Transport entrepreneur Manon van Opdorp wants to make the impossible possible… on heels

Tue | 25 Aug 2020 | Interviews

Transport entrepreneur Manon van Opdorp wants to make the impossible possible… on heels

Manon van Opdorp is not the stereotypical transport entrepreneur. With red-painted nails and blond hair, it seems like there is no diesel running through her veins. But appearances can be deceiving… since running the 93-year-old family business suits her like a designer jacket. Her management style is best described as good hospitality under the hood. A conversation about wanting to be the best, taking a step back, a lifetime of learning and the meaning of life, the latter her quest for a year-long sabbatical.

The Dutch Flanders transport company Van Opdorp is located a few hundred meters from the Belgian border and a stone's throw away from the Cargill factory. A family business lead by a special entrepreneur, fourth in the family line. Manon van Opdorp (40) is not really a stereotypical transport entrepreneur. Originally, her path was not even in this sector, with an education in hotel management, a career as a hotelier was the more logical step to take. Still something has remained of that former education, she does not talk about customers, but about guests of the company. A company which mainly focuses on bulk and tank transport and cleaning.

The history of the Van Opdorp company is quite remarkable. After the flood disaster of 1953, there was a greater need for road transport than transport over water; an opportunity that Manon’s ancestors made clever use of and the foundation of today's international company.

Van Opdorp, seated at her desk in her study, talks and thinks quickly, but during the conversation her charming look also betrays thoughtfulness.

At the start of the conversation, she immediately starts talking about the company's DNA and her eyes and voice immediately reveal a no-nonsense mentality and business purpose. When asked what the distinguishing factor of Van Opdorp is, she does not have to think long: “When you work for large producers in the food industry, hygiene is the most important aspect. After all, nobody wants to find a mosquito paw in the cereal. The quality that a company like Dow expects is reflected even in the capillaries of our company. This also means that our drivers must speak the language of our service. People must be put first in this, so take a good look at someone's qualities.”

"What makes Manon happy, what gives you energy?"

Van Opdorp smiles and her eyes light up: “Making the impossible possible! A sluggish Monday morning start does not make me happy. I prefer it when my people are standing at my desk with flustered faces because of an operational problem. They know that I do not easily accept a "no". I just want to provide top logistic services and that is where my education in the hotel industry kicks in. Within the first five minutes of a meeting a distinction is made between a good and bad impression. This is something I learned in my former training.”

"You are a woman in a man's world. Should more women enter the transport sector?"

“Only if it is a fitting match. As my grandfather said: "Look at the person and someone's qualities."

"You were 28 years old when you took the helm, were you immediately accepted as managing director?"

Manon takes a sip of her green tea while silence falls. "Maybe not. But that can be explained afterwards, I had a lot against me; I was young, blond, the boss's daughter and I had not been living in Dutch Flanders for ten years. But because of my level headedness - which is in my DNA - and because of my no-nonsense upbringing and perseverance in combination with hard work and drive, I was able to quickly leave that behind.”

"How about that image of you in the sector?"

“I had appearances against me and I felt that people thought 'that girl is not going to make it anyway'. In those thirteen years I have really seen black snow. There were plenty who came by and asked if they could buy my company, but I sent them all packing. ”

"Would you say the time is right for selling the company? Because of your year long sabbatical?"

Manon smiles broadly: "No, we are not going to do that, we are aiming for a hundred years together."

"Is there a big difference with running a transport company in Dutch Flanders than anywhere else in the Netherlands?"

Laughs: “Difficult. I wouldn't really know that, but I think this is more about doing business in an informal way. Besides, I will always try to do business on a local level and I would rather have lunch here with a nice glass of wine and cooked mussels than with a cheese sandwich and a glass of milk elsewhere.”

"Aren't big changes difficult to implement in an old and traditional family business? You probably encounter resistance? How do you deal with that?"

“It is really all about trust, this is a basis and must be present. For example, every new or innovative idea is good, but it does not necessarily have to be an appropriate idea at that time. And every person is different. Where one person gets going with enthusiasm, another needs more facts. Ultimately, it is about involvement and creating support. You do this by communicating openly and transparently. I don't believe in top-down communication, but in involving people. For example, a few years ago we purchased a new TMS system. That may have not gone as fast as with a large(r) organization, but we have not missed an order, we did not forget an invoice and there was all around support to use it. When we got this done I thought "nicely done for an SME company". "

"Everyone in the industry is talking about chain management. What is your opinion about this?"

Van Opdorp shifts in her chair, raises her eyebrows and suppresses a mocking smile. “I think that's a great idea and I always think it's a good idea to enter into a dialogue with a shipper when it comes to sustainability or reducing CO2 emissions. But it is really difficult to actually perform a proposal like, for example, combine certain flows of goods in a way you will drive fewer empty kilometers. In large companies everyone has their responsibility for their own part and they don’t look beyond their part, central control is lacking.”

"How do you deal with that?

“Well, of course I won't give up easily. We study our data intensively and have a lot of input. Sometimes we see that it is smarter for the customer to load an additional barrel of payload. The first thing that happens after that is that the prize game is played, because the customer always wants a discount. But I always say "take a good look at your processes" because if we charge a ton more every trip, then you will have earned it back in no time, why do ask me for a discount? But of course together we can achieve more profit in the chain. But this won’t happen when someone remains in a position for just three years, if they move on to another job, we have to start building again. It's a bit too much each for himself.”

"You are going on a rear long sabbatical, are you going to call your successor for an update every week?"

“No, we have invested in a BI tool that I can access via an iPad... but I will only do this when my daughter is sleeping in my T1 bus. With this tool I will be able to easily see if I can have a glass of wine or better take a strong cup of coffee. We are truly a modern company in terms of digitization. We have set up very good parameters. For example, our planning department has a large screen where they can see the most important data for their business unit, such as daily turnover and kilometers driven. At first they were quite skeptical about this; a nice toy for management. But now you see that it is actively used and that people are starting to steer this themselves. The planner can influence your business results just as much as the commercial representation. On the basis of data I can also force my customers to look at their own processes, only then does a value instead of a price discussion start.”

"Growth and ambition for the company, how do you view this, what is on your wishlist?"

“Growing for the sake of growing is not something I pursue. I do have a few wishes on my list that are related to the local economy here near Sas van Gent. I would like to expand our storage further and there will be a new sea lock here where larger ships with more cargo can pass through. In addition, Antwerp will be further closed to road traffic in the coming years due to work on the ring road. That offers opportunities. Furthermore, based on our history and our blue heart, we would very much like to work for Cosun (former Suiker Unie, ed.) again. If that were to happen, the circle would be complete again from a historical and symbolic perspective.”

"And in terms of personal growth?"

A long silence falls. Her eyes dart from left to right as she thinks about an answer.

"I must say, I haven't thought about it that much."
Another silence falls.
"That is a difficult question."

"What do you want your daughter to take home from your trip?"

“I want to show her that development is really important. I hope I can teach her some confidence but I also want to show her that she is worth it; that she is unique. I myself have been shy for a long time and I hope she will learn that she is allowed to stand up for herself. Traveling comes with meeting new people and adapting to new situations. You learn to rethink and a flexible attitude is necessary. Being open to new things can bring you so much, I really had to learn that myself. There is something unique and something good in every person. I hope that if she is open to learning all that, it will bring her as much as it did me.”

"Who is the Manon who will return to Van Opdorp Transport in 2022? Or maybe, not return and buy a nice hotel on a beautiful beach?"

“In any case a richer person in terms of experiences. And who knows, maybe there will be a 'Chez Manon' somewhere. But it will have to be a hotel with, at least, its own vineyard because then we can use our tankers to drive our own wine and still keep that cross-pollination. That Van Opdorp blood is in my veins and it goes everywhere with me.”

"Can you name a person who you want to learn from?"

“Without a doubt my daughter, she taught me to be a mother. Until recently she could not yet speak and that means that you really have to use your intuition, rely on your feelings and use all your senses. This really teaches you to "see" and "hear" someone."

"Are you a sentimentalist by nature?"

Nodes in agreement. "Yes Yes Yes"

“I think it's great that we have all these BI tools and you really can't run a transport company without it. We operate in a capital and risk intensive business with small margins, so numbers are important, but the funny thing is that I still make a lot of decisions based on my gut feeling.”

"Looking back at the past thirteen years, are there things you wished you did differently?"

“I don't look back with regret. What I would have liked to have done from earlier on is keeping focus more, the first years I got bogged down in details and day-to-day matters. Less is more, the more focus you have, the better your company can perform.”

"Finally, is there a woman in our industry that you look up to?"

Her facial expression turns to serious, pauses for a moment and then says with a measured smile: “Gosh... because of my down to earth nature I am not that easily impressed by anyone, actually, but if I have to mention someone, it is Dionne van Schaik of ICT Holland Transport. She heads a similar company and also combines motherhood with a busy job.”