ECS Group: ‘More room’ for air cargo

Payload Asia talks to Adrien Thominet, as he shares the latest updates for APAC and other relevant insights on the air cargo supply chain.

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CMA CGM just announced two new air cargo routes to the United States, connecting Liege (LGG) to New York (JFL) and Atlanta (ATL). The first flight is set to start on 28 March, departing LGG at 700 bound for JFK, using one of its newly purchased A330-200Fs. 

2020 was quite an unprecedented year, by all means. Factor in a capacity crunch, port congestion and now we have one of the world’s largest shipping company betting on air cargo. And why not?

One of the reasons behind CMA CGM’s seemingly seamless transition to air cargo is its partnership with ECS Group, one of the world’s most successful cargo agents. The GSSA company has been around since 1998 and now has more than 1,200 employees across 167 offices, operating in 50 countries. It logged 1.1 million tonnes last year.

Payload Asia got a chance to interview Adrien Thominet, chief executive of ECS Group, in time for CMA CGM’s launch of two US cargo routes, as he gives his take on the year that was, some insights into e-commerce and digitalisation, ongoing developments in Asia Pacific as well as ‘the secret’ to landing big names in the GSSA business. Enjoy the read!

Can you give us a brief background of ECS Group? Which markets are you operating in for Asia Pacific and for which carriers?

ECS Group is a world leader among GSSAs. Founded in 1998, the group operates in 50 countries, with more than 1200 employees across our 167 offices. In 2020, over 1,100,000 tonnes of cargo were sold and transported on behalf of our some 140 airline clients, especially thanks to a large number of charter flights. Our activity is highly diverse and is based on the same business structure as that of our airline clients. This means we can manage all of their cargo activities on their behalf, with an à la carte, custom-tailored offering (covering all or part of their activities) as well as additional outsourcing solutions. As a result, we offer more than the traditional services of a GSSA.

The first office we opened in Asia, in 2002, belonged to our subsidiary, Globe Air Cargo. Since then, our presence in the Asia Pacific region has grown massively, with 13 markets covered in Asia: Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the UAE. The region is now home to 22 ECS Group subsidiaries, employing 240 employees in 28 offices. In Oceania, we have been present in Australia and New Zealand since 2019 via our subsidiary Wexco, with five offices and 18 employees.

In total, we represent around 50 airlines in the Asia Pacific region.

Can you describe what 2020 was like for ECS Group? What were the new markets and businesses you were able to open? How did the company evolve in terms of operations throughout the pandemic?

2020 was a year full of changes, both to our way of working and to the outsourcing solutions and services we have developed for our clients. These changes were necessary to address new needs that arose due to the pandemic. The need to optimize costs and revenue in response to the crisis became even more pressing and resulted in an increased need for tailor-made and exhaustive services. This was already how we worked, with bespoke services that allowed our clients to delegate all or part of their cargo activities to us. In response, we bolstered the tailor-made side of our solutions and supplemented our offering with new outsourcing solutions: data capture, for example, or postal and e-commerce flows via our dedicated entity GSA Mail Solutions.

We were able to respond very quickly to these changes thanks to a flexible structure and our ability to adapt to any type of situation. The strength of our network was also a major asset and our teams created new business opportunities for our clients, ensuring we could offer them maximum support. For example, we were able to create new routes or put interlines solutions in place in record time, and we also set up charter operations and preighter operations from the beginning of the crisis.

Finally, our ability to manage the entire ops side thanks to our TCE entity (quality, safety and security, customs, customer service, RFS, etc.) as well as all commercial and administrative aspects, coupled with our expertise on specific products, meant that our teams offered crucial support to our clients at every stage of the crisis.

In your most recent contract, what were some of the valuable takeaways from CMA CGM’s air cargo endeavour? Was your ongoing relationship with Qatar critical to CMA CGM getting their first four freighters?

Firstly, it is an honour and a sign of real recognition of our expertise for ECS Group to have been chosen as the exclusive GSA to market the CMA CGM Group’s cargo capacity worldwide. It shows that we are recognized within the industry and beyond as a reliable partner – the ideal partner – for projects of this scale. The world’s leading sea transport and logistics player’s decision to launch its air freight division (CMA CGM AIR CARGO) in February 2021 also speaks to the appeal of our industry and to the many new business opportunities that exist in the sector. By continuing its strategic development in logistics and by strengthening all of the solutions offered to its clients, the CMA CGM Group now offers forwarders additional capacity in a highly dynamic segment. We market capacity on flights between Europe and the United States: LGG-ORD, six flights per week with the first flight operated on 13 March, and, from 28 March, LGG-JFK-ATL, three times per week. This is excellent news for freight forwarders because capacity remains limited as many passenger aircraft continue to be grounded (each A330-200F has a capacity of 60 tonnes).

Qatar is one of our biggest clients but we were not involved in CMA CGM’s purchase of four freighters. However, I don’t doubt that we will be able to put interlines and cooperation solutions in place with them – and with other airlines – that will serve the interests of all parties and help to increase sales.

What’s the secret to landing business with big names such as the likes of Qatar and CMA CGM, and how do you make such partnerships profitable?

Our secret is that our services are fully in line with the expectations and needs of major airlines. We offer premium-quality, highly diverse services and our wide-ranging expertise means we are able to adapt to all needs and requirements. This is in addition to the modular nature of our services, which allows airlines to delegate all or part of their cargo activities to us based on their requirements. The strength of our sales teams is another highly appealing factor, as thanks to our global coverage, we can offer our clients new business opportunities, including via the interlines system.

We also offer an extremely high level of digitalization with sophisticated tools and systems, most of which were developed in-house. This means we offer our clients premium services and features that are at the cutting edge of technology, including, for example, our Business Intelligence tool, which allows us to analyse markets and offer appropriate pricing and commercial planning strategies. And as a result, our recommendations on the strategies to adopt, which stem from our industry expertise and tech skills, are fully in line with airlines’ needs.

Finally, all of the operations we’ve put in place for our clients (1,100,000 tonnes transported in 2020) are powerful evidence of the performance we can achieve.

You may have mentioned booking platforms like WebCargo and can put GSSA businesses at risk. Now other players like CargoAi have entered the fray. Do you think that there’s more room for everyone? What are your thoughts on this?

Yes, I think there is room for all of these platforms, and perhaps even more in the future. This is where the trend is leading: demand for digital solutions is increasing along with demand for more streamlined processes. So, we don’t see these platforms as a risk but as a normal development of both the sector and the GSA business. Our industry has long lagged behind when it comes to digitalization, and it’s starting to catch up now – the crisis helped to bring that about, with a certain awareness that it was time to stop talking about digitalization and start making it a reality. These platforms are an excellent resource for our work as GSAs, for example by making our clients’ offerings even more visible and simplifying the sales process. But we also know that machines cannot replace human expertise in certain fields, and in particular on the ops side, human analysis remains crucial.

At ECS Group, we warmly welcome new arrivals such as CargoAi, which stands out from the other platforms by offering new and innovative features – in fact, from our viewpoint, these platforms shouldn’t limit themselves only to e-booking but should go further.

As cargo agents for airlines, what would be the perks of the job and what would be your advice to those who want to build a career in the industry?

The work of a GSA/GSSA is incredibly rich and diverse – this is true in terms of its roles, its everyday work, its human relationships, and also in terms of the development opportunities it offers. Every day is different – there’s no such thing as a typical day, and the range of skills we offer is extremely broad. In short, if you want to work in a dynamic industry and if you’re keen to develop new skills throughout your career, then working at a GSA is for you. And I truly believe that we’re at a turning point in our industry. Air cargo has shown huge resilience in the face of the crisis and is currently undergoing real change – a renewal. This means that our industry offers fantastic career opportunities. My advice is to be bold, be inventive, champion your ideas – especially if they’re innovative – and work hard. That’s the key to excellence. Air cargo has a lot to offer to people who can seize and create opportunities.

Where do you see air cargo moving forward? And how is ECS planning to navigate the uncertainties of the current air freight market?

I know the value of the people who work in our industry and I’m convinced that air cargo will come back stronger. As I said before, the industry is undergoing a renewal and is making up for lost time in a range of fields, such as digital and sustainability, for example. There’s a sense of real momentum and a strong desire from certain stakeholders to innovate and move working methods forward. That’s also the case at ECS Group, and that’s why we accelerated our digital transformation in 2020, ensuring we were perfectly prepared to address new needs from our clients in this area. It’s also why we extended our service offering and innovated to respond to our clients’ urgent needs to optimize costs and revenue, in particular via new outsourcing solutions. And that’s what we are continuing to do – create services and solutions to support the airlines we represent and help them to get back to business post-Covid.

This is coupled with the rise of e-commerce, which will play an even more important role than before. The phenomenon was already experiencing strong growth before Covid, and it has since skyrocketed with changes in consumer habits as a result of the pandemic. It’s an important factor to take into account in our activities, especially when it comes to the recovery. Last December, we also launched GSA Mail Solutions, an entity dedicated to postal and e-commerce flows. It’s a concrete response to support our clients as postal flows increase as a result of the growth in e-commerce and online B2C and C2C platforms. Through this service, we offer new yield opportunities for airlines and multiple transport solutions for postal operators.

We’ve shown adaptability and forward thinking at every level, and that’s the key to remaining effective despite uncertainty.

Finally, we will continue to focus our development strategy on Asia, a region in which we have already invested heavily and where we have grown strongly in recent years. Two new subsidiaries have recently joined the group (AVS GSA Vietnam and Globe Air Cargo Cambodia) and we have also opened an Asia Pacific Regional Office in Singapore as well as new offices in Malaysia and Indonesia. This allows us to create new synergies and expand our presence in this strategic region.

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