The man running the giant Müller company’s British arm has one ambition: to make it the biggest dairy company in the country, writes Andrew Owen.
“People in this country think of Müller as a yoghurt company, but within the group we have great expertise in various products and in developing a business,” says Ronald Kers.
The 43-year-old Dutchman has been in charge of Müller UK’s operations since January, presiding over the business from its huge factory in Market Drayton, which produces more than 40 million pots of yoghurt every week.
It’s a big role, and one that is getting bigger following the company’s decision to buy up both the Robert Wiseman Dairies and the Minsterley Desserts factory, near Shrewsbury, over the past nine months.
“We want to become the biggest dairy company in the UK, and to do that we have to be in the biggest dairy category, which is liquid milk,” he says.
The company’s annual turnover now stands at £1.5bn – but Mr Kers believes he can increase this by £500m, putting Müller in the same league as Britain’s biggest dairy giants, such as Dairy Crest.
The firm already employs 1,000 people in Market Drayton, making it one of the most important businesses in the county.
There are a further 5,000 people employed at Müller-owned sites around the country, including six dairies and 14 distribution depots.
But in an interview with industry magazine The Grocer this week, Mr Kers appears to suggest that Müller could be bringing more jobs this way, saying it was “alive to opportunities”.
“We’re now very big in milk, yoghurts and desserts, so everything we don’t do is of interest one way or another,” he adds.
However, there are no plans at the moment for Müller to buy up any other firms.
“If the last months are a bit of a track record for how we’re doing things, we’ll be active over the next three years, but I wouldn’t say we’re about to make another acquisition any time soon. Plus, there are different ways to win in the market.”
But it has not been entirely plain sailing.
Earlier this summer Market Drayton was the scene of blockades by dairy farmers protesting against its plans – and plans by other dairy giants – to cut the amount it pays for their milk, blaming the move on the world market.
Farmers feared the cuts – which were called off at the 11th hour – would make their businesses unsustainable.
But Müller is now in talks with groups including the National Farmers Union and Farmers for Action to agree a way forward on milk prices.
Mr Kers says he is ‘sympathetic’ towards the situation farmers find themselves in. “I have a lot of sympathy for what I hear from farmers, but that is what the value of milk is at the moment, taking into account bulk cream prices and the price we sell to retailers.”
He added: “Of course, retail prices are for retailers to decide, but do I find it rational that prices are going down when costs to retailers, farmers and processors are going up, and do I find it rational that some farmers on retailer contracts get a higher price for their milk than those who aren’t? No, I don’t. Bulk cream prices going up will help, but fundamentally there’s still this irrationality in the market.”
Mr Kers, a multi-lingual father of three young children, has worked for some of Europe’s biggest dairy companies.
Since starting at Market Drayton he has scrapped a £25m advertising campaign after it failed to generate the expected level of sales, and set out plans for Müller to take a bigger share of the own-label market – those yoghurts and desserts you see carrying a supermarket’s name.
At present, half of these brands are imported from the continent.
But Mr Kers, who shares more of his views in the latest edition of The Grocer magazine, suggests that Müller could take a bigger slice of the market, which is worth £288 million a year.
The Minsterley desserts factory could play a key role in plans to triple Müller’s desserts business to 240 million pots a year by 2016.
He does not see the need for so many imports in a country with such a strong farming industry.
“If you have that many imports, it means there’s an inefficiency in the system because logistics costs are a big factor.
“We have the biggest yoghurt factory in the country, plus we know retailers and consumers are very interested in products produced in the UK, so it’s a fabulous opportunity for us.”
Müller is also turning away from the health market – in future, he says, it will concentrate on selling products for people to enjoy.
“Over the last few years, Müller has drifted a little bit – we tried to get into health, because health was a big trend, but in future the brand will be much more about taste and indulgence.”
It could also start selling milk under its own name.
Whatever the future brings, according to Mr Kers, Müller will be playing a bigger role in Shropshire’s economy.
He adds: “There’s a huge culture change happening on the inside at Müller.
“We are getting to be more decisive, action-oriented and ambitious, whereas we used to be very much a sleeping giant.”