Unimasters Logistics in Bulgaria

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Mr. Nikolai Bozhilov
Founder and Executive Chairman

Mr. Bozhilov, first tell us about yourself. Who are you and what made you take up a career in freight forwarding & shipping? What nationality are you?

Shipping became my career when I was 18 years old and entered the Merchant Department of the Naval Academy in Varna, Bulgaria. After graduating in 1974 I globe trotted the world as ship’s mate onboard several break-bulk vessels owned by the national shipping company Navibulgar.

In 1979, already a chief mate, I decided to settle ashore for a while and was offered to head the Marketing Section of the newly created Agency Department. Just a few months later I was sent to Fearnley & Eggers in Oslo, Norway to learn the basics of shipping research, ship chartering & brokerage.

After my return to Varna I was suddenly summoned by the company management and asked to form a totally different venture – a container operations division, thus running the first own container shipping activity of Navibulgar. Hence, I took the challenge and became head of Bulcon Container Service for 5 years. In 1984 thanks to my dedicated team we were ranked by Lloyd’s Shipping Index as “the most reliable container service from the UK and the North Continent to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea”.

In 1985 the Navibulgar management decided to restrain Bulcon expansion plans and I resigned. I went back to sea for another five years as a chief mate. In 1988 I got my Master Mariner’s certificate and stood in the queue for my first vessel as a captain.

The collapse of the Berlin wall and the the end of communism in Bulgaria and the Eastern bloc gave me the chance to start my own company and try to put my ideas into reality. So I abandoned my future sea career and established Unimasters.

I am proudly Bulgarian by nationality.

Today I am very happy to lead fantastic teams of seasoned (although young) service minded innovative professionals in shipping, freight forwarding and 3PL/4PL. Unimasters is the country’s indisputable leader in the conservative world of shipping with an impeccable reputation for performance and integrity.

When did you start your company and what are the main activities in your company currently? Do you have offices outside Bulgaria as well?

Unimasters Logistics was formed on 22 May, 1990 as the first private liner shipping agency in Bulgaria after the changes and became very popular with the liner carriers due to its vast knowledge and experience in container and breakbulk shipping.

Through the local representation of some of the then global carriers such as SeaLand Service Inc, Maersk Line, CMA CGM, P&O Nedlloyd, Lloyd Triestino, K-Line, etc. we diversified and perfected our operational capabilities in all kinds of intermodal and breakbulk activities.

In 1994 we added more subsidiaries in freight forwarding (sea, air and land) and 3PL. Joining forces with Barwil Shipping Agencies the same year we also established a separate company for tramp and tank services.

After buying Unitor and merging it with Barwil to become Whilemsen Ship Service, Wilhelm Wilhelmsen A/S and Unimasters jointly decided to end partnership in 2007 in order to avoid any conflicts of interest.

Today Unimasters has four fully integrated activities – port and marine logistics, customs brokerage, freight management and supply chain management and it is among the Bulgarian top three players in shipping. Plus a liner agency, representing Yang Ming.

We have our own offices in three countries – Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary but we do cover other 177 countries through first-class partners in projects and freight management. In the last several years we have limited our memberships to two global project networks only (CLC Projects & XLP) and two in freight forwarding (X2Elite and CTN). We are working closely with those partners to develop new business opportunities or offer better service schemes to established traffics.

With Bulgaria’s strategic location in the Black Sea does it mean that you mainly deal with business in that area or do you also do cross trades? I know that many international companies have set up production in Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary for overseas export.

We do quite a lot of cross-trade and this business is constantly increasing. Innovation is deeply embedded in all our activities. We work with a number of leading international startups to deliver instant global offerings and platform-based digitalised services. Of course, our home area of operation remains high on the agenda, where we have intimate knowledge of the markets.

Central and Eastern Europe is an exciting place for business due to the larger potential for growth. The Romanian economy was one of Europe’s very fastest growing economies last year, with a GDP beating all expectations and expanding by 4.8%. For a while now, local, regional and global clients have regarded Romania as one of the “hottest” markets in Europe and even among global emerging markets.

Bulgaria grew by 3.4% in 2016 and will keep up the growth this year, too. Hungary is also accelerating and it is expected to surpass 3.2% in 2017. As we efficiently serve exports, imports and domestic consumption through our 3PL services, we have enjoyed two-digit growth in all areas for several years now and are heavily investing in new technologies and infrastructure.

The Black Sea continues to be a politically complicated area due to the annexation of Crimea and the strained relationship between Russia and Ukraine. The container traffic last year (excluding Turkey) dropped by about 13% on average. Constanta DPW terminal still heads the league of the container terminals in terms of efficiency and number of boxes handled, followed by APMT in Poti and HPC in Odessa. Breakbulk services were quite volatile due to lack of enough EPC projects, which used to feed the traffic some years ago. However, in 2017 abundant grain exports have compensated the setback to a certain extent.

How is the relationship with your neighboring countries Turkey, Greece, Romania etc? Can cargo be transported via Bulgarian ports to any destinations in your neighboring countries? Elaborate on which destinations make the most sense to use Bulgaria for transshipment.

The neighboring economies are among the top 5 trading partners in each country where we operate. Turkish ports around Istanbul have become the main relay gateways for the container traffic to and from Black Sea. There is some regular export project business, moving through the Danube river by barge from Germany, Austria and Hungary via the Black Water canal and Port of Constanta to Asia, Africa and Latin America. However, transit business via Bulgaria to the neighbouring countries (mainly Serbia and Macedonia) makes no sense any longer (as it did about 20 years ago), due to higher ship costs in the Black Sea and the dire state of Bulgarian railways and the Bulgarian ports Varna and Bourgas.

It appears that Bulgaria has been in a political vacuum recently. Тell us about the current business climate in your country.

This is not exactly true. The previous right-of-center government resigned last November after losing the presidential election and the country held a snap election on March 26 this year. Although the results of that vote were inconclusive, CEDB’s leader Boiko Borisov, who became prime minister for the third time, cobbled together a new coalition government in early May. This has ushered in some much welcome political stability.

Business confidence has picked up substantially. But still, the market’s small size means it’s low on the list of regional priorities for the multinationals. Growth is being supported through continued strong domestic demand, wage growth and as EU transfers pick up, which is going to infrastructure projects, including modernising the country’s railways and building motorways.

The population has been shrinking steadily in recent years from 7.7 million in 2006 to 7.6 million in 2010, to an estimated 7.1 million in 2016. And that should fall to just 7.0 million by next year. The working population is also shrinking as people move away or grow old. Unemployment has been on a steady downward trajectory and will drop to 7.9% this year.

The Bulgarian market remains relatively steady but not terribly exciting for most Western companies, particularly as other markets in the region pick up at a faster pace and have bigger consumer bases. In December, Bulgaria was ranked number ten in terms of CEE priority markets over the next three years, on par with Croatia. This summer, in one of the most recent business surveys, Bulgaria fell out of the top ten priority markets for the next three years.

What is in the pipeline for Unimasters in order to compete in the future?

After several years of intensive digital transformation, we are now on the road to become the next-generation shipping enterprise for the Digital Age, leveraging cloud, mobile, social and big data. Due to our advanced thinking and highly converged API-based platforms we are perceived in our markets as genuine game changers as we provide simple, innovative solutions to rather complex problems. Our digitalised “plug & play” business model is based on 4 pillars: operational excellence, solution leadership, unique customer experience and economic value. And it is augmented by the best global logtech inventions.

In Unimasters we put the emphasis on the careful planning and solution design, risk mitigation, managing exceptions quickly, and fast resolution of customers’ complex demands and requirements. Besides, we are well known as knowledgeable and creative professionals, who are able to put together best world practices in transportation – from heavy project pieces to small parcels.

I had great experience personally with your office in Romania a couple of years ago when moving some GE cargo on the Danube and then to China on behalf of Sinotrans. Do you still move cargoes on the Danube through your Romanian office?

Absolutely, both through our Bulgarian and Romanian offices. Bulgaria and Bulgarian operators have the lowest operational costs in EU. Besides, most EU members can be reached in 3 hours by plane, 24 hours by truck and 2-3 days by rail. Romania offers other advantages – better port and warehousing infrastructure. In recent years we have developed very successful operational models for moving project cargoes from Central Europe on the Danube to Constanta or Varna/Bourgas and then to China and Southeast Asia onboard leading container carriers as add-ons to our breakbulk activities. This saves our customers time and money.

Is Bulgaria a tourist spot? Тell our readers where to visit (besides the beaches at the Black Sea of course)?

For sure! Bulgaria can offer a lot more than sandy beaches, great ski slopes, cheap booze, tasty food and great entertainment. Cultural, historical and village tourism and travel are growing exponentially. Wine tours are also becoming very popular. Last year the total contribution to the country’s GDP was 12.8 %, amounting to about EUR 6.5 billion. This growth is expected to continue by 3.9% this year and rise to 4.3% in 2018. Undoubtedly Bulgaria is on the list of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in Europe as per the European Travel Commission’s 2017 Travel and Trends Report, which covers the first four months of 2017.

Finally, Mr. Bozhilov whom to approach in case someone needs a quotation from Unimasters?

You can contact our omnichannel customer hub 24/7 by sending email to customerhub@unimasters.com or using our web chat. Social network contacts are also monitored around the clock. Our people are well trained and can be reached at almost any time.

Nikolai Bozhilov
Founder and Executive Chairman
Unimasters Logistics