Heavylift / Breakbulk
«Where is the next challenge?»
The Hamburg-based Coli group is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Even in the present difficult market conditions it is showing no signs of a mid-life crisis though. On the contrary, as CEO Herbert Lösing explained to ITJ deputy editor-in-chief Antje Veregge, the company is full of vigour and making efforts to broaden its international base.
The German firm Coli Schiffahrt & Transport is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The company was founded in 1974, in response to the first oil crisis. In the past few years the shipping industry has again had to contend with difficult conditions. Can you benefit from your experience in the first few years?
It is true that the first oil shock and the associated cargo boom were the triggering factors for the founding of our undertaking at that time. However, it must be borne in mind that the present decline was also preceded by a number of fat years between 2003 and 2009. 2009 itself was still a good year for project shipping, overall, with a large number of orders. It was even a record year for us, with no sign of a downturn in the segment yet.
Nonetheless, we have learned something from the 1970s. Above all we have learned that we have to keep a very close eye on costs, and simultaneously maintain good contacts with our customers. That is the most important thing.
Finally, it is also a fact that the entire market is operating in a difficult environment. We must therefore come forward and offer our services. Instead of complaining, we should ask: Where is the next challenge?
What is your strategy?
In our enterprise there are no managers who only manage; the boss works as a part of the team. We are a small, compact organisation. We employ 25 people in Hamburg and 60 all across the globe. Overall, we trim our sails to the prevailing winds. If we have our costs under control, then we will surely be able to do good business even in this market.
We are now in the fifth year of the economic doldrums, but in 2014 we already felt some improvements. 2013 was the hardest year, but even then we were able to turn a profit. So we have good reason to be optimistic. Freight rates, and therefore commissions, are naturally a good deal lower. But we have been quite content with the last few years. The crisis just means that we have to work harder; but we have not lost our belief in the future.
You started as a liner agency for services in the Mediterranean. How are you positioned today?
In Europe we have long been established in Hamburg, Bremen, Antwerp and Rotterdam. In addition, we opened an office in Esbjerg (Denmark) in August. We also made a new start in Singapore in 2013, and opened an office in Seoul the same year. Our branch in Tokyo was already established in the 1980s. And we are also planning a new outlet in China.
But one thing is the same everywhere: Even if we have the best of ideas, we need the right people to put them into effect – and they are not always easy to find. Our philosophy is this: We have to seize the opportunities when they arise.
That is what you did in the crisis year 2013. The new start in Singapore and Seoul cannot have been easy.
No, but both offices made a profit in the first year. Only a small one, but at least it was a profit. And if that is possible in times like those, we have a chance of earning a decent return in better years. The main thing is to earn money.
What plans do you have in China?
We are working for a office of our own in Shanghai or Hong Kong. In this connection we can benefit from our very good cooperation with Wu Shipping & Trading, which is based here in Hamburg. We have collaborated very closely with Wu in the Chinese market for more than 15 years, and are now looking for a partner who operates directly from China.
Do you have plans to become active in other locations beside these?
We should like to expand our business in the USA. Last year we moved our US desk from Hamburg to Bremen, because the latter is the traditional centre for the transatlantic business. We are also looking for a new talent to act for us on the spot in our existing location in Houston. In the meantime we are handling those business activities with brokers and direct contacts from here in Europe.
The Coli group is already well established in Tokyo, I believe.
We traditionally have a very strong position in Japan and have been able to build up a close relationship based on mutual trust with many of our customers there over the years – notably with our friends in NYK Bulk & Projects Carriers Ltd. Our activities in Japan, and Asia in general, are our strongest field of business. For that reason we are also augmenting our operations there. In Europe, on the other hand, business is in decline. We therefore want to strengthen our links with Asia, for the benefit of the entire group.
Is Europe losing its importance?
Europe also has a future, but not so much in production as in trade and in know-how. There are now very many European companies operating in Asia. Wherever we go, we meet somebody we know. That is one of our strengths, for connections are very important there. Neither should you forget the size of the market. Two thirds of humanity live in this part of the world. So we must focus our attention more intensely on the Asian market.
The opening of your new branch office in Istanbul fits into this picture. How do you benefit from being present on the spot there?
80 million people live in Turkey. From that country we can additionally serve the region surrounding the Black Sea and countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States. This is an extremely exciting area. Turkey is experiencing a business boom, both as a separate market as well as as a transit country, since it does a great deal of business with its neighbouring countries. Business with Russia has suffered a setback recently, of course, but will come back again. That is why we see the greatest business potential there, apart from the promise in Asia. So we are optimistic for our new bureau there, which we have opened together with a very good partner.
What is on your agenda for next year?
We intend to further expand our shipping business. Our two carriers, CPC in Hamburg and ABB in Singapore, currently operate a joint service between Asia and Europe, deploying as many as eight vessels in the trade. We are now planning to add four units to the route. They are mainly standard E and F types, with a capacity of 12,300 t and cranes designed to lift 240 to 360 t. We may even enter the 15,000 to 17,000 t class, as we already did recently and quite successfully with the Damgracht. The carriers will not play their trades with extra-heavy cargo, however. In our view there is already too much tonnage in the sector. Furthermore, in this segment we also serve as agents for Jumbo Shipping, with whom our cooperation functions very well.
And what is the Coli group’s outlook for the next 40 years?
A generational change is now ahead of us. I should like to continue working in future, but we are fortunate enough to have many good youngsters on our payroll. They can lead the company into the next generation. We have already groomed a number of them to take substantial responsibilities. In future we shall build up these positions.
The most important thing for us is that Coli Schiffahrt & Transport should continue into the next generation, and that everyone should still have a good job. To be successful for 40 years is one thing, but to lead the business into the next generation is just as important.