Profile: Martin Gwynn

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High flying Gist chief Martin Gwynn talks to Lucy Tesseras about the company’s ethos, the £2bn M&S deal and why he chose logistics over being a pilot

The industry has been rife with reports of redundancies, cut backs, closures and bankruptcy of late, so it makes a refreshing change to hear that third party logistics firm Gist is steaming on regardless, providing a glimmer of joy in a sector where many have been bitten hard by the credit crunch.

Gist has signed and renewed a number of contracts in the past year, most notably the landmark ten-year deal with Marks & Spencer worth an estimated £2 billion – a sizeable contract at any time, but considering the current climate, all the more impressive.

Gist has been managing the M&S food supply chain in the UK for some 35 years, but under the terms of the new contract it will also take over responsibility for deliveries in southern Ireland, which was previously managed by TDG, as well as handling all frozen products, which it takes over from Norbert Dentressangle in February. Additionally, Gist has started delivering bread, creating a total of £250 million in additional business over the course of the ten-year contract.

“It’s a deal that we’re delighted with,” says Gist chief executive Martin Gwynn. “The current climate can be a threat, but it can also be an opportunity. The landscape might have changed, but the winners are those that are able to turn it to their advantage. We had two and a half years left to run on the existing deal, but it made sense at this point in time for both parties to look at it earlier and see how we can drive the maximum advantage for both businesses.”

Gwynn has been with the company his entire career. He joined the former BOC Transhield business in 1986, as part of its graduate training scheme and over his 22 years with the company has seen it go through a number of reincarnations, first changing to BOC Distribution Services in 1991 and then rebranding as Gist in 2001.

But logistics wasn’t always the route Gwynn planned to take. “I nearly went into the Air Force, bizarrely,” he reminisces. “I did university air squadron for two years and was toying with the idea of going into the RAF, but at the time it was going through a lot of changes and the cut backs had begun so there was a lot of debate as to whether you’d actually be allowed to fly or would end up behind a desk, so I was in two minds.” In the end he decided to keep his feet firmly on the ground and join BOC on the basis that it was a multi-national blue chip with great prospects for training.

Gwynn has never looked back as the challenges have kept on coming. At 26 he was running an M&S distribution centre and by 29 he was running BOC’s entire M&S food network. By the time he reached 31 he was on the board and at 33 he was appointed chief executive.

“The great thing about logistics is you work in a whole range of industries, so it’s a very exciting, dynamic environment. It’s a very stimulating job from that point of view and I can still fly when I want to, so I’ve got the best of both worlds.”

Working in logistics may not sound as glamorous as being a pilot, but under Gwynn’s leadership Gist continues to soar. At the core of the business lie four key components, which Gwynn believes are vital to its success: customer, innovation, excellence and above all else people.

“If you look at when I took over, the big names 11 years ago were Tibbetts, Christian Salvesen, Hayes and Exel. All those names have now disappeared from the sector, but we are still here and still going strong.”

Gwynn saw the company go through yet another period of change three years ago when it was bought by The Linde Group, but as takeovers go he reckons it has worked extremely well. “We have very similar viewpoints and ambitions for the business. They are very interested in where the business can go and what it can achieve, and are very enthusiastic about helping us meet those goals. If I think about the things they focus on, it comes down to customer, innovation, excellence and people, so the cultures have fitted remarkably well.” As part of its commitment to its people, Gist bought training company Communiweb earlier this year, which it has rebranded Gist People Services. “It’s an exciting opportunity for the business and I expect it to become a very strong part of Gist over the next five years within its own right.”

Acquisitions are not on the agenda however. Other than the takeover of Dirksland-based Van Dongen in 2005, the plan is to concentrate on organic growth.

“Traditionally we’re growing ten to 15 per cent organically, which is why I guess the current climate doesn’t worry us so much. We’re in a very strong position. We know where we’re going so we look at acquisitions and think what value is it really going to add against what we’re going to spend?”

Looking forward, Gwynn says the aim for Gist is to “grow and thrive” doubling in size over the next eight to ten years. “The trick is to take continuous small steps, to not rest on your laurels and to keep pushing forward. It’s all about having the right people and the right culture and the right focus.”

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