She rocks: Ellen Tournois

Do you prefer to read our interview or watch it? The choice is yours!

Welcome to Guinnot Antwerp’s new podcast! A jewellery brand made by and for women that is run by three entrepreneurs. In this podcast, we will be interviewing entrepreneurs and sharing their stories every month. Today we are talking to Ellen Tournois, CEO and founder of Dely Wafels, the world leader in frozen waffles with customers all over Europe, America and even Asia. Besides the company, Ellen is passionate about yoga, she loves reading books and spending quality time with her family is also very important. Welcome Ellen, we’re so happy you could join us.

Ellen: Well, thank you for inviting me.

It’s wonderful to have you here. We’re just going to jump straight into the questions. How did DELY Waffles start?

Ellen: I met my husband in 1999  – I had a permanent job at the time – and together, we started a bakery making Belgian waffles in 2001. We started out with 300,000 waffles and then we continued to grow every year, exporting to France and then we just continued to grow. We then had to move from Eeklo to a bigger property in Mouscron and we are now in Estaimpuis where we make more than 35 million waffles a year.

So you went from 300,000 waffles to 35 million waffles a year?

Ellen: That’s right!

Ellen has chosen her favourite pieces from our Anonymous collection: the bezel-set diamond tennis bracelet, the micropavé diamond spiral ring and the halo diamond earrings in white gold.

Ok, that is some serious growth! You said that you run the company together with your husband. How does that work in practice? Do you each have your own field of work or do you discuss everything together? How does it work?

Ellen: As you say, we each have our own field of work. The D and Y in Dely stand for Davy and the E and L stand for Ellen. So you can kind of guess that Davy deals with sales and marketing and I’m mostly in charge of quality and HR.

Ok, so you run the internal side of the company then?

Ellen: That’s right! I follow up on internal issues, the internal management, making sure that everyone has the same goal and I help them achieve this goal by helping with the financial aspects or by communicating their needs better to the suppliers.

So you are basically the listening ear in the company whilst Davy is looking for new customers and opportunities?

Ellen: That’s right! Exactly!

In October 2018, you probably had the biggest shock of your life when the production hall burned to the ground. How was this emotionally for you?

Ellen: It was very hard. The first three weeks were very hard emotionally. Not to be underestimated. I didn’t go and see anyone like a psychologist, but really I should have done. It’s like when someone dies. Because your company is your baby, your heart. You put everything into it and then you see it burn down in one go and you can’t do anything about it. At the time when the fire took place I was at the playground. Around 12:20/12:25, one of our employees called: ‘Ellen don’t worry, everyone has been evacuated, but there is a fire.’ I said OK. Then you look on the cameras and I saw the oven in smoke. I said, this is bad, this is really bad. But then you just stand there, I was standing in the playground, just imagine that you are standing in the playground with your 6-year-old daughter and your head is spinning. Luckily, I was able to drop her off at a friend’s place and I could go straight to our company. I met my husband there. I needed to walk a bit because there was so much traffic. They were all watching it burning and then all kinds of thoughts go through your head. You see your whole company, your life’s work and you think… At the time, the first thing I said was, we’re not just going to leave it like this… The firefighters couldn’t do anything other than let it burn down in a controlled way. It’s one of the worst things that could happen to you.

So they couldn’t put out the fire , they just had to make sure that nothing else burned but that you…

Ellen: Yes, exactly. And my husband called me straight after the employee had called : ‘Ellen, you need to come here now, straight away, it’s urgent.’ So yeah, at the time that they called him, to tell him it was burning, he was in the kitchen eating with my mother-in-law, his mother, and our employees and the only thing he left with his mother was his laptop. That is all we have left. Because just before I went to go and pick up our daughter, I left the private back-up, which had company info on it, at our offices, to back everything up. So everything is just gone. Davy managed to evacuate everyone, he tried to put out the fire together with employees but it wasn’t meant to be. It got between the sandwich panels and it just kept going. The structure was built that way, it was an old building which they attached sandwich panels to. So it just all burned down, because at the time, we also had 20 containers of margarine oil that had just been delivered as raw materials and our cardboard stock was full. I had also passed by at 12 o’clock to go into the freezer room and there were more than 310 pallets of frozen waffles because they hadn’t come to collect the containers yet. So it had everything it needed to just keep burning. Even three days after the fire, the firefighters were still having to separate the machines, the raw materials, yes, they had to separate everything to make sure the fire was out.

So as you say, everything is gone, everything is burned to the ground, your baby. How quickly did you decide to build a whole new production hall? Did you not think, OK, maybe it’s enough?

Ellen: No, even during the fire, when I arrived, I was so angry that it was burning, because we were so helpless, because the firefighters had to just let it burn under control… I told everyone straight away, because all of our employees were there too, because we were right in the middle of production of round waffles, there were more than 30 people there… We can’t just let this stop us, not now. After everything that we have built up here. So the day after, we were still quite emotional, it was hard for everyone. Our employees are really committed. We have a really good team, we are lucky that we have such a good team, both in the office and in production, and we just let the people in the office continue their work. They never became unemployed. Those from production did. And we started making the inventory straight away. Because normally you have a back-up somewhere but we didn’t have anything any more. We spent two months making the inventory, asking everyone, both office workers and production workers: where is everything? What do you think was there? Machines, raw materials, everything.

So you worked out how much you still had and how much you had lost?

Ellen: Yes.

And then you started making a plan for a new production hall?

Ellen: Yes, straight away. Straight after. I must say, though, we were already thinking about the possibility of expanding because the property we had wasn’t big enough for the further automation of the packaging. Which you need a lot of space for.

And now, with the new property, do you feel like you have a better property or how do you look back on it?

Ellen: Before, we had a piece of land measuring 4,300 m² and the building measured 1,500 m² and our architect said that… Well we thought that 8,000 m² would be enough…

For the building or as land?

Ellen: As land! But luckily our architect advised us against it and now we are glad we didn’t. So we went from 8,000 m² to 18,000. Instead of a building measuring 1,500 m² we have a building measuring 6,900 m². Yes, we are still finishing the offices.

And is the production area already finished?

Ellen: The production area, the building, was finished in July but we could only start production at the end of October because there were some delays with the spiral conveyor belts.

OK, so you have been in production for the past 3 months.

Ellen: Yes, not in full production all the time, because things aren’t working ideally with the spiral conveyor belts, because the defrosting is not as effective as we would like but production is running. And we are lucky because of our clients, we realised at the time of the fire, that our customers come to us because we work specifically for them in a personalised way with their recipes and packaging.

So you haven’t lost any customers?

Ellen: Yes, we lost some now, to our competitors… One competitor convinced our customers to sign a contract so we have lost them for a few years but there are a lot who are still waiting to bring our products back onto the market.

Your loyal customers then?

Ellen: Yes, yes! We are lucky!

OK, so now we know a lot about Dely Wafels, but besides Dely Wafels, you also enjoy doing yoga and, of course, you also have a family. How do you manage to combine it all and do you have any tips?

Ellen: We have a daughter who is now 6 years old and it was not easy at the start because she had a dairy milk intolerance. My life completely changed because I was working… I was always there from morning till evening. I always closed up. And when you have a daughter or a child, that’s not so simple. I try to find a balance between the time that I spend with her, especially now that she is in her first year at school where learning, reading and writing are really important. I try my best to make sure she has more and more quality time, also with my husband Davy. Because my husband Davy, as you know, is travelling a lot, so it’s not always easy to find a good balance in our family. So we try to plan specific moments together to make sure we create a balance in the best way possible so that we can be a great, happy family.

Yes, I see that it is work in progress and it isn’t simply something you can achieve in one day.

Ellen: No.

But you’re both working on it?

Ellen: Yes, every day.

Every day.

Ellen: Every day and every day I learn something new. I learn things every day from my daughter, my husband and our employees. And as you already mentioned, I love reading and John C. Maxwell’s books are a real inspiration, and they help you get to know yourself. For example, the book ‘21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership’ really opened my eyes in so many ways.

So these books enable you to help your company grow, but also to find a personal balance?

Ellen: Yes, I’m getting to know myself better and I now know how things can be easier for our employees, family, for myself to keep working towards a good… a positive balance. Because it’s important to always be positive, and everything… Even if you have a bad experience, it’s important to turn it into a positive challenge.

So this is a book that you would recommend to female entrepreneurs, the book by John C. Maxwell?

Ellen: Yes! John C. Maxwell: 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.

And what are your plans for the future? What do you want to focus on the most?

Ellen: I have various things that I want to focus on. A lot in my private life: more quality time with our daughter Julie and my husband Davy, investing, better planning in my diary, otherwise not much comes of the plans. For the company, I will really focus on personal development, so that I, myself, and our family and our company can achieve more of our goals. I would like to bring some more structure into our company so that everyone is on the same page and so that we can share the same goal that leads to positive production. Which leads to tasty waffles! (Laughs!)

That is certainly the most important goal. I learnt so much from this interview and I found it very interesting.

Ellen: Thank you!

I would like to thank you for your time! And we’ll come visit soon to eat some waffles!

Ellen: Great idea! We would love to have you all come and visit.

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