The Story of CDL

CDL Logistics has London ringed with bases, but also delivers nationwide and beyond. Peter Rowlands went to find out how it all works

On the surface, CDL Logistics looks and sounds like a classic fulfilment company. It offers warehousing, pick and pack of single and multiple orders, despatch and delivery, plus a wide range of related services and information technology support.

Take a closer look, and you’ll find some remarkable features that single CDL out from the crowd. How many other fulfilment companies do you know that run their own fleets of delivery vehicles? How many have virtually ringed Britain’s capital city with a network of bases? How many run a division specialising in mailroom management – complete with their own software?

Back in the early 1990s Hitesh Patel was working in the courier and parcels delivery market, running a franchise for ANC (the company that was acquired in more recent times by FedEx). That gave him a feel for the delivery end of the business, and no doubt underpinned his confidence in maintaining a core van fleet at CDL. Other fulfilment companies would be more likely to contract out this function, but CDL has good reason to take a more hands-on approach.

‘We don’t attempt to do standard home deliveries ourselves,’ Hitesh Patel emphasises, ‘but a number of customers are London-based, and require regular deliveries to locations such as railway stations.’

He adds: ‘Since we have our own vehicles, we can use them judiciously for whatever work is appropriate. It’s a definite USP for us to have them.’ Indeed, the company currently makes around 300,000 deliveries a year with its own fleet – significant by any standards.

Whilst transport has remained a consistent thread for the company, it made a major shift into fulfilment in the mid-1990s when Hitesh acquired the business of one of his customers, Cancol Distribution. That organisation provided the initials that became and remain part of CDL’s group name, plus an entry into distribution of printed materials.

Meanwhile, Sean Durack, who had worked at ANC itself, became CDL’s finance director, and Neil Riley became sales and marketing director. (All of them, incidentally, are still with the group.) The CDL story was under way.

In those early days CDL continued to be closely involved in distribution of printed materials, but it wanted to expand. ‘We could see that paper-based activities were in decline,’ Neil Riley says. Mail-order fulfilment, plus then-embryonic e-commerce fulfilment, offered a natural extension to its activities, and gradually the company expanded in these areas.

Geographical expansion

Geographical expansion came next, and really took off in the early 2000s. Having started in Bermondsey, the company took on warehousing in Woolwich, and then embarked on a policy of strategic acquisition. This brought it bases in Langley, near Heathrow (Fairway PSD) and Horsham (IMS Fulfilment & Distribution) near Gatwick. The company also opened a brand new head office and warehouse complex at Sidcup in Kent.

Several of these operations continue to trade under their original names, though they have adopted corporate branding, and can all offer the whole range of the group’s services.

It is no coincidence that these bases are all within easy reach of major international airports. ‘Clients really appreciate the convenience of being able to fly in and meet our team without having to travel a long way when they get here,’ Sean Durack says. He adds that north-east London would be a logical location for a further base to complete the ring.

However, he smiles when he says this, adding that CDL has some clients whom it has never even met. ‘One or two companies supplying product from the Far East did their research online and by phone, and decided they didn’t actually need to come here to see what they were getting.’ It is a tribute to the quality of CDL’s service that they have since concluded that their confidence is justified.

UrbanDrop – an idea ahead of its time?

Any reader who has followed the home delivery market closely for the past decade will probably remember UrbanDrop. This was a business set up back in the year 2000 to solve the problem of deliveries to consumers who aren’t at home. The company behind it was none other than CDL.

The idea was that consumers could have their deliveries sent to an Urbandrop consolidation point rather than to their home. From here UrbanDrop would take the goods for collection to the consumer’s nearest pickup point, using its own van fleet.

The pickup points themselves were convenience stores and the like – a notion that has had many followers in the years since then. At its peak, UrbanDrop had more than 600 locations signed up – an impressive total by any standards, considering that these were all in and around London.

In the later stages of the operation the company added a further option – deliveries to consumers’ homes at times to suit them.

Where UrbanDrop differed from rivals was in running its own consolidation and delivery service. Retailers would have a differentiating offer to present to consumers, while carriers would see a fall in failed deliveries; and consumers of course got their goods.

It was an ambitious and forward-looking idea, combining many elements that have seen a reappearance more recently in similar systems from other companies; and it almost paid off. ‘We got lots of exposure,’ says Hitesh Patel, ‘and at one stage we had a venture capital company lined up to invest.’

Volumes started to build, and the company had the prospect of saving costs by handling deliveries for a major carrier through the same service. But it was all too slow, and eventually CDL realised it needed to turn to markets with prospects of a more assured return.

However, the UrbanDrop name lives on, and is used by CDL for other transport-related operations. But would the company ever revive the original home delivery concept? ‘We have no plans,’ says Hitesh Patel, but he adds with a smile: ‘Never say never again.’

But does CDL’s strong London presence mean the company is above all London-focused? Hitesh Patel is quick to dismiss that idea. ‘We offer a national and international fulfilment service, and deliver to all parts of the UK every day,’ he says. ‘We’re certainly not limited to a London perspective.’

However, when it comes to location, CDL’s proposition is subtle. Hitesh explains: ‘The fact is that London and the South East represent a major part of the entire national consumer base – yet one which can present a real challenge to fulfilment companies based in other areas. We have the local presence and experience to deal with those challenges, so we play to our strengths.’

As business development manager Guy Stevenson sums it up: ‘Our message to clients is that if fulfilment in London is a key feature of their activities, we are the people to handle it. But we can take on the whole country as well.’

Indeed, CDL already has a toehold many miles from the capital in the form of a leased warehouse at Wootton Bassett. ‘With smaller customers especially, we find it pays to ensure that they can reach one of our bases without having to travel more than an hour and a half.’  

In addition to providing a range of fulfilment bases, the dispersed nature of the CDL network means the company has been able to grow without assuming the trappings of big-company culture.

‘There’s no middle management,’ Neil Riley says. ‘We have a manager for each site, so our customers have access to a local contact.’ Each site has a range of clients, organised by sector.

CDL now provides a wide variety of services for a range of customers. It still handles a lot of paper distribution, including document deliveries for some of the train operating companies, and it stores and delivers retail goods, confectionery, toys and educational products. It does a growing amount of work for charities, and is also taking on a steadily-increasing volume of work in the pharmaceutical sector.

Services include hand finishing, re-packaging, kitting and collation, gift-wrapping, call centre management and campaign coordination. The company’s long-standing involvement with paper-based businesses mean it has special expertise in this area, and will happily take on tasks such as stuffing inserts into books. For some clients it also gets involved in design and print of packaging.

Bespoke IT platform

CDL runs a wide-ranging IT platform called IFF (Integrated Fulfilment System), which was commissioned specifically for its requirements, and is highly bespoke. It allows service levels to be varied according to customer agreements, and provides clients with a near-live view of currently stocks and orders via FTP (the stock position is updated four times an hour). The system generates pick lists and labels, and includes six-point product tracking. Also included is full batch tracking to the level required by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). No fewer than three of CDL’s sites have MHRA accreditation.

As retailers strive to attain competitive edge, there is an increasing demand for the kind of order tracking information provided by the IFF system. Recognising this requirement, CDL can provide automatic email alerts of various stages in the fulfilment process, including information for display on retail web sites.

Currently the company is developing the ability to send automated SMS texts and even product pictures to customers.

CDL’s IT system is designed to integrate with industry-standard IT platforms such as SAP, and also with its regular carriers’ systems. It uses Parcelforce Worldwide as its main carrier, and also DPD, especially for continental deliveries.

Mailroom speciality

Mail management is a niche speciality built up by CDL. Its offer includes special routing and tracking software that reflects not just the address of a delivery point, but also which floor of a multi-storey building it is on.

CDL will even run mailrooms on behalf of customers. It is already doing this for one major client – an operation that requires no fewer than twelve staff.

The software was developed by CDL in-house, and has now been packaged as a stand-alone product that is available to third-party users.

CDL’s capabilities don’t end within Britain. It has a long-standing alliance with Eden Fulfilment of New Jersey, which raises the possibility of order fulfilment both to and from North America. CDL’s IFF system is used there, providing a highly integrated product view across the two companies.

Sean Durack recalls: ‘There was an instance recently where we needed to fulfil an order to Canada, and our system allowed us to pick part of the product from America and the rest from the UK. That’s integration in action.’

So how big do you need to be to take advantage of CDL’s services? The company is very clear on this. ‘We like small customers,’ Guy Stevenson says unequivocally. ‘We’re happy to work with businesses that are still trading through eBay or Amazon. We like growing with them.’

He cites one instance of a company supplying eco-friendly products. ‘When we started working with them two years ago, they listed just six stock-keeping units. Now they have eighteen hundred.’

© Spice Court Publications

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