Belgian logistics group Ahlers sets sail to reinvent itself, 21st century style

Belgian logistics group Ahlers sets sail to reinvent itself, 21st century style

Ahlers 4.0: Starting a new chapter

Ahlers originally began operations back in 1909 as a shipping agency in the Port of Antwerp. Surviving two World Wars, it steadily grew into a major Belgian carrier with its own vessels and afterwards evolved into an international freight forwarder and warehouse provider.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the company had established a solid footprint in Europe but also in emerging markets such as Russia, Ukraine, India and China. Always on the lookout for new opportunities, the latest chapter of the Ahlers history is all about innovation, partnerships and transparency.

Yves Verlinden, Sales Director at Ahlers, said: “Although we have existed for 106 years, the company culture and family owners are constantly challenging us to reinvent ourselves. What I am seeing today makes me believe we are on the right track in that regard.”

“Logistics and supply chain management are in rapid transformation and some time ago we noticed that the growth of our sales pipeline was slowing down because we failed to capitalise on the new trends that are shaping our highly dynamic industry.

“While many of our services were still based on traditional red ocean business segments such as freight forwarding and warehousing, our customers were starting to ask for more innovative solutions that could help them compete better in their own industries.

“We took a radical decision to reinvent our company from the ground up:  “Ahlers 4.0” was born. From that day we started looking for innovation partners that we could invite to build mutually beneficial synergies with.”

“It did not take long to find suitable candidates: the first one was an Antwerp University spin-off company called TRI-VIZOR, the second one was a family owned value added logistics service provider by the name of Tigro Industries. Both companies had Belgian roots but had established a strong European reputation for themselves as innovators and thought leaders in their respective markets. Our thinking was that teaming up with a global player like Ahlers would offer them ample opportunity for accelerated international expansion.”

“With its own offices in 15 countries, Ahlers is perfectly suited to support the growth of smaller partners. We also own 85,000 square metres of warehouses in Belgium, Russia and Ukraine and 16,000 square metres of rented facilities, and we have access to a dense global network of local partners and commercial agents.”

ALTIGRA: a new reference in Value Added Logistics

Ahlers already had a long-standing reputation as a logistics partner and freight forwarder for the chemical industry, and in recent years the company has invested heavily in value added logistics services. As such, teaming up with Tigro Industries turned out to be a win-win decision.

Family owned company Tigro Industries, headquartered in Limburg, started some 30 years ago as a small provider of value added services for local chemical and pharmaceutical customers. Today, the company is a renowned Belgian player with its own ADR-transport fleet and temperature controlled storage and packing facilities, specifically designed for the sectors that it serves.

Lately, the know-how of Tigro had started to attract the attention of a more international customer base, who asked the company to follow them to emerging markets like India, China and Russia. One of the reasons was that also in these more exotic markets, logistic services complying with Tigro’s Safety, Health, Environment and Quality policy are starting to be in high demand. This meant there were tangible business opportunities on the horizon for the company.

To accelerate their mutual growth, Tigro Industries and Ahlers set up a joint venture by the name of Altigra™ which will focus on providing high-quality international logistics services for the chemicals, pharmaceuticals and food industries.

Through this collaboration Ahlers and Tigro can handle the entire logistics spectrum of solids and liquids for these industries, as well as hazardous chemicals. Other capabilities include: temperature controlled storage, handling products, making formulations, blending products, micronizing products, drying products, repacking products, cleanroom operations, international transportation and local distribution.

Despite having only been formally established on July 1st 2015, Altigra has already secured business with a Fortune 500 chemical company based in India. Altigra will take care of its product distribution, processing and repackaging while it will also offer freight forwarding services to get the hazardous products to Europe with the highest possible safety and quality standards. Similar projects are already in the sales pipeline but are still covered by non-disclosure agreements.

By pooling expertise and resources together, both partners can work towards the goal of offering international solutions. Bart Moors, Director at Tigro Industries, said: “We believe our customers are looking for a solution that is complete and high-end, and we believe the strength of combining Tigro with Ahlers enables us to cover that complete portfolio of value added services. Our ambition is to work out customised, turnkey solutions for our customers in the food, chemical and pharmaceutical sectors.”

“As an example, two years ago we implemented a warehousing project together with a value added design and packaging solution based on the very specific needs of an end customer with seasonal demand in hygroscopic products. This is just a snapshot of how we want to delve deeper into every stage of the supply chain and offer customised solutions on the international market. The niche expertise of Tigro combined with Ahlers’ international reputation and contact book will make a powerful match.”

TRI-VIZOR and Cargo Pool™: taking on the Horizontal Collaboration challenge

Although Ahlers’ core competencies have for many years centred on traditional freight forwarding and individual supply chain services, the company is not blind to see the fast growing appetite of shippers to share capacity in logistics platforms and communities. This paradigm shift towards so-called “Horizontal Collaboration” requires a radically new way of looking at the logistics market, as well as a complete arsenal of innovative tools and know-how on the conceptual, technological and legal level. Not something a logistics service provider can easily develop by himself.

Enter TRI-VIZOR. This spin-off company from the University of Antwerp was founded in 2008, baptizing itself as the world’s first cross supply chain orchestrator. As a neutral matchmaker, trustee and architect of horizontal collaboration TRI-VIZOR offers all the necessary services to put horizontal collaboration from theory into practice, including an EU antitrust compliant “firewall” enabling competing shippers to collaborate and share capacity without having to share any sensitive data. Although the company is still very small, it has made a big name for itself as global thought leader in this blue ocean market.

Among the unique instruments developed by TRI-VIZOR to enable horizontal collaboration are a large database containing the tradelane information of more than 150 multinational shippers. As a neutral matchmaker, TRI-VIZOR continuously scans this database for potential transport (co-loading and roundtrip) synergies. Given the countless number of combinations that exist between different logistics networks, this is truly a Big Data challenge. On a more strategic level, TRI-VIZOR also helps companies to think about their logistics maturity and become more “Future Proof” by benchmarking them with their peers in the context of 20 major supply chain trends and challenges.

A more technical innovation developed by TRI-VIZOR was a collaborative transport management platform in the cloud, enabling real-time balancing and synchronisation of loads across different shippers and supply chains. Being an operational and freight forwarding oriented tool, this so-called Collaborative Control Tower will be taken over from TRI-VIZOR by Ahlers and will be further developed and put in the market as an advanced collaborative 4PL solution under the brand name Cargo Pool™.

As a result of this deal, TRI-VIZOR will be able to refocus fully on its role as independent matchmaker and trusted community architect, while Ahlers as an experienced logistics service provider will be able to take care of the operational aspects of horizontal collaboration.

Sven Verstrepen, Founding Partner and Business Development Director at TRI-VIZOR, explained:

“To achieve cost reductions and better central visibility of shipments, a growing number of shippers are centralising the management of their networks into so-called control towers (4PLs). Despite this trend, it is a well-known fact that the average efficiency of logistics in Europe still reaches barely 43 percent.

“The bundling of freight flows across multiple shippers has proven to be a powerful remedy for this problem, and this is exactly what our solution was built to do. Our collaborative control tower can deliver simultaneous improvements in logistics cost, service level and sustainability, which is in a way the “holy grail” that the industry has been searching for during so many years.

“The Collaborative Control Tower or Cargo Pool™ is a technology platform that enables profitable, real-time synchronisations and combinations of international freight movements across multiple shippers.

Over the past few years, as a supply chain innovator we have developed, tested and successfully validated this platform as a tool to enable horizontal collaboration in limited scale pilot projects. We felt the time was ripe to hand over this technology to a larger player in the market, and Ahlers turned out to be the right partner at the right time. They have the necessary commercial depth and width to bring this solution to the next level.”

Given the mandatory neutrality that a logistics matchmaker and advisor must retain in order to be given access to the freight flow data of a large number of shippers, the partnership between TRI-VIZOR and Ahlers is not a joint venture in the traditional sense of the word. The two companies will continue to operate as separate legal entities and with separate management teams. Nevertheless, even after a few months of working together at arm’s length, Ahlers and TRI-VIZOR see many opportunities for cross-pollination and mutual business development.

Bert Goethals, Sales Manager at Ahlers, concluded: “By joining forces with TRI-VIZOR and Tigro, we can lift up our service portfolio to an entirely new strategic level, making Ahlers more appealing to our customers and to the industry as a whole. This is for me the key benefit of these partnerships. We are already being recognised in a more positive light by big market players during tendering.”

“The Fast Moving Consumer Goods sector and the food logistics industry are an important target market for us. There’s also significant interest from shippers in the chemical, pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors. Looking forward, we hope to proliferate into the automotive and technology industries at some point in the future too. But at the same time we want to take things one step at a time. Logistics innovation is not an easy game.”

As global shippers are increasingly looking for integration and consolidation of innovative services, the unique blend of qualities that Ahlers is currently bringing together in its partnership strategy, means it should be set for success in the next 100 years of its existence.