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Ahlers – Antwerp, Belgium

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Interview with

Mr. Jeroen De Ryck
Business Unit Director, Projects & Machinery

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First, Jeroen could you tell us about the history of Ahlers?  I believe you have a longstanding tradition of being involved in logistics.

Founded in 1909 in the Port of Antwerp, Ahlers currently employs over 650 members of staff with own office in 3 regions (Europe, CIS, Asia) and a vast network of expert agents worldwide. We help customers drive future growth in complex markets.

Ahlers is a fully family-owned company, 3rd generation Ahlers-Leysen, headquartered in Antwerp, Belgium, supported by a worldwide partner network and offices in key locations. So, for over 110 years, Ahlers has been helping customers all over the world.

Originally, Ahlers started as agency operations. Bureau Maritime H.D opened in Antwerp and became one of Antwerp’s leading shipping agencies in the 1930s. In the sixties and seventies, Ahlers transformed from an agency to ship management. We acquired two, ice-class ships for the liner service to Finland. Ahlers also entered the liner trade to the USSR (via Latvian ports) and Sweden. Ship management activities were developed for a fleet of reefer ships and bulk carriers ordered at Belgian yards.

From the eighties until today, we continue to extend our international footprint across Europe, the CIS, Russia, and Asia. Ahlers transformed and reinvented itself several times. With the rise of container shipments (and consequently the decline of break bulk shipments), Ahlers moved away from its agency and shipping business, and evolved towards a supplier of full logistics services and solutions along the complete supply chain.

Ahlers is known as an innovative and customer-driven organization. Consequently, with a proactive approach towards our clients, today we offer solutions beyond logistics such as e order-to-cash solutions, acting as trade facilitator, and helping our clients focus on their core business while Ahlers does the rest. With the help of an extensive IT and Innovation Desk, we use big data and new innovative tools to visualize and optimize supply chains, set-up control towers or replace armed escorts with in-house-developed security devices.

Yes, Ahlers is a 110-year-old company. However through constant market- and self-assessment, as well as digital transformation, we re-invented ourselves to remain a leader in today’s environment.

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What are the main segments of business that Ahlers are involved in today?

With the appointment of Stefan Van Doorslaer as CEO (2019), we redesigned our organization to be even more customer-centric. Besides having the right mindset, we decided to reorganize our internal organization around our customers, moving away from a country towards a business unit organization. The integrated business approach allows for the business unit teams to be fully focused, to serve and support our customers through a close collaboration between the different Ahlers offices worldwide. 

We consider ourselves to be a niche-player, with a clear focus on complex markets such as Russia, Central Asia, and Ukraine, with most cargo originating from Asia where we also have a strong presence. Our services are centered around these 4 business units:

  • Projects & Machinery Logistics, where we focus on handling and managing logistics for EPC projects or production lines from A-Z, including but not limited to heavy lift and oversized cargo.  Furthermore, we are specialists in handling machinery for the mining and construction industry.
  • We provide end-to-end sustainable supply chain solutions, offering multi-modal transport options. Globally we facilitate the entire physical and administrative process of intake, storage, handling, customs clearance, and distribution of your goods. We also have 4 warehouses in different regions in Russia with a bonded warehouse in Saint Petersburg.  Furthermore, we offer optimization of logistics cost, performance, and sustainability based on smart data. Using innovative technologies, we visualize our customers’ supply network proposing actionable insights and improvement opportunities in user-friendly ways.
  • Secured transport of high value and theft-sensitive goods remains a challenge in our focus areas. With our in-house developed monitoring and security solution (IoT based), we reduce the dependency of human interaction, and realize significant cost savings. 
  • With trade facilitation and after sales services, we help customers develop trade and after-sales service, offering a route to market that facilitates the import and trading function of a local distributor and/or legal entity, providing the customer with full control of their business in complex regions (CIS and Asia). 

With these four Business Units, supported by our procurement, transport and customs clearance departments and with the support of our IT and Innovation Desk, Ahlers has been helping clients with one common goal: finding the best solutions that fit our customers’ profiles perfectly, so that they can stay focused on their core business.

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Do you have offices abroad and what are the roles of those?

With the opening of new markets in the early 1990’s, Ahlers expanded its network of its own offices towards the East.

In Russia and other CIS countries, we have been present since 1992. In Russia, we are based in five locations:  Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Chelyabinsk, Novorossiysk, and Novosibirsk. During the last few years, Ahlers Russia multiplied its business and turnover by continuous organic growth, opening new warehouses in Chelyabinsk and Novosibirsk, a bonded customs warehouse in Saint Petersburg, introducing new services such as after sales & trade logistics, secured transport and data analytics solutions. Furthermore, we have offices in Kazakhstan (Aktau, Almaty) and Uzbekistan (Tashkent).

In Eastern Europe, Baltics, and Ukraine, we have had several offices since 1993 in Klaipeda, Kiev, Kremenchug, Odessa and Kharkiv. We also have our own offices in Romania (Bucharest) and Serbia (Nis).  

In Asia, we have our own offices in China (Shanghai, Guangzhou). We opened several offices in 1998 in Indonesia and have been present in India since 2004 with five offices. 

Of course, let us not forget to mention our extensive Partner Network: Cross Trades and Ocean Bridge Lines. Together, we represent 70 partners and close to 200 offices worldwide and offer a comprehensive IT platform with network management, extensive collaboration features and real-time intelligent supply chain visibility.

Belgium has a central position in Europe, but that also means that competition is fierce as everyone is there. How do you ensure to stand out and what in your view makes you unique?

Yes, Ahlers has its HQ in Antwerp, but we are an international company.  Most of the projects handled by our Business Units are ordered by Western (European) clients, but the sourcing of their projects is global and especially in Asia, where we are well-placed. This way, we are close to our clients in Europe but also close to their suppliers, as well as the final receivers, around the world.  

Being in the center of Europe allows us to be close to our clients, located from Italy up to Finland.  Our playground is not only the typical hinterland of the port of Antwerp, which of course remains a main hub for project cargo.

The fact that we are based in Antwerp also allows us to attract skilled talent and experts in our field. We might not be the biggest company in our industry, but with bright minds and the agility of a mid-size organization, you can truly move fast and build out-of-the-box and tailor-made solutions, which give us a competitive advantage.  Of course, the fact that we offer multilingual, localized customer support, supported by offices in key regions, helps us to understand our clients better and to serve them in the language they prefer.

We understand the challenges and pressures faced by EPC-contractors and manufacturers when it comes to ensuring the efficient, uninterrupted operation of machinery. We do not hide behind contracts or bureaucracy. Instead, we use our experience, our dedicated personnel and creative planning with full force. We act in an agile, hands-on manner and are ready to adapt quickly to new conditions.

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Do you have specific experience in handling project cargoes? Could you provide us with a few examples of projects that you are proud of having dealt with?

Our Projects & Machinery division stems from our longstanding, agency-activities tradition for the main break bulk lines where we encountered a lot of oversized and heavy cargo.  However, projects do not only consist of this kind of equipment. More and more cargo is designed to fit into containers. Hence we focus on the A-Z management of projects, in every aspect: transportation planning, customs clearance and documentation, assisting in obtaining lower or zero import duties or taxes, monitoring of cargo and/or contact with the different suppliers and the final receiver.

Our main market remains the CIS and, in this respect, we have built up quite some experience in the metallurgic, petrochemical and oil & gas industry. The complexity of these projects often is not in the transportation itself but in the preparational work and the correct documentation, communication, and reporting.  Consequently, we invest a lot of resources in setting up control towers & dashboards, measuring and visualizing key performance indicators determined by our customers’ needs and requirements.

Proof of the pudding sits in our customer feedback with regards to service and performance. We are proud to say that clients often come back to us for other destinations also. Recently, the USA has also become a major destination market with revamping projects and even green field investments.

Besides projects, we handle yearly around 600-700 units of mining equipment (excavators, dump trucks, …) of the well-known brands, mostly ex China into the CIS, which gives us broad experience in OOG-rail transport and trucking along the new Silk Road.

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How do you view the rest of this year and 2021 when looking into your crystal ball, and what is next for Ahlers?

Our confidence in the choices we have made and our extensive capabilities, the teams we have formed over the last 18 months, proves the feedback we get in return from our customers. Of course, the COVID-epidemic has a big impact on all of us and our customers’ businesses. 

We do not have a crystal ball, but in the short term, we saw some practical issues: material suppliers were closed, production stopped, even some investment projects were put on hold or were cancelled. Despite these challenges, we still managed to reach a growth of around 30% in the first half of 2020 compared to 2019, which strengthens our belief that we are on the right track and doing the right thing to realize our ambitious plans. We realized this by reacting quickly to the changing market, offering alternative solutions to our clients but also by following a clearly-defined strategy of focused business development and integrated team approach.

The long-term impact of COVID (and of the lower oil price) still needs to be evaluated. Will the demand for commodities like steel, aluminum or petrochemical products remain low? Then this will have, of course, a negative impact on the number of investment projects.  However, we are confident that we will be able to face those challenges and assist our clients to realize their targets by finding the solution they require to win projects.

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How would it be best for our readers to get in touch with you?

AHLERS HEADQUARTERS Noorderlaan 139 – B-2030 Antwerp – Belgium
Phone: +32 3 543 72 11
Fax: +32 3 542 00 23
E-mail: info@ahlers.com
https://www.ahlers.com/

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