neat and tidy. He always made a point of that. He's always been a stickler for that sort of thing. You wouldn't put a crooked pallet in the warehouse.
Gino: Oh no, absolutely, otherwise you'd have to start all over again.
Steven: He instilled that from the very beginning. And it's still ingrained in the whole company. You can practically eat off the floor here.
Anja: Of course, we see Jo and Anne less. It’s all a hundred times more professional than it was in the beginning, but the warm feeling is the same as far as I’m concerned.
What kind of boss was/is Jo?
Anja: Someone who really wants to be among his people, even now. And a perfectionist.
Steven: Demanding too. I remember when the company was located in Melsele, we would work late and go home around 2 a.m. We usually started again at 5 a.m. and I came into the office at 5:05 a.m. ‘What’s the matter?’ said Jo, ‘Do you always come in so late? He had no pity for us, but no pity for himself either, mind you!
Anja: We just got sucked into it. We went with the flow 😊. But there was always a lot of mutual respect.
What do you think was the secret of this spectacular growth?
Steven: I think boldness, entrepreneurship, but most of all perseverance. It had to be, because it wasn’t always easy.
Gino: It had to succeed... Or it would fail.
Steven: Yeah, we always met all the challenges. We never gave up even when it was hard.
Peter: And at the same time, we have always strived for quality. The trucks have always been well maintained. Except maybe for the first few years (laughs), when we made a new truck out of 2 old ones 😊. But after that, the machines have always been of excellent quality. This is very important for the customers, but also for our own people. I have always driven nice looking and good trucks from different brands. Today, we are also investing heavily in new sustainable technologies. We have always been in tune with the times, even ahead of them.
Anja: I have enjoyed working here every day, without exception. It’s like coming home every day. Maybe that’s the secret? The family atmosphere. You know, you’re allowed to make mistakes here.
Steven: Those who do nothing can do nothing wrong. If something fails, okay, we’ve seen that it doesn’t work that way, and then we move on. That’s in our culture. Not trying is not an option. Just do it!
We need “doers”
What did you guys enjoy the most? The early years or now?
Peter: Maybe those early years, actually. We didn't have to worry about anything. We just did what we thought we had to do. Those were often days of 28, 29 hours (laughs with twinkling eyes).
Anja: That wouldn’t be possible today.
Peter: No, but we were working very hard, you know.
Anja: For me, both periods have their charm.
Are you going to see each other today?
Steven: Well, we are today, aren't we! No, joking aside, it's actually a lot less because, of course, it’s become so much bigger.
And now the most important question. What makes someone a Van Moerian?
Peter: Not an easy question 😊.
Steven: First of all, you have to be very flexible. Often you know in the morning what you are going to start with, but it can change 10 times in one day. That’s part of logistics, isn’t it? You have to be constantly alert, be able to switch quickly and dare to change if necessary.
Anja: If you are too structured, you might not fit in here. Every problem is tackled without flinching. There is only one way and that is forward. I have always worked here like for myself. You’re so caught up in that drive. You really get sucked into it. Everyone is pulling in the same direction here. It's actually a very “Van Moerian” thing.
Can anyone become a Van Moerian?
Anja: You can see that right away. When someone new comes in, I see if he is a Van Moerian or not... I think you just have to be a “normal” person. Down to earth, huh? Don’t get ahead of yourself. Just like Jo and Anne.
Peter: Who still have both feet on the ground.
Steven: If it's someone who talks too much, it's not good. We need doers.
What does the future of Van Moer Logistics look like?
Steven: If we listen to Jo, we will continue to grow in a controlled way. I don't think he has any plans to leave it at that.
Anja: And neither do we 😊.
Steven: It will continue to evolve. When we started building here in 2008 we thought we had built too big. It turned out to be the opposite. We will be moving into a new building this summer. Nobody expected that at the time.
Knowing what you know now, would you have done it again?
Anja (immediately): Yes! Definitely! (everyone nods in agreement).
A unique story?
Steven: It really is, yeah. We started with our little group around this table. Today we're over 2,200 people, all in one generation. Yes, it's unique.
Anja: Very proud. Jo & Anne also always say: “It was the achievement of everyone, the whole team.
Gino: Right, they are very grateful.
Wim: A beautiful story.
Just as the interview was coming to an end, Jo Van Moer, the tallest Van Moerian of them all, enters the meeting room. What timing...
Anja: Ah! We were just talking about you!
Everyone laughs, and Jo joins in cozily.
Jo: How did it go here, were they nice to you? They didn't say anything bad though? 😊
Something about Tabasco and pickles. And about Peter’s first day.
Jo: Oh yes, I remember that first day very well!
Everyone is startled when Jo brings out the juicy details. One story after another goes by. About driving through the village with a reach stacker, truck adventures, Friday nights, burlap sacks and pranks... I won’t tell you all of them... 😊 But maybe just one more...
Jo: I still remember very well when my first driver - Dirk De Breuker - came to work for us. Dirk came from a company of about 20 or 30 people and he said to me: Jo, you’re not going to be a big company, are you? Because with 30 people it’s no fun anymore... And I said: No, 30 people, are you kidding? (Laughter!)
That turned out a little differently 😊.