Catrien Scheers: “Covid-19 will never undermine my faith in breakbulk”

In March 2020 Fast Lines Group introduced a new breakbulk service on its Bel-Eire Lines monthly liner connection from Port of Antwerp to Drogheda. We had an interview with Catrien Scheers, managing director of the Antwerp-based shortsea operator.

"There's an oversupply of ships and a drop in breakbulk loads, but we're keeping to our monthly departure," says Catrien Scheers. "It's a difficult puzzle to put together, but we want to keep serving our customers."

"We make the difference by keeping our heads held high and listening to our customers," she continues. "We are frequently asked to re-examine our freight flows, but we also call our customers by phone to find out what they are doing. Corona is having a big impact on morale." 

The philosophy of Fast Lines Belgium is to be a family-style "soft sofa service." This applies to customers, suppliers and personnel as well. "We work with our own crew and have always been able to relieve them on time. I'm very proud of that," she says. "We also provide our people with everything they need to work conveniently from home. The success of this, especially for our forwarders, was an eye-opener for me."

Shortsea

In an overwhelmingly male-dominated sector Catrien is known as the "leading lady of breakbulk." Fast Lines Belgium has operated a liner service from Poland to the UK since 1992. In 2017 the Antwerp-based company also opened a bulk terminal in the Polish port of Szczecin and built an additional warehouse in the Irish port of Drogheda. "To be an entrepreneur you have to invest," says Catrien. "During the Corona crises we have installed a new crane in Fast Terminals Ireland, and we're thinking of purchasing second-hand ships that are still fairly recent. Steel transport is stalling, but we still have current orders to fulfil." 

"It's a shrinking sector, but transport is always needed even in a niche market," she continues. "I think that as a result of Covid-19 people will turn increasingly to local production. In the longer term this could work out in favour of shortsea breakbulk services. With the European Green Deal now being proposed the focus will increasingly be on sustainable transport."

Dreamer

Catrien is an idealist, but also a realist. "I go around with my head in the clouds and my feet on the ground. I believe in a future with respect for people and planet, but where we must all make our contribution. Now that our purchasing power has been reduced, will we still be prepared to pay extra for sustainability? I sincerely hope so."

In just under 30 years Fast Lines Belgium has developed from being a ship's broker to a full logistics service provider. "We have grown along with our customers," says Catrien. "Our core business is still breakbulk transport, but as forwarders we also look out for the options in container transport."

"There is a relentless shift towards containers," she continues. "We listen to the customers' demands, but a container still has a maximum load capacity. As a consultant we advise them against sending heavy coils by container. If the shipping company says it can do this, against all our advice, then we hand the responsibility over to them, because containers can get damaged and twisted."

Strong community

Port of Antwerp should take more advantage of its position as the biggest steel port in Europe, according to Catrien. "The Belgians are too modest," she declares. "We have great know-how, we act quickly and are careful with the materials. We should be proud of this and sell it to the outside world. We should be positive and focus on what we do well. I believe in breakbulk, otherwise we wouldn't have started a new liner service."

"We are seeing consolidation in the breakbulk sector, but I hope there will be enough players left over to keep each other in balance," she continues. "At the moment we are competitors, but in future we may have to collaborate. We are a strong community, both in the office and in the field. We attend the same courses and we network in the Breakbulk Club. We should preserve this culture and pass it on to the next generation."

Raw materials

Fast Lines mainly carries steel but also dry bulk such as sand to all parts of Europe. "Sand is under-appreciated around the world," says Catrien. "It's a basic raw material that goes into nearly everything you see, from bricks to glass windows. The Belgian commune of Mol has high-quality sand that is used for among other things making test tubes for the pharmaceutical industry. And the transport scene could also be transformed by 3D printers."

"We are currently carrying grout for the foundations of an offshore wind farm in Scotland, on our small seagoing ships," Catrien relates. "Many people don't realise that our coasters are smaller than some canal barges. They can reach the smallest ports in Europe, deep inland where the big container ships can't go."

Buffer

With its new liner service from the Wijngaardnatie terminal in Antwerp to the Fast Terminals in Drogheda the company is preparing for Brexit. "The new service was introduced at the request of a customer who was apprehensive about massive truck jams. We always try to help the customer, and so we see Brexit as an opportunity. You mustn't be afraid to take risks."

"Since the financial crisis of 2008 there isn't much that can knock me off balance," says Catrien. "The cargoes coming into our terminal in Poland almost dried up, but we kept our ships operating and didn't have to make anyone redundant. As an entrepreneur you always need to have a buffer, which stands in stark contrast to the current way of thinking that is aimed at making the maximum turnover. I don't want to be the biggest, but I do want to be the best."

Gut feeling

Catrien trusts her gut instinct. "During the previous crisis we went against the prevailing current and decided not to invest in expensive, newly built ships. My husband [co-manager Yvan Vlamincks: ed.] and I are yin and yang. Yvan is the manager, focused on figures, while I'm the entrepreneur. He helps me keep both feet on the ground. For a while we ran an office in Korea but we eventually closed it. Not everything you do is a success, but you learn from it."

It was in 2003 that Catrien followed in the footsteps of her father Herman Scheers, who chartered ships mainly for carrying wood products from Spain and Portugal to the UK. When that market started to shrink due to competing imports he turned his attention towards Poland in the late 1980s. "At that time this was a risky undertaking due to the Cold War, but he saw that there was a lack of good terminals and stevedores and so he grabbed the opportunity. My father was never someone to sit idly by," she recalls. 

Fast Lines Groep now employs 140 people, with branches in Antwerp, Poland, the UK and Ireland. 

Julie Desmet

These are the other articles in the dossier ‘Breakbulk’:
​Breakbulk revival in Antwerp: preface to all the stories
Zimmer Staal operating at full capacity at terminal operator Euroports
Rollit Cargo anticipates growth in wind turbine market
Victrol carries bridges, machines and parts for offshore wind farms
Corona crisis confirms need for digital breakbulk platform
Biggest lifting job in Port of Antwerp in many years by Mammoet
Muriel Marquet (HSL): “Breakbulk is our core business”
Rail&Sea: "Big increase in combined breakbulk and container"
CJ-ICM Logistics: “We do the craziest things”
Wallenius Wilhelmsen Solutions invests in resources for breakbulk
Oldest port company Stukwerkers sees the sector changing rapidly
Van der Vlist Belgium expands its European hub at Zeebrugge
Jacques Vandermeiren: “Antwerp and breakbulk, a hole-in-one”