Steven, how did you start working together?
Steven: Gosh, we have to go way back in time to answer that. More than 30 years ago now. I lived near Jo and Anne’s business at that time. I used to cycle past it every day on my way to school. I already found it enormously attractive. I must have been around 14 or 15 years old. I didn’t know Jo and Anne yet, but I did know Jo’s father. He had a groundworks business and I regularly helped him with all kinds of jobs. We had a farm at home where there was always work, but I didn't really enjoy that. I was more into the big machinery. Every Saturday, every Wednesday afternoon and during all the holidays you could find me at Jo’s dad’s place, sorting waste, installing dry suctions, drilling wells – it was child labour, actually. 😊 No, no, I really loved it and it gave me satisfaction.
So how did you end up with Jo and Anne?
Steven: At that time, Jo and Anne were already building their second warehouse in Melsele. I came to them through Jo’s father. I can remember standing there in the courtyard. They were laying and levelling concrete and I was standing by with the shovel.
Jo: I’d seen Steven park his bike against the building and come and help on several occasions. And then I’d get his mother on the phone at 11 pm: Listen Jo, where is that boy? Our Steven has to go to school tomorrow! 😊😊😊
“A great bear”
How old were you then?
Steven: I was 17 years old. I have to say I was looking forward to the end of my schooling with a smile (everyone laughs 😊 ). I had this idea in my head from an early age: ‘As soon as I can stop school, I’ll leave and start working.’ I thought school was a real waste of time. The time passed too slowly, there wasn’t enough of a challenge. I couldn’t wait to really get to work. School ended on 30 June. I officially started with Jo and Anne on 1 July.
Jo, what was Steven like as a lad?
Jo: Completely off his rocker! He still is a bit. In a positive sense, of course! Someone who liked to get on with it, a bit rough round the edges at times, but he could really work! I’ll never forget the time he jumped onto a forklift with a high mast that was intended for warehouse work. Steven wanted to drive it into a truck that was waiting outside... He smashed the warehouse gate to pieces!
Steven: I’d completely forgotten that … 😊 What I do remember, though, is the first time I drove a forklift. I had no experience whatsoever ...
Jo: He was a great bear!
Steven: I drove off with it. I took my first bend … and I went flying off it! And the forklift just carried on by itself. 😊
Jo: 😊 A great bear! Steven was already sprawled out between the pallets after his first bend. He was always in a tearing hurry.
How big was the business back then?
Steven: Oh, it was still very small-scale at that time. Anne at the desk, one warehouse operator and three drivers. And then Jo and me.
Jo: But things started happening very, very quickly.
Steven, did you realise at that time… This is something special?
Steven: Absolutely! There were so many challenges. You could sense the huge potential in every aspect. And we were involved in everything. Part of the reason why that was possible was that it was a very flat organisation. Whatever happened was immediately brought up in the group and discussed. When Jo received a call from a customer, we were all allowed to give our opinion on how we were going to go about the request. And then work, work, work.
Jo: It wasn’t so much a time for work as for slogging away.
Steven: That’s right, it went really well and we turned everything into a competition. Who can fill a container the quickest?
Jo: Literally everything was about coming first! 😊 But I could never beat those young men (note: Jo was in his twenties himself 😉)
Steven: We learnt as we went along and became more efficient with every assignment. We may not have had much experience, but we did have plenty of common sense.
Jo: And we used trial and error!
Steven: Definitely. For example, we started out with very ‘traditional’ stock management. 😊 All those hours we would sometimes spend looking for goods. All those palettes we couldn’t find...
Jo: Ooooh, that was really awful...
Steven: And then the cries of joy when we found them again! Only to waste hours moving pallets in order to get to them...
What attracted you to the business and to Jo and Anne?
Steven: It was the sheer entrepreneurship. The determination to make something of it, to do it well, to give customers quality service. We also really looked up to our competitors. Those were the big boys. But we always thought: why couldn’t we do that or why couldn’t we do that better?
Jo: Yes, we were a very small player outside the port and had to compete with the large port operators within the port. And yet we managed to win contracts from them. Our turnover went through the roof...
Steven: (finishing Jo’s sentence) ... because we came up with creative ideas to organise those logistics flows more efficiently.
Jo: Those port operators couldn’t understand it. Doing all that from outside the port with all the customs formalities, excise duties, permits – it wasn’t possible! But we knew a customs officer in Sint-Niklaas, ‘De Kalle’, as his nickname was. He came and helped us out.
Steven: For example, he would give us a temporary permit while we were waiting for the real permit. He had a lot of sympathy for us.
Jo: And my mother would drive back and forth to Sint-Niklaas with the documents. In the port they couldn’t understand how we did it. 😊 Don’t misunderstand me: everything was done properly and correctly!
Steven: Our small scale was a real advantage at the time. No overheads, you see. But our sheer determination also made the difference. We would sometimes literally work day and night.
Jo: I remember a customer, who called at 4.00 am: ‘Guys, can we add 20 more containers?’
Steven: And we never said no. We’d start by saying yes, and only then would we worry about how exactly we were going to go about it. 😊
Jo and Anne, what attracted you to Steven?
Jo: Steven was a lion! He would shift twice as much as anyone else.
Anne: And he also had a rock-solid mentality!
Jo: Yes, incredibly solid. I have never experienced him, write it down, NEVER experienced him holding back. Compared with Steven I’m a real wimp. I actually sat down and cried while loading a container. I really couldn’t take it any more. But Steven was always there with a word of encouragement, keeping our spirits up. He was so positive.
Steven: Yes, I would describe myself that way. I always look at things positively. Some people find the negative in everything. With me it’s the other way around: no matter how difficult it is, I only see the positive and get to work on it. That came in handy at Van Moer, I have to say. 😊
Jo: We worked dead hard in those early years, but we still had no clear idea of what exactly we were doing. Only at the end of the year did we get to see the figures. It was quite disappointing a few times. 😊 We’d scarcely made anything, or nothing at all ... Steven would always say: ‘Chin up, don’t give up, keep going!’
So he complements you well?
Jo: Definitely! Steven is also really clever. He’s like a calculator on legs.
Steven: Yes, I love maths. I always knew exactly how much time we spent loading and unloading and how much we had saved. I calculated literally everything. And I kept tabs on everything too.
Jo: Show him some documents or invoices and he’ll identify all the errors within a minute. And that’s just one of his strengths.
So he quickly took on bigger responsibilities, didn’t he?
Jo: Steven had a burning ambition.
Steven: Yes, it was always my ambition to become a working shareholder. That was the system they used in the port in the old days, when you could buy in as a working director. I gradually made my ambition clear to Jo and Anne... Fortunately, they took it very seriously. 😊
Jo: It wasn’t entirely straightforward, though. When we started up in Temse in 1996 because our place in Melsele had grown too small, I put someone else in charge instead of Steven. He wasn’t too keen on that. 😊
Steven: That’s right. Jo and Anne deliberately chose an experienced person from the port. I could understand that, but I have to admit that it also hurt.
Jo: And just at that moment our warehouse in Melsele burnt down.
Steven: Yes, Jo and Anne were depressed. That was a real turning point in our existence. There were Jo and Anne with a burnt-down operation in one place (Melsele) and a warehouse in another place (Temse) that was completely crammed full. The challenge was to keep activities running. We did the craziest things to make that possible.
Jo: I thought we had to stop, but Steven called me and told me to send all the containers to Temse. I thought he was mad, because I knew there was no room there. But Steven took a very level-headed approach and looked for solutions. When I drove there late at night, everyone was pulling tarpaulins over containers out in the car park despite the weather conditions. I got a lump in my throat at that point ...
A free holiday and a low-slung set of wheels
Steven: A little later, a second warehouse was built in Temse. That was a very busy period. Jo once sent me on ‘compulsory’ vacation. He handed me a letter stating that the holiday was pretty much at his expense. And at my wedding there was a gleaming, brand-new company car. Well, I’ve given a lot, but I’ve also got a lot back. It’s really nice.
Anne: Yes – that was the grey BMW 3. It was a real low-slung set of wheels. 😊
Steven: Low-slung? It was a sports car, Anne… (everyone bursts out laughing 😊 ). I’d never been so proud in my life!
Jo: When the plans to start up in the port of Kallo took shape, Steven came up to me. He said: ‘If you are going to build in Kallo, I’d like to be involved.’ I didn’t need long to think about it. We then set up Van Moer Rail and a new company in which we allowed Steven to participate.
When did you realise that Steven was going to be a ‘stayer’?
Jo: Oh, very soon. From day one, actually. In fact, ever since he started helping my father. He always made a difference from the start.
Steven: They definitely swore at me a lot too. With all my clever ideas, speed and vigour, things sometimes went wrong.
Jo: Not too badly, though, I think. We never had an argument. Maybe a difference of opinion at times, but an argument? Never.
Steven: We worked hard and suffered a lot together. It was really hard sometimes. But at the same time we also lived it up and had a lot of fun!
Jo: We lived it up at times, that’s true. 😊 You’ve got to leave enough time after work every now and then to have a beer. Or two…
So you know each other pretty well?
Steven: You could say that. Apart from bed, I share everything with Jo! 😊
Jo: And the bed too, Steven! 😊 Several times! In Millau!
Steven: Ah yes, that’s true. That was quite something ...
What follows is a heroic story. We’ll pause the recording for a moment. 😊
Steven, how do you look back on the whole story? And I don’t mean the one you’ve just told ...
Steven: It’s been a real rollercoaster. I’ve learnt a lot. To get where we wanted to get, we had to work really hard, to slog away as Jo said. We encountered numerous obstacles – and overcome them. It makes you realise what you have to do and how difficult it can be at times to bring in a penny. You get into the habit of thinking twice before you spend any money. We’ve always been cost-conscious. And we needed to be, too.
Jo: At the same time, we’ve often made a move without knowing exactly where we’re heading. And it’s true that through all that ‘slogging away’ we’ve succeeded several times in making those adventures pay off. Everything happens in a lot more reasoned manner these days. But you still have to follow your gut at times.
Steven: Like that time when our neighbours/competitors came knocking at my door in Kallo. Their warehouse wasn’t working well. Basically, they couldn’t get their operations under control. They saw that things were going smoothly for us and they offered me a job. They were offering double what I was earning and wanted to talk to me at short notice. I then went to talk to them… but I took Jo with me to the meeting. 😊
Jo: (knowingly) We then proposed to take over their operations – and their warehouse too, later on. That was a real leap in the dark, because everyone said we’d never earn a penny from it. 😊 Steven and I took a fresh, common sense look at it and gradually made the business profitable.
Steven: You know, if you got someone to analyse that case study in theoretical terms, they’d never see the potential in it. But we could see right off how you could organise those logistics flows better in practical terms. It’s a typical example of how we sometimes followed our gut feeling.
Jo: Our story with intermodal transport is much the same. We followed our gut there, but our advisors were soon saying: ‘What the hell have you got yourself into?’ They advised us to sell that part of the business off again. The stress I had! We were losing tons of money every month. I then gave Steven the task of getting that business on track as well. Steven really made the problem his own, and got the business running in just one year.
Steven: Again, you couldn’t solve that one on paper. You really have to get up close in order to understand exactly what’s going wrong and what could be improved.
Jo: If we hadn’t persisted at that point, the intermodal part of the business would have been lost.
Steven: Sometimes you have to go through hell before achieving success. It’s a matter of persevering and never giving up. Thanks to our ‘Van Moerians’. You also need really good, highly motivated people to bring situations like that to a successful conclusion.
Jo: Intermodal is one of our best-performing divisions these days. So gut feeling remains important, but we now back it up with figures and calculations.
Steven: What hasn’t changed is that we’ll always give it all we’ve got. Providing service is sacred as far as we’re concerned. This is how we’ve built up really strong relationships with many customers. We’ve gone through fire for them, and continue to do so. And people don’t forget that.
Jo: For example, one of our good customers, for whom we’d previously done so much, pulled us through the crisis in 2008. We’d helped them win a lot of new business in the past through our thorough service. Well, in 2008 they paid us in advance. That enabled us to keep our heads above water. We’ve always helped each other out. That creates really close ties.
Is there one moment in all these years that has stayed with you?
Steven: There’ve been so many. Perhaps the best moments are the ones where you look back. The milestones we set and celebrated achieving as a company. In 2005 with the opening of rail. Or even in 2008 with the opening in Zwijndrecht and then in 2015 with our 25th anniversary. Looking back on those achievements really moved me... I always felt very proud. But then of course you get straight back down to it the next day! 😊
Van Moer – Pauwels Logistics
Steven: The future looks very positive. 😊 We’ll keep going as we are. The ambition to grow is still there.
Jo: The funny thing is that you shift your ambition each time. When we achieved the first 10 million euros in turnover, I thought we’d got there. Then you reach 25 million, and the figure keeps shifting ... I never thought the development of our company was possible and yet it’s kept on growing.
Steven: I need that, that ambition to grow.
So how did you do it? From three musketeers to a battalion of more than 2,200 employees?
Steven: The answer brings us back to ‘slogging away’, of course, but taking good care of each other – both colleagues and loved ones – is another part of it. I’ve always tried to create a warm environment. You give a lot of trust and then you get it back. That’s how it happened with me.
Jo: That’s definitely a gift that Steven has. He’s very empathetic. If something happens to his team, he’s the first to step into the breach. But he can also be tough. Sometimes I think: ‘Steven, why so fierce?’, but it’s always for a reason. He may have a rough exterior, but he’s pure gold inside. His heart’s in the right place. Steven will always try to help everyone. He’s absolutely rock-solid!
Steven: I often say that I’m the happiest guy in the entire company. And I mean it too. I still really enjoy what I do. You get so many opportunities here, there are so many challenges. We’ve already come such a long way, both personally and with the business. It makes me incredibly happy and proud.
Would you change anything if you were to start over?
Steven: I’d do it again at the drop of a hat!
Jo: We’re so grateful for Steven. I think it’s mutual. I sometimes say: ‘The company should really be called “Van Moer – Pauwels Logistics”.’ Steven is the most loyal Van Moerian ever. He has never asked for a pay rise in his entire career. He just kept going, even through he was actually ‘underpaid’ at the start because there was no other way at the time. But perseverance wins out.
Anne: If only we could clone him. 😊
Jo: Great idea! 😊
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