Telex to app – in just 30 years
In Basel the Abacus Shipping agency and Ralf Brink have lived through all industry changes since 1992.
Market consolidation in ocean shipping is a fact. Nevertheless, players such as independent shipping agencies continue to find their niches – and their unique sales propositions. Since 1 April Abacus Shipping’s Ralf Brink can look back on 30 years of experience as a medium-sized entrepreneur in the maritime industry. He pointed out the major decade-long trends in a recent conversation.
The key question of an anniversary is always the same one – how was it possible to stay in business for so long? Ralf Brink, the managing director as well as the owner of Abacus Shipping, has a clear answer on his company’s 30th birthday.
“Our customers, our partners – and a large portion of luck – are the basis for our success. And yes, the hard work of the Abacus team comes on top of all that.”
Brink is one of those who learned the business from scratch in the 1980s, working at Danzas and at Airnautic, amongst other companies, as well as for shippers in the import and export business.
On 1 April 1992 he stepped boldly out into independence through an MBO. He managed to ensure the seamless continuation of business activities – despite the company physically moving to a new location and restructuring its entire IT.
Market shakeout and motivation
“Market developments as well as the overall consolidation in ocean shipping have changed things a lot, of course,” Brink reports, adding that “Abacus has represented 16 shipping lines in the course of its history. Today we still represent two container carriers and four breakbulk carriers.”
It should be added that only Fednav and Yang Ming remain today of those shipping lines that were represented in the market in the launch year of 1992. Brink has witnessed the dwindling of lines first-hand. “Many shipping lines have been bought or taken over. Others – including Polish Ocean Lines, Transroll Brazil or Maruba Argentina – have managed to compete.”
What motivates Brink to do his job? “The best thing about my work was and is the personal contact with international business partners abroad or in Basel. This gives you a completely different approach to their country,” he explains.
The path to digitalisation
How has day-to-day work changed? Brink has in mind above all the changes taking place in office technology. “In 1992, fax and telephone connections were still so bad that in some cases, depending on the region, using the telex machine was actually more convenient.”
What a blast from the past. Today, in contrast, many processes are automated in Abacus and data transmission works via EDIs, whether it’s orders, depot stocks, freight lists for shipowners or the like.
As a result, efficiency has increased. The change that has occurred is expressed in clear corporate figures over the past 30 years, as Brink makes clear. “Compared to 1992, we now have half the employees, but in terms of teu, 500% more in volume to look after – but unfortunately not in terms of margins.” Inward digitalisation is also steadily progressing, in the allocation of processes and procedures, amongst other things.
However, the secret of a firm’s success can’t be explained by technological changes alone. The decisive factor, especially for an SME, are relationships with customers. “The personal touch when serving customers should actually be the norm,” says Brink, “ but today it’s almost become a ‘unique selling proposition’.”
In concrete terms, it’s not only about being there for all clients, from an SME or not, but also about being accessible. For everyday business Brink has a motto for his employees – fair, creative, efficient.
The principle of client-orientation has not changed in 30 years at Abacus Shipping. As in many conversations with independent entrepreneurs, it’s nice not to hear Brink talk about selling or quitting.
Ad multos annos, Abacus!