People Who Move the World: VBE Group
In a fiercely competitive region, the Netherlands’ VBE Group has embraced technology to offer better service, work more effectively, and grow more easily.
The Port of Rotterdam is the biggest of its kind in Europe, processing more than 467 million tons of cargo per year. It's home to VBE Group, a logistics company founded in 1974 as a family-run road transport operation. Over the years VBE has expanded to add ocean and air freight, warehousing, customs brokerage, and cargo consolidation to its range of services.
“The competition here is fierce. We have around 300 freight forwarders just here in Rotterdam and over 1,000 in Holland,” says Michael de Rouw, VBE managing director.
As margins continue to shrink across the industry, companies are losing the ability to compete on price alone. Beating the competition in “Rotown” means setting yourself apart by bringing something different to the table. De Rouw has one question for any logistics company looking to survive in Rotterdam: “What can you offer?”
The only answer, de Rouw says, is unbeatable service. Rotterdam’s logistics market is cutthroat, and midsized firms like VBE live and die by their reputation. The need to provide market-leading service is why VBE made the decision in 2015 to transform the group into a non-asset-based company—one that doesn’t own any warehouses or trucks. This would be a daunting change for any logistics provider, but in de Rouw’s eyes, it was a necessary one.
“We made that decision because in warehousing here in Rotterdam there is so much competition,” he says.
“One day, the warehouse is full. The next day, it’s half empty. So we took a risk and decided to just rent everything.”
VBE’s move toward being a non-asset-based provider is part of a larger trend. According to de Rouw, owners of expensive assets such as large warehouses or transport fleets are choosing to act as third-party vendors, renting their property out to other companies.
Meanwhile, logistics providers like VBE that have a broad remit are choosing to trim their asset sheets and instead rent resources as needed. This makes it possible to be flexible and respond to a variety of customer requirements. But for this new, highly adaptable way of doing business to succeed, the right systems must be in place. For this reason de Rouw saw a need to transform VBE’s approach to technology, as well as the structure of the business.
“We were using an old-fashioned logistics system, and attached to that,
we had a separate finance system. We even had a different system for warehousing,” he says.
“We connected them with each other, but it didn’t give us the functionality of one system. So we were looking around, we were testing a lot of systems, and then we ran into CargoWise One.”
Within six months of hearing about the platform, VBE decided to make the switch. Import manager Chris de Haas found that CargoWise One allowed his team to cut down on manual data entry, which in turn improved customer satisfaction.
“We used to send our customers an Excel overview, into which we had to enter data manually,” says De Haas.
“And we had to send them the report once a week, once a day, whatever they wanted.”
“As you can imagine, it was very time consuming, because we also had to check the reports every day to see if a vessel was still on schedule, if it was delayed, arriving early … all that is now done automatically, so once we’ve created a file, it’s updated every day with a new estimated time of arrival or departure.”
Since going live with CargoWise One, VBE has simplified its expansion process. New offices come online quickly and are able to connect with the rest of the business straight away. The company’s new Hamburg office went live with CargoWise One within a month of opening, and every office is moving towards complete digitization.
“In our UK office, in terms of workflow, they’re completely paperless,” says de Rouw.
“That’s really nice to see. It’s also really scary I have to say—freight forwarders need to have something in their hands!”
Embracing technology has already done much to transform VBE’s business, but for de Rouw, the job is never done. Every day technology advances, offering new optimizations and improvements that logistics companies like VBE are waiting to benefit from.
“If you compare CargoWise One with our previous system, I think our efficiency has increased by 30–40 percent. But we are still not there. I’m convinced we can increase it even more.”