The power of pulses: AGT Poortman’s Dan Holben on logistics, teamwork and being ready for anything

The power of pulses: AGT Poortman’s Dan Holben on logistics, teamwork and being ready for anything

Managing Director


Madaline Dunn, Reporter

GPC reached out to Dan to discuss the current logistics situation, overcoming barriers, and the importance of driving forward the public’s awareness of pulses.

Dan Holben and the pulse industry go way back. As a child, to earn his pocket money, he’d help out his father at work, unloading containers of lentils from Turkey. From there, as a school leaver, he applied for a job at AGT Poortman, joining as a trader’s assistant in 1995, where he’s been ever since. Having worked his way through the ranks, today, Dan serves as Managing Director of a company with a vibrant history, one which holds a key place in the supply chain for the industry.

Brexit has certainly created a number of hurdles for businesses. How has it impacted AGT Poortman?

The biggest challenge of Brexit, at the time, was not knowing what the outcome was going to be until the eleventh hour. When you’re trying to plan while being in the dark, it is challenging. As a company, we basically planned for the worst and put procedures in place that would allow our supply chains and overall business to be as uninterrupted as possible. We have warehouses on the continent in Rotterdam and an office in Spain, so there are certain things they can do for us from there.
With these plans in place, our business has been largely uninterrupted by Brexit, although there’s definitely extra bureaucracy and costs. Every truck that we move from the UK to the EU or vice versa has two sets of customs clearance and two lots of clearance charges. It’s extra work and not without its challenges, but we’ve been able to overcome them for the most part.

What kind of effect did Covid-19 have on the business? What barriers did it create, and how did you overcome them?
We put together a team in the office to plan for what the impact might be and try to mitigate that. We went from having a London-based office, one that we’ve maintained since 1950, to everyone working remotely basically overnight. Our team had plans in place that allowed us to do that. We didn’t miss a single shipment or delivery, and we were able to continue business as normal. That’s been a huge testament to the staff, the hard work they put in and the adaptability they’ve shown. Whether it's handling shipment documents that usually come into the office, making all the deliveries, or keeping up communication between departments, we were able to overcome the many challenges of running a business during this difficult time.
To complicate things further, this was also one of our busiest periods. Supermarket shelves were being cleared of all foods, and especially our type of staple products, due to a global phenomenon of panic buying. It was definitely a challenge to keep up with demand, but I’m pleased we were able to rise to that challenge.

What logistical challenges have you encountered?
Brexit and Covid-19 have both brought significant logistical challenges. Right now, there’s a great deal of unpredictability in shipping, not to mention higher costs. Patterns of buying, planning and scheduling, have been difficult to anticipate. We’ll have vessels that routinely take anywhere from 14 days to over six weeks, and they could arrive any time in between.

Just today, Maersk has announced that it’s going to skip Felixstowe due to port congestion, where normally 4,000 containers would be discharged from a vessel at the port. Now, they’re going to Rotterdam and Antwerp, and they’re shipping feeder vessels from there. Ideally, that should add a week of transit time, but based on experience, it could be anything from one week up to five or six, and trying to incorporate that into planning is challenging.

On top of that, partly due to Brexit and partly due to Covid-19, there are fewer European drivers. During the pandemic, a large number of drivers returned home and haven’t come back to the UK. The driver shortage means that it can take up to two or three weeks to collect containers from the port, which is causing congestion and higher costs.

It’s demanding in that it adds a lot more time and puts pressure on the staff; there are a lot of changes every day. Usually when planning, you’ll think, “okay, if the ETA of a vessel is on the 14th of October, it’ll be cleared by the 15th, and we’ll collect it on the 16th, land it at our warehouse and deliver it to customers.” Now the ETA’s of vessels are constantly changing.

The transport companies need two to three weeks notice to collect the containers. Then there’s the restitution of the containers. Usually, if you pick up a container in Felixstowe, you return it there; now they’re too congested, with 50,000 empty containers currently waiting to be taken away, and we now need to send them to other ports. It all takes a lot of time, and there are unforeseen additional costs that we’re absorbing.

Of course, we try to plan as best we can. We’re big inventory holders, and we’re increasing our holdings, but there are delays. That said, we’re still keeping our customers in stock. Fortunately, through Brexit and Covid-19, we’ve managed to do that, but it does remain challenging.

Have you noticed any trends emerging off the back of Covid-19?
There was a trend for more staple products and pulses, especially those that are easier to cook, such as lentils, which saw the biggest uptake with consumers. That initial panic did subside, and the overall annual demand did not change greatly.

Looking forward, what are your projections for the industry?
Right now, there are so many good stories about pulses. There’s a real focus on their sustainability and how they’re good for the environment. They’re nitrogen-fixing, sustainably grown, as well as being healthy, nutritious and tasty. Your readers will know that well.
It’s a really exciting and interesting space with great growth potential. Last night I was reading an article by a dietitian, and one of the items she was talking about was pulses and the benefits of eating them. One of our major UK supermarket chains has recently launched an advertising campaign across all media channels that features pulses and covers both the health and environmental benefits. Those stories in the media are great publicity, and it’s really beneficial for us and the industry at the moment.

We want to continue this promotion, raise awareness of pulses and make sure that the consumer is well aware of the benefits. It’s the consumer that will drive the supermarkets, which will then drive the manufacturers.

Like in many countries, veganism is gaining ever greater popularity, but the drive to eat less meat is just as important. Pulses fit in so well in these spaces, and our pulse ingredients provide unique solutions to food manufacturers. This is an area where we expect pulses to play a great role.

What is AGT Poortman doing to drive awareness of pulses?
We’re focused on driving awareness through the bodies we are associated with, including the GPC and Pulses UK. Globally, we’re out there promoting pulses, too. We were recently at the Anuga Food Show, and we’re also promoting pulses at all the different trade shows.

We’re heavily involved with more value-added products, like pulse flours, proteins, fibres and starches and have a team in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, looking into new ways that pulses can be consumed and their different applications and a facility in Minot, North Dakota, producing exciting new product using these pulse-based ingredients. We produce prototypes of many pulse-based products, which we’re happy to share with global food manufacturers, showing them just what the potential of pulses ingredients is in their sector.

We’re working with the food industry to promote the use of pulses, as well, whether that’s in meat analogues, sports nutrition, bakery, snacking, vegan products or dairy-free products. It’s such an exciting area and potentially a huge market, and there are many, many opportunities on the horizon. It takes a long time to develop these products, but we’re hard at work developing this space and continuing to invest in it.


The power of pulses: AGT Poortman’s Dan Holben on logistics, teamwork and being ready for anything
The power of pulses: AGT Poortman’s Dan Holben on logistics, teamwork and being ready for anything
The power of pulses: AGT Poortman’s Dan Holben on logistics, teamwork and being ready for anything

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Dan Holben / AGT Foods

Disclaimer: The opinions or views expressed in this publication are those of the authors or quoted persons. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Global Pulse Confederation or its members.