On the occasion of the week of breakbulk in Antwerp, Flows published reports in the print magazine about fascinating breakbulk players. Today you can read the episode about Catrien Scheers from Fast Lines Group here.
“There is an oversupply of ships and a decline in breakbul cargo, but we will keep our monthly sailing”, says Catrien Scheers, manager of the Antwerp shortsea operator. “It is a difficult puzzle, but we want to continue to serve our customers.”
“We make a difference by keeping our heads high and offering a listening ear,” she continues. “We get a lot of questions to review flows, but we also call our customers themselves to find out how they are doing. Corona also has a major impact on the psyche. ”
The philosophy of Fast Lines Belgium is a family ‘sofa style service’. This applies to customers, suppliers and staff alike. “We work with our own crew and have always been able to repay them on time. I am quite proud of that ”, she says. “We also provide our people with all the necessary equipment to be able to work comfortably from home. I found the success of this, especially with our forwarders, an eye-opener. ”
In a predominantly male world, Catrien is known as the ‘leading lady of breakbulk’. Fast Lines Belgium has had a fixed line service from Poland to the United Kingdom since 1992. In 2017, the Antwerp company opened a bulk terminal in Stettin, Poland and built an additional warehouse in Drogheda, Ireland. “Entrepreneurship is investing”, she says. “During the corona crisis, we had another new crane installed in Fast Terminals Ireland and we are considering purchasing young second-hand vessels. The transport of steel is faltering, but we still have pending orders to deliver. ”
“It is a shrinking sector, but even in a niche market you still need transport”, she continues. “I think that COVID-19 will look more at local production. In the long term, this could benefit short-sea services for breakbulk. I hope that 3D printing can also contribute to this. This enables us to manufacture all kinds of materials such as spare parts (ship propellers), prostheses and building materials closer to home. This can ensure that the demand for end products from the Far East, transported in containers, decreases. With the European Green Deal on the table, the focus is also growing more on sustainable transport. ”
Catrien is an idealist, but also a realist. “I live with my head in the air and my feet on the ground. I believe in a future with respect for people and the planet, but we will all have to do our part. Will we still be willing to pay extra for sustainability now that purchasing power has declined? I really hope so.”
In almost thirty years, Fast Lines Belgium has grown from a ship broker to a total logistics company. “We have grown with our customers,” she says. “Our core business remains break bulk transport, but as forwarders we are also looking at the options in container shipping.”
“There is an inevitable shift to containers,” she continues. “We listen to the customer’s demand, but a container also only has a maximum loading capacity. As a consultant, we do not recommend transporting heavy coils (large coils of steel, ed.) In a container. If the shipping company, against our advice, claims that it is possible, we transfer all responsibility. Containers can become damaged and deformed as a result. ”
The port of Antwerp should make more use of its assets as the largest steel port in Europe, Catrien believes. “Belgians are too modest,” she says. “We have extensive expertise, act quickly and handle materials with care. We can be proud of that and we can sell it to the outside world. We have to be positive and look at what can be done. I believe in breakbulk, otherwise we would not have started a new regular service. ”
“The consolidation is underway, but I hope that there will be enough players left to keep each other in balance. Today you are competitors, but tomorrow you might work together. We are a strong community both in the office and in the field. We take courses together or catch up in the Breakbulk Club. We have to keep it that way and pass it on to the next generation. ”
Basic raw materials
Fast Lines mainly ships steel, but also transports dry bulk, such as sand, to all corners of Europe. “Sand is underestimated worldwide,” she says. “It is a basic raw material and is in almost everything you see, including bricks and stained-glass windows. The Belgian municipality of Mol has very high-quality sand, which is used, for example, for the production of test tubes in the pharmaceutical industry. ”
“We are currently transporting grout on our small seagoing vessels for the foundations of a wind farm in Scotland. Many people don’t know this, but our coasters are smaller than some inland vessels. We sail to the smallest ports in Europe deep into the hinterland where large container ships cannot reach. ”
The group is anticipating Brexit with the new scheduled service from the Antwerp Wijngaardnatie to the Fast Terminals in Drogheda. “The new service came at the request of a customer for fear of the gigafiles of trucks. We always try to help our customers, and see Brexit as an opportunity. You shouldn’t be afraid to take risks. ”
“Since the financial crisis in 2008, there isn’t much that can throw me off my feet,” Catrien continues. “Hardly any cargo arrived at our terminal in Poland, but our ships kept sailing and we didn’t have to discard anyone. As an entrepreneur you must always have a buffer, and that is in stark contrast to the current reasoning, namely to generate as much turnover as possible. I don’t necessarily want to be the biggest, but I do want to be the best. ”
Catrien does business from her stomach. “During the previous crisis we went against the grain and decided not to invest in expensive newbuild ships. My husband (co-director Yvan Vlaminckx, ed.) And I are yin and yang. Yvan is the manager, passionate about numbers, and I am the entrepreneur. He keeps me grounded. We ran an office in Korea for a while, but we stopped. Not everything you do is a success, but you learn from it. ”
In 2003 Catrien followed in the footsteps of her late father Herman Scheers. He chartered ships mainly for the transport of wood products from Spain and Portugal to England. When that market began to shrink due to competitive imports, he turned his eye to Poland in the late 1980s. “That was a very risky business at the time because of the Cold War, but he saw that there was a lack of good terminals and stevedores and took his chance. My father never gave up ”, Catrien concludes.
Fast Lines Group has 140 employees and has offices in Antwerp, Poland, England and Ireland.