The Big Interview: David MacDonald, owner at Cullen

Reaching your 100th birthday is quite some achievement. In the rapidly changing world of commerce, few businesses get to celebrate such a milestone anniversary.

Glasgow-based Cullen has come a long way in the decades since Robert Cullen and his sons established a box-making company on the banks of the River Clyde.

In 1921, Robert Cullen & Sons was born and quickly became the local specialist in high-end packaging for premium whisky brands.

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Over the years, the business diversified into corrugated and moulded pulp products and packaging for a range of sectors, including food and drink, medical, industrial and horticultural.

David MacDonald from CullenDavid MacDonald from Cullen
David MacDonald from Cullen

In 2009, Ronnie MacDonald bought the company, saving it from administration and since then has gone on to invest heavily in state-of-the-art machinery, booking record sales on the way.

Mr MacDonald’s son, David, reflects on the significant changes and growth experienced by the venerable manufacturer in recent years and casts an eye to the future.

You joined the company in 2009 after your father returned to rescue the firm from administration. Can you explain more about this move and how the company has grown to date, this year celebrating its centenary?

The year 2009 was a pivotal point in the Cullen story and marked a step change for the company. Most importantly, 125 jobs were saved giving the team a new-found confidence to look to the future.

David MacDonald from CullenDavid MacDonald from Cullen
David MacDonald from Cullen

This lifeline instilled a sense of purpose and a collective responsibility in our people which, I am pleased to say, is still at our core today.

Since then, the company has grown exponentially achieving double digit growth year on year.

This success allowed a period of capital infrastructure development to follow, which enhanced our manufacturing proficiency and increased our production capacity.

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In every year of the last five alone, a significant investment has been made – including substantial purchases of machinery, developments of new products and technologies, additional production lines, and sizeable extensions to our site.

David MacDonald from CullenDavid MacDonald from Cullen
David MacDonald from Cullen

By investing in our capabilities, we have gone from strength to strength and are now producing over 400 million pieces of moulded pulp and 30 million sqm of corrugated packaging for multiple industries annually.

For me, it is our manufacturing versatility and extensive product range that is key to our continuous growth. Not many companies can service multiple industries like we do, and this flexibility allows us to shift focus in line with changing market demands.

To put this into perspective, examples of the types of products that we manufacture include medical pulp for the NHS, produce trays for the food supply network, retail ready packaging for all UK supermarkets, e-commerce packaging and industrial fitments for companies like Numatic who manufacturer the famous Henry Hoover.

Most recently, our drinks packaging and catering products have seen dramatic growth in response to the pandemic, with Cullen dominating domestic supply while securing supply contracts for McDonald’s and Greggs, amongst others.

As we reach our centenary year, the team at Cullen are more than 230 strong. We export to 33 countries worldwide and in the last five years alone, we have manufactured over one billion eco-friendly products.

We are very proud of that fact. Ultimately though, it is our people who have got us to where we are today, and it is their commitment and hard work that keeps us moving forward.

We’ve come a long way since Robert Cullen made his first box on the top floor of a Tradeston warehouse in 1921, that’s for sure.

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How has Cullen adapted to and helped serve the needs of the pandemic? It was placed on the UK Government Critical Infrastructure list as a supplier to the NHS, for example…

Last year was both challenging and positive for Cullen.

As we are part of the UK's critical supply chain as a manufacturer for both the NHS and food supply network, we had to ensure production and distribution of our products safely continued throughout the pandemic.

Changing markets during this time also meant that we acquired new business, particularly in response to the increased demand for e-commerce and takeaway packaging.

As always, our team rose to the challenge and whether they were working from home or within the controlled Cullen environment, they continued to be proactive in ensuring that our business continued.

At a time when so many other businesses were closing, my team and I were grateful to be able to work and proud to do our bit to keep the wheels turning.

In what way is the firm helping direct buying behaviours away from plastic and towards more sustainable options, helping drive the circular economy?

In short, we manufacture corrugated packaging and moulded pulp products which offer a realistic replacement to unnecessary single-use plastics at scale.

All our products are 100 per cent recyclable and, importantly, even if they are not recycled by the end user, they will take only six months to break back down into natural fibres.

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Paper-based products are the most widely recognised as recyclable and most commonly collected kerbside by local authorities, which goes a long way to addressing the issues around consumer confusion and waste stream contamination.

In a more unique way to Cullen, we have an internal closed loop recycling process whereby the waste from our corrugated cardboard plant is repurposed as the base material for the manufacture of our moulded pulp products.

We also have a very collaborative process with our customers, which gives us the opportunity to educate about the possibilities, innovate new solutions and eliminate waste in the process.

You’ve said COP26 which takes place in November, “provides the perfect opportunity to showcase and highlight the outstanding contribution Scottish businesses are making when it comes to improving our planet” – while Cullen has launched its very own “Countdown to COP”. Can you give more details on your thoughts on this?

COP26 will throw a bright spotlight on both Scotland and sustainability. World leaders, governments, businesses, and individuals will be coming together in Glasgow to focus on the action taken against climate change in the past five years and to set targets for the next crucial five.

I have no doubt that it will give momentum to positive conversations and will hopefully instigate further change. Scotland has always been a land of invention and I cannot imagine that our country’s approach to this challenge would be any different. Our landscape lends itself to climate positive possibilities and our heritage lends itself to innovation.

The firm has highlighted how UK manufacturing is now more valuable than ever – what role is Cullen playing in this and what impact has Brexit had on the firm, which exports to more than 30 countries?

UK manufacturing has always had a rightly deserved reputation for quality, but the way in which that quality is achieved is more important than it has ever been.

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We have seen the frailties of the global supply chain and how that disruption has impacted during the pandemic making resilience in supply a priority for everyone.

The reliability of manufacturing in the UK has become key to that resilience. That same reliability is found through the regulated standards, working conditions and quality controls in the UK which also address socio-environmental concerns, another key priority in today’s world.

Of course, Brexit brought a period of adjustment. We made extensive preparations in the lead up to Brexit and in the first few weeks following, we worked very closely with our European distributor network to meet the paperwork and legislation demands.

Like with any change, there were challenges to be overcome and opportunities for learning, but we quickly moved forward in a very positive place together with our export customers.

You’ve said 2021 is shaping up to be a “momentous year” for the business. What is the outlook for this year and beyond? More investment? Would you consider taking over other businesses?

Unfortunately, I cannot reveal the masterplan, but over the next 12 months we will be launching our new patented innovation that will be a game changer in the movement towards replacing single-use plastics.

We have also commissioned the implementation of our fastest moulded pulp machines yet, in addition to finalising the plans for the build of our new North factory which will increase capacity by a further 900 million pieces per annum. This will be built on six acres of land to the rear of our existing facility, which we have held in reserve for this planned expansion of our manufacturing offering.

We also look forward to supporting COP 26 in our home city, so there is plenty for us to be excited about.

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Regarding taking over other business, we have in the past acquired Universal Pulp Packaging and given how well this worked out for Cullen, there could be more on the horizon.

How do you balance your Cullen and Hamilton Accies duties?

I am very fortunate to work with a long-term team of directors who share the same vision and ambition as myself. This allows me to do what I do and focus on the future.

What has been the most pivotal moment in your career so far and who do you admire in business?

My pivotal career moment was when I acquired Cullen from my dad ten years after he returned to rescue the business. This move sees where I am today.

My parents are the people who I admire the most, even from a young age. They instilled drive and determination in me whilst always making sure I had my feet firmly on the ground.

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