Located in the heart of Europe, the Port of Antwerp is the second largest port in Europe offering to be a truly global actor and an undisputed partner. The Port continuously builds up its international relations and networks to strengthen its position as an international port.
With a dynamic network of representatives all over the world, it offers professional and cost-efficient international market-access. As such, the representatives co-build the image of the Port of Antwerp as a homeport with a sustainable future and her commercial ambitions. The port’s geographical focus ensures a strong international support to its ambitions.
Recently the Ports of Antwerp and Zeebrugge have joined forces to form Port of Antwerp-Bruges that will become a leading container gateway, the largest transhipment gateway for vehicles to Europe and it is already the leading petrochemical cluster in Europe.
You have been assisting Indian businesses abroad, it could be Australia or Belgium. What is the nature of work you do as India representative?
The nature of work that I do as the India representative of Port of Antwerp is to profile the port as the most premier gateway, the most convenient gateway for Indian businesses looking at trading using the India-Europe corridor, and two key things we always remember while talking to shippers or the facilitators is what is of interest to them? And what is of interest to them is just cost and time. So, any arguments that I present to our customers here or potential customers always revolve around these two aspects and of course, as being a very reliable gateway as well.
I should say Port of Antwerp is very popular or a known European port in India because of the efforts of your predecessor or you. So, how are things with Port of Antwerp now for the Indian businesses? How much of business is happening and which are the regions in India looking forward to use Port of Antwerp?
Businesses that are very relevant and opportunity areas: You may be aware that a lot of Indian steel comes to us; we being one of the leading breakbulk ports in Europe. So, that has always been an ongoing business and continues to be one of the major areas. Another big area is containers; it could be engineering goods, auto components, going to more broadly other parts of Europe or even leather goods, textiles, footwear, etc. So, yes, we have been attracting a lot of goods from India. In the perishable sector, again grapes, fruits; seafood has been one of the major areas and not to forget, also while I talk about perishables it reminds me of temperature controlled commodities trade. Pharma has been another important area where we have also become GDP compliant, which is compliance necessity to ensure that we are very reliable gateway as a seaport, so we are the only seaport in the world that has got this compliance certificate now. As far as the geographies are concerned, we are very well connected from some of the major Indian ports to Antwerp. So, I don’t want to restrict myself to specific geographies but you can say more broadly any of the cargo generating hubs of the country, I can keep naming. So for example, in the western region, you look at Pune, Aurangabad, Nasik, Gujarat some of the major areas like Surat, Ahmedabad, Baroda, being the chemical hub and of course in the North as well we have done visits to Ludhiana, in the South Hyderabad, Chennai we have done a lot of visits, Kochi for the seafood trade. We do a lot of visits regularly to major markets and we have been successfully convincing businesses to look at Antwerp as the preferable gateway.
Corona pandemic has impacted all businesses and still I think Europe is having its own issues with the pandemic. Currently how is the cargo movement from India to Europe?
Blank sailings were quite evident last year. I think it struck everybody globally. Of late, things have streamlined a bit so we are not seeing that much of interruption and in fact very recently I got a query from a big steel producer who wanted to use the port as a gateway so I am looking at trade going back to, I shouldn’t say pretty much the normal rate but okay, I am getting a few enquiries as well. Another interesting point I must share that this concept of re-thinking the supply chain is something that is not just a buzzword but something I have been noticing as and when I am talking to a lot of shippers because Indian customers being very price sensitive, earlier if you spoke about warehousing at the Port of Antwerp, which is a big plus point for us because we have about 6.3 million square meters of covered warehousing space, there used to be this mentality that no, just in time possibly is the right concept as you save a lot of money, why stalk elsewhere. But recently I am getting few enquiries of maybe warehousing close to the customer market in Europe and that has been some very positive aspect for us so yeah, I think things are improving.
Recently, I understand that Port of Antwerp and Zeebrugge have come together to form of Port of Antwerp-Bruges. So, can you explain what is the arrangement and how does it help the Indian community?
Too early to talk about it because the anti-trust authorities will first come into the picture and then the integration process starts. I think we will consolidate to become a leading port and the unification of two ports will make our position and our offering to the broader logistics community stronger. It will boost the global supply chains; that is something that we can be sure of. So, I think from that perspective, with the unification, we will become a leading container gateway, about 157 million tonnes per year; Of course, the largest transhipment gateway for vehicles to Europe; we already have the position of being the leading petrochemical cluster in Europe. So that stands. We will also have about over 15% of LNG that combined will transit through this gateway, leading breakbulk port. And in terms of total capacity, it could be about 257 million tonnes per year. This unification is not only a story of tonnes and volumes. I think we will also be becoming the very first port to reconcile people, economy and climate, and the bigger deal behind the unification is also to add value to both the Antwerp and Zeebrugge regions and more broadly Flanders, and not to forget the customers and the stakeholders. So, all in all if I see, the three strategic priorities of this unification will be sustainable development, energy transition and digital transition as well as resilience in leadership.
Interesting. I believe we have an arrangement between JNPT and Antwerp Port together for port training and skill building consultancy for improving the efficiency of manpower or upgrading their skills. So, initially it took some time to take off and then, how is the situation now? What is the foundation doing?
You are right. I think that center has evolved over the years. At the Port of Antwerp, we play a community builder role and by that I mean that when we grow, we want to grow with the community. In this case, with the other port authorities, the terminal operators, the private players who are the logistics service providers, forwarders, shippers. So, we have evolved from just providing courses to port professionals to touching the lives of all these entities I just spoke about. I mentioned the word community builder, so we have a very active port community in Antwerp, where we have progressed this relationship with the training center to involve that community delivering and imparting some interesting courses. For example, in January 2021, we organized a 5-day intensive breakbulk training programme and we involved 3 or 4 of the leading Antwerp breakbulk company representatives to impart this training, and this was wonderful and very beneficial to the Indian participants because you actually had practical experience from some of these players who are very easily the best in class in the business. So, I think it was way beyond the level that we had initially started off and another indirect benefit of course is that when you get people of this level to impart the training, then there is also an opportunity to form those business connections and in future when you actually have work in that geography, you already have a contact there, so you can exploit mutually commercially beneficial business opportunities. So, that is how we have evolved as on data and we do not stop there; I think we will do more of this across other sectors as well like perishables, chemicals. We are planning to do one around dangerous goods handling, so yeah you should watch out for this space.
So, going back to the pandemic impact, we were also exposed to lot of blank sailings and equipment shortage, freight rates going up – whole lot of issues which were the impact of this pandemic. So, what is the impact of these trends on the cargo movement between India and Belgium?
I take this whole thing positively. I know if you ask this question around, there will be a lot of reactions like there was uncertainty and hence trade had slowed down. As I said, the positive thing I saw was a shift in the traditional mentality of the Indian supply chain manager. So, when I went with the suggestion that okay, the pandemic has happened, there have been supply and demand shocks, equipment imbalance. Would you re-think your supply chain? Would you possibly look at also having smaller hubs in other countries and I got a very positive response, and I am telling you, before the pandemic, it was completely different. Unless someone was actually doing business in because I’m a European organization, if they were doing business in the European geography with sufficient volumes, only then would they look at this case, and now everybody is asking those questions. So, I think what I conclude is you can always turn around the challenge into an opportunity with an open mindset and I think that is being very positive. The whole outcome of the pandemic has been a little positive for me.
What can we see in the future? What are the other initiatives that Port of Antwerp is contemplating for Indian trade?
I think I am going to focus on the concept of persuading companies to look at Antwerp, not just as an export or import gateway but look at doing more at Antwerp and utilizing our warehousing space. We have wonderful facilities for value-added logistics. I mean, look at the steel sector itself, we have 6 to 7 steel service centers and there’s a lot that you can do to customize steel and send it to the end users. Similarly, with the other sectors as well, be it perishables, chemicals, there’s lots to be done; so I think I would like to use this opportunity of the pandemic, persuade Indian businesses to …if they would like their business to grow more in international markets like Europe to do more with us, that’s no.1, and no.2 of course I think this has been an unchartered territory where even today when I talk to companies who offer examples sending goods to other geographies than Belgium, they would give you Germany as an example; they would typically think of Bremen or Hamburg as ports, but we have very strong connections to some of the non-Belgium destinations as well, be it Germany, France, Poland and some of our logistics service providers of Antwerp are also present in these geographies. So, I think another job would be to sensitize people of some of these great connections that we have from Antwerp to these geographies so that they look at using our port much more than what they are doing today.
So, don’t you ever see a competition from any other European port trying to connect with Indian community which can offer better facility or offering?
Competition is always there. I think one of the best things that is going for Antwerp in this respect is a dedicated representation that they have in me and if I look at the competition, and look at some of the major ports, you won’t find a dedicated representative. There are people who are representing but they also have their own businesses to run. Competition will always be there but I think the port is making itself as a very attractive gateway. Last year itself, despite the pandemic, we launched so many good initiatives. I mentioned about the pharma GDP certification, we had some digital initiatives, we relaunched or rebranded the green zone that we have for next gen district so I think while the port strives to continue to make itself a very attractive destination, I will be very proactive and do my job and hopefully together we will leave the competition behind.
You have been there as an Indian representative for Port of Antwerp for the last 5 years. So, what has been the learning experience?
Great learnings! I have got the opportunity to discover India and how different and diverse India is. So, I think personally that has been a fantastic opportunity with this particular role. But also, I realize that we live in a very dynamic world and we cannot have very fixed mindsets of doing any task. I represent a European organization and we used to make long-term business plans – 3-year plans. As this pandemic struck we realized that you cannot have a very rigid and fixed mentality; you have to adapt with times. So, this has been my biggest learning and how do you adapt? And we always spoke about interesting buzzwords like going digital and optimizing and efficiency and all of that. So, that was another very very big learning because when the moment came, we had to transition very quickly to working digital, so being adaptive has been a very key aspect of what I have learnt over these 5 years.