Distributing a sustainable future: an interview with OQEMA’s Robert Moss

By our Editorial Team

Rob Moss, UK Managing Director at OQEMA, explains how the desire to run a successful distribution company can go hand in han

Rob Moss, UK Managing Director at OQEMA, explains how the desire to run a successful distribution company can go hand in hand with an ambition to create a better world.
OQEMA – one of the top-ten distribution companies for commodities and speciality chemicals in Europe – holds sustainability at the heart of its business. By continuously placing high demands on quality and safety, the company says its aim is to provide optimum protection for people and the environment. We spoke to Rob Moss, UK Managing Director at OQEMA, about the company’s commitment to growing and progressing in a sustainable way.
Congratulations for making the top ten distribution companies in Europe. Can you put this into perspective for us – for example, how large is your fleet, and how many countries do you serve?
Rob:  Thank you very much! OQEMA is a new name to many as we have brought together the companies in the Overlack group and rebranded as OQEMA to move the European chemical distribution sector forward.
Fleet wise we have around 120 trucks , a tank farm in Ludwigshafen, around 850,000 m² in storage facilities all over Europe with around 570 tanks plus an enormous pallet storage capability. On top of that, many of our sites outsource transportation to maximize coverage and minimize environmental impact. Using transport networks ensures maximum coverage on a daily basis. Better customer service and no half empty trucks travelling around Europe’s motorways. We have locations in 18 different countries but we cover far more from those bases.
The very nature of a distribution service necessitates considerable environmental impact in terms of the mileage that products need to travel to reach end-users. How can you minimize this?
Rob:  We have a number of ways we look at dealing with this perennial problem. Firstly we have warehouse locations that are situated close to the main industrial hubs, thus reducing miles travelled. We have bulk delivery options, tankers delivering bulk product, and we also use consignment stocks. This is a particularly popular option which not only minimizes transport but helps customers manage their working capital.
When people talk about sustainable distribution, they often refer to the ‘Just in Time’ technique, which means delivery direct from supply to producer without warehousing. However, this is not realistic when dealing with long-distance, international distribution. What kind of warehousing network do you have, and how does OQEMA work to minimize energy consumption and carbon emissions in its infrastructure?
Rob:  Very true. It’s not an easy nut to crack. But with multiple locations and strong communication between those locations and our suppliers and customers, we manage to ensure that the right stock is in the right location. This allows us to give a service to the customer that means they can rely on us to provide just in time service or, at the very least, a prompt from stock option. We are a distributor. We carry stock. It’s the very essence of what we do. Global legislation has made it very difficult for customers to hold the stocks that they might wish to have. COMAh (Sevesso) has put restriction on customers so that they have to have us deliver on a weekly schedule or a call off basis. Complying with government directives and servicing needs of customers can, and often does, create quite a conflict.
Throughout our warehousing operations we operate things like low energy lighting and we recycle packaging materials through the waste pack scheme. We also have some very smart bulk delivery systems that ensure that displaced vapour is returned to the incoming tanker rather than scrubbed or vented to atmosphere.
Distribution of any kind has to have an impact on the environment. We cannot ignore that and we must be very careful not to promote ourselves as saviours of the planet. However, what we must do is make efforts wherever possible. We also need more foresight from governments across Europe when they are designing infrastructure. Can you imagine how useful a properly maintained flexible rail system would be in the UK for example? Many of our customers throughout Europe can utilize rail and canal systems that massively reduce environmental impact. It’s a shame that the UK is lagging behind in that aspect.
Can you help your customers to find more sustainable packaging decisions for their products?
Rob:  This is an area where I think we excel. For many years we have been very hot on recyclable packaging options for customers. We have combined recyclable packaging with safe, closed drum delivery systems which have seen us use high quality reusable packing over a number of years. This product is known as a “warlord”. The warlords have been in service for over 5 years and multiple trips. Therefore the product, although initially more costly than the standard container, over its life time, has been more economical, had a lower carbon footprint and reduced the amount of waste we generated as a business.
Some of our stainless steel IBCS are 25 years old and still look great. We service and test and reuse. We have also just begun a project to look at biodegradable packaging for wrapping and banding. No one can have failed to notice the recent publicity regarding the terrible impact of plastics and the environment. We all have an obligation here. Producers, distributors, customers and end consumers. This cannot be ignored and we have to accept that there is a financial cost that must be borne all along the chain.
How else does OQEMA work to help customers reach their own sustainability goals?
Robt:  We have a very active team that support customers looking at the ways in which they consume the products. Over the years we have designed and supplied dosing systems to our customers that have allowed them to upscale their loading operations in terms of bulk packaging and environmentally secure dosing systems. This has resulted in our UK site being acknowledged by the HSE as a model site for handling carcinogens. Something we are extremely proud of.
It has been suggested that long-term investors will increasingly look for all chemical companies to adjust their business strategies in line with more ambitious emissions reduction targets and a rise in carbon pricing schemes globally,1 meaning that a marriage between profitability and sustainability will need to be found. Is this feasible?
Rob:  Yes. It’s feasible. We have invested over the years in infrastructure that has allowed us to capture additional business in the market and also extend the life span of materials that are of very high concern. What needs to be understood is that opportunities arise from a change in circumstances. The brave will investigate this and find the advantages. We have introduced some environmentally friendlier products to the market place that have allowed customers to study their total cost of waste treatment for example. There may need some investment in the front end of processes but we have demonstrated, very effectively, that this yields better returns and sustainability.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Rob:  The new OQEMA group has come together to enhance our offering to both customers and suppliers. The consolidation of the chemical industry has forced change and we have embraced that and we are prospering as a result. We have come through a period of austerity where one of the biggest growth contributors to the global economy has been the chemical industry. That helps to ensure that the chemical industry is a sustainable industry both in terms of the environment and investment potential.
We have to invest and create in order to protect our industry going forwards but also, more importantly, our environment because that is where we ultimately find our sources. Without sustainable management and a responsible attitude to business, we cannot enjoy the growth that we all seek.
It is heartening to see that the industry as a whole takes a greater responsibility globally these days. OQEMA intends to lead and shape that industry for a long time to come, be that in traditional methods or future digital models. We’ll see you at the front of the queue!
Ferguson C et al. Catalyst for change. CDP UK, October 2017.
Interview with:
Rob Moss, UK Managing Director at OQEMA Ltd, Winstons House, Carterton, Oxfordshire, OX18 3EZ, UK
T: + 44 (0)1993 843081, E: rob.moss@oqema.co.uk, www.oqema.com