Have you ever seen fields of sunflowers swaying gently in the summer breeze, a beautiful blend of yellow and green emboldened by dramatic black centres?
It was certainly a sight that seared into the soul of Holland’s famous post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh, whose painting of sunflowers forged his fame.
The Dutch name for sunflowers is ‘sonneveld’. It is also the name of a company in Papendrecht, Holland, that hopes to make a big impression of a different kind in the British and Irish bakery markets.
Sonneveld supplies bread improvers, mixes and release agents, manufacturing them at one of Holland’s most state-of-the-art plants, headed up by MD Geert Sonneveld – ‘Mr Sunflower’.
Geert Sonneveld’s father, who began as a master baker and branched out into selling lard to his customers, started the family company 50 years ago. He was then joined by his son, Geert, who is still at the helm of the firm three days a week, having joined the company with a remit to develop new products.
Geert Sonneveld took a slightly different path: “I began making bakery emulsions in a room behind my father’s bakery and improvers became my passion,” he says.
How successful has he been? “Well,” he says, in a matter-of-fact voice, “I believe we have grown to become the biggest supplier of liquid improvers and mixes throughout Europe.”
This year, Sonneveld celebrates its 50th birthday and operates from one the cleanest, most modern factories in Europe. To celebrate, Geert Sonneveld is taking all his 150 staff and partners to a festive weekend in Budapest.
But the anniversary has also seen the birth of a new ambition – to make inroads into the British and Irish markets, where the company believes its products are eminently suitable for the plant baking industry, as well as for in-store and craft bakeries.
To facilitate its debut, Sonneveld has gone into partnership with one of the UK’s best-known names in improvers, Martin Churchill, who has been appointed technical sales manager for the UK and Ireland.
Mr Churchill also began as an apprentice craft baker, working in Swanage. From there, he went on to jobs ranging from ovens to in-store bakeries, followed by a senior technical role at Spillers. After this, he moved on to ingredients supplier and wholesaler Kluman & Balter.
I ask Mr Sonneveld why he thinks his products are right for the British market. He tells me: “The size of the plant bakery market in Britain is similar to that of Holland. It is an area in which we have a lot of experience. Sonneveld’s expertise lies in providing quality improvers and mixes. But we are known for our new product development, aiding continuous development of new products for plant bakers, for example in the area of
“We make innovations happen,” he asserts. “We have special development programmes for each sector – plant, in-store and craft – and we build relationships with trust. We become partners with our customers. For example, in the 1990s we innovated with liquid shortenings and many new mixes. Now, we have patented a block improver that is simply sliced. This was developed after listening to our craft customers.”
In the UK, Martin Churchill works with Sonneveld’s UK sales director Ruud Klasens. Ruud speaks English pretty much like a native and explains that the company uses 300 raw materials, all with barcodes and complete traceability stretching from its supplier through to its customers. The company also provides software support connecting its suppliers and its customers.
Twenty-five people are employed on research and development at Sonneveld, more than are employed on production, which is highly automated. “We make a bespoke range of improvers and mixes,” says Mr Klasens, “because the big users, in particular, know exactly what they want to achieve. But there is a standard range too.”
Sonneveld processes 10,000 orders a year and makes 1,500 products. “We pride ourselves on being daring and creative and adapting to individual needs,” he adds. As well as claiming to be market leader with its products in the Benelux countries, Sonneveld supplies the Middle East, Russia, Finland, France and Eastern Europe. As part of its service, it provides information on consumer tastes and market research for all these countries.
“That’s what service and partnership means,” says Mr Klasens. And the company does not market itself under sub-brands or other brands, just Sonneveld.
But no company can make inroads without marketing and that is the province of Sharon Lowensteyn, who begins by giving me a tour of the factory. First off, I see the raw materials arrive via silos: 10 outdoor and eight indoor. Fine ingredients arrive bagged, but must pass full metal detection before use.
The vast warehouse for goods-out is busy, but elsewhere seems fairly quiet. That, I learn, is down to the large levels of automation, and also the fact that all powdered ingredients are sprayed with oil and emulsifiers, so there is no dust.
While being focused principally on trade products, the company also makes a range of consumer bread mixes, which represents a small percentage of sales. Sonneveld uses encapsulated yeast, thus giving the mix a nine-month shelf life.
“We endeavour to be innovative,” she says. “New products for bakers have included Marlino, which was exclusive to artisan bakers for three years, but has now been demanded by the plants.” This is a yeast-free mix containing baking soda, raisins, sugar, flour, water, chocolate powder and fats.
“Sonneveld provides bakers with the mix, the base ring for the cake and also posters showing the product. Our research told us that a typical consumer for Marlino was a hermit during the week but a bon-vivant at the weekend, so we tailored the poster accordingly,” says Ms Lowensteyn.
“Research shows that consumers’ main drives at the moment are health and convenience. So for the health-driven sector, we supply organic mixes for products such as pumpkin breads. These are made off-site and guaranteed anti-allergenic – there are no animal fats on the premises at Sonneveld and no nuts. We have also cut down on trans fatty acids.”
She continues: “For convenience we know that there are more single people, who want smaller volumes – perhaps four slices of bread. But whatever consumers choose – standard bread, Pain de Camargue, Dolce Pane Sunflower Bread or one full of grains – the perception must be of freshness, diversity and indulgence. That must be reflected in the marketing.”
Next I meet Cees (pronounced Case) Hack, commercial director, and he tells me to smile. I didn’t think I looked unhappy, but he is actually talking about an acronym the company uses to describe the products that can be made with Sonneveld mixes:
Mr Hack joined from DSM eight months ago, having started life in a craft bakery at the age of 15. He then moved into teaching bakery and wrote two books on baking technology. Next, he moved to Unilever’s bakery division, which enabled him to take a Masters in
As a relative newcomer to the company, I ask him to define his role. “I put in the drive,” he says. “To do that you need to be proud of your products, focused and decisive.”
Mr Hack has demonstrated the latter by deciding to target the UK and Ireland, and building the partnership between Martin Churchill and Ruud Klasens.
His management style centres on delegation and trust. “If you delegate to people you must give them responsibility, but protect them. I say to them that if they go outside their remit, they should tell me and, if they blow it, next time ask me. That is an important pathway to growth.”
But he limits geographical growth to deliverable distances. “We will distribute our goods to anywhere within 1,500km (which takes in Britain and Ireland). We like to stay close to our customers, the bakers, and within those parameters, we can also provide full traceability records within one hour – often less.
How many raw materials does it take to make mixes and improvers? Mr Hack explains that Sonneveld buys some 300 raw materials and converts them into several main products.
- Powder: all sprayed with oil and emulsions so there is no dust;
- Paste: which needs to be scooped;
- Liquid: not based on fat, but oil so it can be pumped. This formula is more suited to fully automated bakeries;
- Block: a patented combination of powder and paste, which is easily dosed (cut), and can be stored at ambient temperatures of up to 30ºC, or refrigerated.
The 300 raw materials end up as 1,500 products, which are supplied to craft, in-store and plant. Mr Hack adds: “I believe we are the only manufacturer of liquid bread improvers made on a fully automated line, with a recent investment of E8m. But investment does not stop there. Currently we are investing in a E2.5m Innovation Centre.”
But the last words belong to Martin Churchill and Ruud Klasens, the duo charged with targeting the British and Irish markets. Mr Churchill says: “We started visiting potential customers three months ago and found they particularly like our fast-moving new product development. At the moment, there is strong interest in fruited breads, with soft crumb rolls and seeded breads following fast behind.”
The ever-cheerful Mr Klasens, for whom the SMILE acronym could have been invented, tells me: “I am delighted to be part of this venture, it is really exciting. We have much to offer but are just as keen to listen.”
As we head back to the airport, it is midwinter and there is not a sunflower in sight. But Mr Klasens diligently enquires if we would enjoy a brief diversion to see some famous windmills standing proudly along a canal. For a man called Ruud he’s very polite.