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Pural: “active for 20 years in the wholefood industry“

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Interview with Ulrike and Heinz Claus

Fürstenfeldbruck: one of the three locations of the Claus-Pural Group in Germany (picture: Claus-Pural)

Picture: Fürstenfeldbruck: one of the three locations of the Claus-Pural Group in Germany (picture: Claus-Pural)

Herr Claus, the Pural Vertriebs GmbH, that you, together with your daughter, originally founded in 1996 is celebrating its twentieth birthday. Are you pleased with the way it has developed?

Heinz Claus: We certainly are. The wholefood wholesaler Pural Vertriebs GmbH today serves more than 1,400 customers and contributes about 20% to the total turnover of the group of companies - an estimated 180 million  euros in 2016. In the last 10 years, we have increased the group's turnover by a factor of five and have created a great enterprise. Even though we sometimes reached our limits, like after the fire in 2010, we soon got back on our feet again thanks to the support of the family. Our employees and our customers were a source of encouragement and gave us tremendous strength. As well as encouragement we got a lot of help. In the following four years the Claus-Pural group expanded from 160 to nearly 400 employees.

Discussion at Claus-Pural in Baden-Baden (picture: Claus-Pural)

Picture: Discussion at Claus-Pural in Baden-Baden (picture: Claus-Pural)

Did the early and successful generation change contribute to your success?

Ulrike Claus: My father gave my sister (Beate Scharfenberg) and me responsibility for company affairs at an early stage. As soon as I finished studying in 1991 I started work here. But generation change hasn't fully taken place yet (they all laugh). My parents are still a strong presence in the company. And for many years my sister's husband and my husband have also been working in the company alongside their own projects. We've also got other relatives working here, plus a very committed and longstanding workforce. But it's right, spreading the load does help and the family holds together.

Heinz Claus: It's simple – I've got huge trust in my daughters and they've achieved their positions and success by working with great enthusiasm.

How would you describe the firm's strategy?

Ulrike Claus: You could call our strategy the fact that we're always flexible enough to see where we can break out of the usual routine and quickly react to the requirements of the market. We wouldn't be operating on such a broad footing today if we hadn't created several arms of our business from the health food sector. Part of this was our involvement in Austria  in 1991, the takeover of Pur Aliment France in 1992 and the takeover of the Swiss Wholesaler PHAG GmbH in 1994. Founding Pural Vertriebs GmbH (1996) ultimately resulted from contact to wholefood brands that we got to know though our involvement abroad, and the Pural brand, that came to us via the French firm. This meant we gained a lot of experience and that led to many synergy effects.

Headquarters of the company in Baden-Baden Sandweier (picture: Claus-Pural)

Picture: Headquarters of the company in Baden-Baden Sandweier (picture: Claus-Pural)

What experience has proved valuable for the firm?

Ulrike Claus: We have, for example, experienced the issue of loyalty to the specialist trade and loyalty to the industry in the case of the health food sector. That helps us to find our standpoint. We regard ourselves as a specialist wholesaler, which means for us that we're a service partner for the specialist retail trade. As a consequence, we're dependent on how well the specialist retail trade is doing. It follows from this that we're tasked with having a constant overview of how industries are developing, analysing in detail where people prefer buying what and why, and then drawing our conclusions. This means we see one of our core activities as working on our product range and the recommendations of our field service team, and the speed with which we respond to new trends.

What's Claus-Pural's standpoint regarding loyalty to the specialist trade?

Ulrike Claus: Like lots of other brands, in the case of our Pural brand we decided to supply only the specialist trade and we operate this policy consistently via our goods management system – the products are not permitted in other sales channels. Apart from that, we observe the market and above all what decisions our manufacturing partners are making, because ultimately their decisions are crucial. Moreover, in the last few weeks we've once again quite deliberalty increased the listing of brands that clearly communicate their orientation, like Bioplanète and Spielberger. We continue to see ourselves as the partner of the specialist trade and we have no intention of changing that situation. After all, we've been able to develop Pural Vertriebs GmbH successsfully only because time and again we've had innovative brands. This has been and still is our advantage. Currently, the specialist trade is increasingly looking for this kind of brand because the big manufacturers are often supplying other channels to ensure they are working at full capacity. However, there's hardly a retailer who would delist one of the big important brands just because they supply another sales channel. We've got to realise that we can't stop changes to the market from happening and that sometimes we can only play a supporting role. As an industry, we ought to keep asking ourselves whether we too are partially to blame for the way things have developed.

What do you mean by that?

Ulrike Claus: The fact is that over the years the specialist trade has acted inconsistently by getting organic brands into the shops via conventional manufacturers. In order to offer more and more customers everything they want, the specialist trade has to a certain extent lost sight of  its original claim to offer an alternative at all levels. To proclaim now that only brands loyal to the specialist trade are good is a contradiction, as I see it. We ought to think first about our values and the original claim to be purveyors of quality and do justice to it.

What do you see happening at the moment – how is the wholefood trade developing from your point of view?

Ulrike Claus: For many end consumers of organic and health food it's still important to have a figure they can identify with and high quality advice in the specialist trade – all points in favour of medium-size, owner-managed retail. We believe in this business model in the specialist wholefood trade, also looking at it long-term. Of course we can see the tendency for chains to acquire an increasing share of the market and for many smaller independent stores to be taken over.

On the other hand, as a small specialist trade sector, you look in amazement at what is happening on such a scale, at such a speed and with what marketing power in the retail trade. In a brochure, Edeka presents itself as the specialist not only for organic but also for regionality, for Demeter products, for fair, vegan and sustainability. Similar advertising material issues from Rewe and even Penny advertises with “green enjoyment“. What I don't understand in all of this is the involvement of the farmers' associations on the one side and the discussion about loyalty to the specialist trade on the other. In this context, I really don't find the discussion about a few Davert-products in dm, proportionate. 

What do you propose?

Ulrike Claus: What I find even more disastrous is the fact that many people think “we don't have to make an issue of our organic competence because we've built up the industry.“ In my view, now's the time we've really got to shout about it from the rooftops and communicate the strengths of the industry. But this is an opportunity for the owner-managed specialist trade – the retailer can personally get these messages and credibility across to customers. As wholesalers, we have to provide the retailers with arguments in the form of a great product range and outstanding service. But ultimately it's the consumers who decide where they prefer to do their shopping.


Ulrike Claus, managing director of Pural Vertriebs GmbH (picture: Claus-Pural)

Picture: Ulrike Claus, managing director of Pural Vertriebs GmbH (picture: Claus-Pural)

Are brands more in demand than ever before to create a profile?

Ulrike Claus: Brand development is a very important theme for us because we're convinced that it's precisely the mix of interesting traditional brands and innovations that makes a store attractive. So it's a part of our company philosophy that we not only cherry pick the best and and the fast-moving products from the brand ranges but that we stock the full ranges of manufacturers whose brands convince us. Added to this is our concern to build up interesting small brands and to introduce them in the various markets. The Blumenbrot range is a good example of how in cooperation with a small, unknown manufacturer we developed an interesting product range. For this to happen, we need lots of customers who make it possible for us to build up brands and support innovations. We can only afford our range of over 14,000 articles because we serve the different markets  (health food stores, wholefood, abroad). A new development is our customer web shop that provides a better overview of our wholesale range, quicker information on individual products and simplified ordering.

Does the combination of wholefood and health food make sense?

Ulrike Claus: It certainly does. The product groups gluten-free, lactose-free, meat substitutes and also many exciting food supplements, that used to be mostly found in health food outlets, are now located in wholefood stores. From the outset, we were able to offer solutions here. Over time, many health food manufacturers too have found their way into organic stores - cross-fertilisation of  product ranges is taking place.

What does internationality bring about?

It keeps us mobile. We try to remain flexible so that we can really fulfil the service requirements of our very diverse customers. For example, the French market has totally different requirements from the German or Swiss market. We have the impression that in this way we get round the danger of a rapidly growing company that sometimes becomes inflexible and too process-oriented. Also, by virtue of our internationality we can afford variety. The theme of enjoyment and food quality is a priority in France and inspires out product ranges. From Switzerland we learn what a market looks like that, regarding organic, is dominated by the conventional retail trade (Coop, Migros). The only thing that is not simple in the international context is fresh food. But, through cooperation with Willmann and Ökoring, we can offer  regional fresh food in a number of areas. In Switzerland, we're about to join a project with 120 hill farmers. My father is very involved in this and we would like to focus more on the subject of regionality.

In recent years, you've increased your regional presence in Germany with two new locations (Dortmund, Fürstenfeldbruck) . Where are the focal points in the delivery areas? 

Heinz Claus: Bavaria is very strong, but we're also very satisfied with the way our Dortmund location is developing. Berlin and the east have been opened up by reliable logistics partners. Since the regional locations in Dortmund and Fürstenfeldbruck have been running well we've been concentrating on extending the headquarters here in Sandweier – we're adding 4,600 square metres and a priority will be refridgeration. Also we're always looking for cooperation and dialogue with manufacturers on the one hand and with our retail customers on the other. We attend many trade fairs at home and abroad and offer our customers a whole catalogue of seminars.

Storage facility in Dortmund (picture: Claus-Pural)

Picture: Storage facility in Dortmund (picture: Claus-Pural)

Do people actually see you as a corporate group with a multitude of activities?

Heinz Claus: Many people don't know what role we play in other countries and how important that is for our presence in the German market. The Swiss firm PHAG GmbH is 120 years old,  Claus Reformwaren Service Team GmbH is 52 years old, the French firm has history reaching back to 1907 and Pural Vertriebs GmbH is celebrating its twentieth birthday. The cake has to be complete and every piece is important.

Ulrike Claus: It's really not so easy to make people aware of the company in all the complexity that supplying different markets brings with it. For example, Switzerland is an important strategic market for us – which many people are not aware of. France is our second most important market and, now with turnover of more than 50 million euros, in terms of its significance for the group it comes immediately after the German health food sector. Austria, Switzerland and the German wholefood trade account for the final third of turnover.


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