Himilco got off to an anxious start during the pandemic, but this Belgian logistics service provider has now found its place in that world. "In this sector, you must be able to switch quickly, be flexible and brainstorm. I'm getting more and more potential customers because of that," begins Charles Meeus.
After more than 20 years in the sector, in 2020, Charles decided to reorientate his company. "I was an independent 'consultant' with an international player, but that cooperation ended after six years, just before the COVID-19 outbreak. I started looking for other collaborations. Not easy during a lockdown."
"So I began running things myself, with the experience and connections I already had. That's nerve-racking at first because it's a bit uncertain. But that soon gave way to ambition. The risks are greater when you work alone, but so are the rewards," says Charles.
He unburdens his clients - mainly exporters and importers who need transportation - of all their logistic concerns. "West Africa is my specialty, and still 80 to 90% of my market. I also have partners in Asia, South America, and the Mediterranean, but that's quite sporadic. I primarily do seasonal products like potatoes, onions, carrots, and white and red cabbage. I do some dry cargo, such as beverages and canned goods too. And, lots of frozen meat. But 60% of my clients are in the fruit and vegetable sector."
Given the current market situation, Charles sees exports to West Africa slowing down. "Vegetable, especially onion, prices are currently so high that exports of these products to West Africa have dropped by 30%. It's quite a poor region, so there's less buying at these prices. Margins don't decrease; risks, however, increase," he says.
That is due to onions' higher value, Meeus explains. "If a load's transported and something goes wrong along the way or payment is not made, you have substantial losses. Customers thus no longer do continual shipping. Last year, several had weekly shipments to West Africa; now, only two or three ship there. They then wait for payments before sending the next shipment. All this is to reduce risk, so there are far more intervals between sailings."
Service and alternatives
Much of Charles' work involves unburdening and providing service to Dutch and Belgian traders. "You often have to explain to potential customers why they'd pay more for you," he explains.
"Many work directly with shipping companies, and that's not always easy to come between. Then you have to show what the advantages are for them. Especially during ocean freight issues, I could offer solutions and alternatives."
"In this sector, people need quick responses. If they call me today to see if they can receive cargo next week, you must move quickly. Shipping companies have far more red tape, especially in recent years, so they don't have that flexibility. You get requests from plenty of different people, but I can answer every question and manage to get that extra cargo on board," Charles continues.
"I can, thus, prove that, even though my services cost a bit more, the clients can do that extra business, and their resulting profit margins are still bigger than my commission. That's a win-win situation. I can also offer alternatives. Suppose, for instance, a company uses MSC for its transport, but they suddenly have problems, and the sailings stop."
"My industry contacts with, among others, several shipping companies, mean I can then look for alternatives to switch. It's about direct communication and quick service that's appreciated more and more. That's how I've experienced some great years since I started, and I hope to continue that steadily," Charles concludes.
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