Joachim Coens of Zeebrugge Port Authority: “We are growing to 3.4 million cars”

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While mega car carriers can be seen leaving and entering the harbour behind the desk of Joachim Coens, Managing Director of the Zeebrugge Port Authority, he is presenting equally impressive growth figures. The Belgian coastal port is already the largest car shipping port in the world, and… intends to remain in this position.

In 2015, over 2.4 million cars drove on and off the car carriers moored at the five piers of the 4 km long quay walls dedicated to handling car shipments. A record year. And yet, this record is already set to be beaten following a 21% growth in the first two months of this year.

“With 2.42 million vehicles, we are the world’s biggest car transit harbour. Never has a port attained such figures,” enthuses Joachim Coens.

How does the Managing Director of the Port of Zeebrugge Authority explain this success? How does Coens expect the Port of Zeebrugge and its 2,000 employees to grow in the future?

Car transit is showing strong growth in the Port of Zeebrugge. Why is that so?

Joachim Coens: “Indeed, we are experiencing a 20% growth in the number of cars. In addition to passenger cars, we are seeing an increase in high & heavy cargo traffic: tractors, vehicles manufactured by Case New Holland, harvesting equipment, yachts, etc.

We owe this success to several factors. We have links to the four corners of the world through both deep sea and short sea services: USA, Canada, South Africa and Asia, and Europe.

The fact that we are not an industrial port also plays a role. We are located on the coast in a fragile natural environment. Our air is clean, which car manufacturers consider to be an asset, since bodywork is sensitive to air quality.

We have also built up a major specialty with regard to car handling, including the fitting of options and light repairs. And we have plenty of space in our inner port: 300 hectares of space to store and handle new vehicles.”

I understand that the port plays more than a distribution role. You do more than drive vehicles on and off ships?

Joachim Coens: “The cars that roll off the ships here are not yet fully ready for the end consumer. They are fitted with options in our automotive centres. For example, textile seats may be replaced with leather seats. Also we repair possible damages; we wax and dewax cars, paint them and prepare them for the end market. Toyota Motor Europe has its own dedicated terminal here, for instance.

Having these jobs outsourced to us as a port allows us to anchor ourselves in the production chain. We create added value for the car manufacturers. We innovate in that area and keep broadening our service offering.

Toyota was the first Japanese car manufacturer to seek those services in the 1980s. Their presence was a sign of trust. The other manufacturers have followed suit. For instance, Tata cars also come here from India. Not because they are sold in Europe. Rather because we fit them with options here, and ship them further to overseas markets.”

Automotive is a very innovative sector. Does innovation also play a role in your growth?

Joachim Coens: “To an outsider, our innovations may be less visible than those happening in the automotive industry, yet they are definitely there.

We are moving towards becoming a smart port. Paperless today, with e-gates and smart technology capable of identifying who comes to unload or pick up which cargo when. The vehicles are processed through an electronic system. The mountains of paper documents and stamps have been replaced by electronic documents. Everything is track and trace, which saves our customers a huge amount of time.

We are constantly working on improving the efficiency of processes, and we analyse trends. What will the self-driving car mean for our port, for example? How should we address this change, even though it won’t happen tomorrow?

Then again, the advent of the electric car is something more tangible. Or the expected decline in the number of cars sold because more people will share their car, they are tired of being stuck in traffic, and are looking for alternative mobility.”

Has employment grown together with the Port of Zeebrugge?

Joachim Coens: “Our car business today employs 2,000 people. Our workforce 5 years ago was just 1,000 employees. We’ve managed to double it in a very short time. Each car on each ship has to be moved by one person. This creates quite a bit of work, together with the preparation of the vehicles for the end consumer, the fitting of options, washing, and so on.

We recently hired 200 new blue-collar employees. They are currently attending their five-month training which instructs them on car handling processes.

In total, we have a very diverse group of men and women, of varying ages working here. Technicians, workers, IT people, logistics people, shipping specialists and engineers. The recruitment of these people goes quite well actually.”

The port is pre-eminently an international business. In which areas do you score better than foreign competitors such as Bremen and Rotterdam?

Joachim Coens: “The Port of Bremen in Germany is the second car transit harbour, with 2.2 million vehicles. Rotterdam only handles 295,000 vehicles. Antwerp does much better than that: they ship 1.3 million cars a year, mainly thanks to their strong position in Africa.

Every port is involved in automotive shipping one way or another. Manufacturers centralise their logistics to satisfy their own interests. Distance is a crucial factor in their decision. We are very well positioned in the automotive region comprising northern France, southern Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom.  Among other reasons, Toyota has chosen us because we are close to their production plant in Valenciennes (F).

Unfortunately, the number of manufacturing centres has declined in our country. But thanks to our strong position this has less impact nowadays. But we would not have been able to build this strong position in the Belgian automotive landscape as it is today.”

Which assets should Belgium promote in automotive?

Joachim Coens: “I believe that Belgium cannot afford to miss the boat when it comes to electric cars. For instance, I think we should attract the European Tesla factory here.

And there are other possibilities. Mobility is key in a future where more people live in cities, in a country with congested roads, air pollution that must be reduced…

I am thinking of starting up a technology centre around mobility, involving research, partnerships and pilot projects. This could strengthen our leading role in Europe. With a strong commitment to mobility and an improved tax regime, Belgium might be able to attract new headquarters. Why do shipping companies establish themselves in London for example? They couldn’t be farther from the sea!”

In your port, the focus is also on sustainability. Is the Port of Zeebrugge aiming to become a Clean Port?

Joachim Coens: “We have strongly evolved towards this goal, and today we are already a Clean Port since we are not an industrial port. We have clean air, practice sustainable soil management, have ships running on natural gas, and we are building a wind farm in our inner port. The Toyota Motor Europe Vehicle Logistics Center Zeebrugge and Wallenius-Wilhelmsen Logistics Zeebrugge are already there. We, like them, believe it is important to have cheaper and clean electricity.

Such a Clean Port image is essential to attract more traffic from the food industry, for example. Each year, 300 million litres of orange juice are brought here in large tankers for processing into Tropicana fruit juices. The juice is packaged in Tetra Pack cartons in Zeebrugge for the UK and French markets. Importers of coffee and kiwi fruit also choose our clean air.”

What are the prospects for your company according to you?

Joachim Coens: “We can continue to grow our hub function. For example, a few thousand cars are transported from Asia to Zeebrugge. Once here there are redistributed and carried by boat to smaller ports. For instance, 100 cars are transported to Sweden, a few hundred to Portugal, etc. We combine other vehicle makes from other regions on the boat headed for Portugal. And why not; this allows us to ship a few containers that otherwise would not get into smaller ports by sea.

Indeed, this presents an interesting opportunity. Not every port can receive the ever bigger seagoing vessels with their 19,000 containers. We have much smaller car carriers that can also transport other cargo.

We enable this through the combined involvement of ship owners, terminal operators, manufacturers and ports. We, as a port, act as a platform.”

How do you see the future of the Port of Zeebrugge, and its car traffic?

Joachim Coens: “The current automotive transit growth is so fast that sometimes we are not able to keep up. But we have the location and space, experienced staff and major international ship owners such as NYK to make sure we continue to grow.

In the short term, we expect to see the number of cars increase by a third, to 3.2 million vehicles. In the longer term we can evolve to 3.4 million vehicles, or one million more than today.

Yet, it is difficult to predict the future. So many factors come into play: the Brexit, difficult relations with Russia, the Tsunami in Japan, to name but a few.

The only thing we can do is offer quality and added value. Leverage our main assets, be innovative and prepare proactively for the car of the future. We have the great advantage of being able to expand within our current lands, in terms of yet to be developed surface area, and of height.”

Which forward-looking decisions should you make today?

Joachim Coens: “A number of important decisions have already been taken. For instance, we are building four wind turbines, and we are completing the dock in our inner port which adds 600 m of quay wall to reach a total of 4 km in that area. Multi-storied garages are being built for cars, which raises our storage capacity while making sure the parked vehicles are protected from the elements.

One of our other major projects involves replacing the smaller Visart lock dating back to 1905 with a larger one. According to Flemish Minister for Mobility and Public Works Ben Weyts, it is still possible to break ground for this project during the current legislature. The work would start by 2019.

Around our port infrastructure, works are already underway, such as the improved connections to the hinterland, by rail, road and water. The new A11 is already a first step in that direction. The locks to Bruges have been planned.”