Oldest port company Stukwerkers sees the sector changing rapidly

Stukwerkers is the oldest port company in Belgium and the largest breakbulk operator in the port of Ghent. But it is also a company that looks further than its centuries-old core business of loading and unloading ships.

It is difficult to ignore the long history behind Stukwerkers, as exemplified in the company's headquarters on Port Arthur boulevard in Ghent where bronze statues, old flags and historic books recall the company's illustrious past.  

"We are officially the oldest port company still operating in Belgium," says general manager Pascal Eggermont proudly. The first mention of the company as "Stucwerkers" is to be found in the municipal finance archives dating back to 1336. The company is thought to have been loading freight two years after that, just a bow-shot away from the city centre of Ghent.  

Florins

"Our history is still of enormous importance to the company. Today we are still doing more or less the same as we did 700 years ago," says Eggermont. "Back then, breakbulk arrived by ship and had to be distributed over a wider area. Typical products included tobacco, sugar and rice. We still have extensive archives where we can trace day by day what was being handled and how much it was worth. We only have to convert from florins to euros."

Stukwerkers owns a good 5 km of quays in the port of Ghent, with terminals in the Great dock, Siffer dock, Mercator dock and Kluizen dock. It has 600,000 m² of storage space, including 505,000 m² actually on the quays and another 95,000 m² of covered warehouses. Seagoing ships are served in all terminals, all of them with their own rail connections.  

Steel

"The real typical breakbulk still makes up about 60% of the freight tonnage that we handle annually. A good proportion of this is steel. For example, we take delivery of steel coils for the car industry. A single coil makes up a whole truckload. We have a warehouse specially for handling and storing steel products with a capacity of 45,000 tonnes, where the temperature and humidity are constantly controlled so as to maintain the quality of the products. Not only trucks but also trains can come right inside to be loaded by a travelling overhead crane."

"Breakbulk handling has of course changed a great deal over the centuries, not least in the past 10 years. There has been a clear shift from imports and exports in conventional breakbulk carriers towards container transport. This applies for example to steel or forest products such as wood and paper which increasingly arrive in containers. Switches such as this demand constant investment. Specialised lift trucks are needed to take the paper rolls out of the containers. Our plan is to keep investing in such equipment. It's a matter of investing or falling behind. But nowadays we focus on much more than breakbulk alone."

Project cargo

All handling operations are carried out with the company's own fleet of equipment that is constantly up to date, including forklifts with capacities of up to 45 tonnes and cranes up to 144 tonnes. Stukwerkers took delivery of the latest two of three mobile port cranes with a capacity of 140 tonnes in June 2020. At a maximum outreach of 54 metres these can lift up to 40 tonnes. The cranes themselves weigh 520 tonnes each. "These cranes can operate on all our quays, handling the many different types of cargo that we have to deal with. They are also perfectly roadworthy: they can drive on public roads, which is something to see." 

In addition to conventional breakbulk the company also handles project cargo, ranging from outsize items such as wind turbine blades or super heavy items such as construction parts. 

Competition

Just as in many other sectors, competition in the breakbulk market is fierce. "But that doesn't deter us. When shipping breakbulk, it is vital to keep the inward and onward transport as efficient as possible, and we are ideally located for this. We have the E34 motorway and also the interchange between the E17 and E40 just a few kilometres away. From Ghent we can be in northern France by truck in just one hour, which makes it possible to carry several consignments in one day. We also have excellent rail and inland waterway connections. So competition from other ports is not really a factor."

"We have long since ceased to be conventional stevedores. With the acquisition of De Baerdemaker NV we now have our own agency and are also able to offer full customs services. And with the setting up of I-Motion Shipping we have our own shipping company which now offers several regular departures per week to Hull in the UK."

Latest step

"Setting up the shipping line is the latest step in our mission to coordinate truck transport of containers not only with water transport (by sea and inland waterway) but also with rail transport. For example we handle trains every day with containers to and from Italy, also trains on a regular basis to and from China, and so on."

"So despite the fact that Stukwerkers has been operating for nearly 700 years, the group is very much up to date with a wide range of logistics services," concludes Eggermont. 

Erik De Troyer

These are the other articles in the dossier ‘Breakbulk’:
Breakbulk revival in Antwerp: preface to all the stories
Catrien Scheers: “Covid-19 will never undermine my faith in breakbulk”
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
Van der Vlist Belgium expands its European hub at Zeebrugge
Jacques Vandermeiren: “Antwerp and breakbulk, a hole-in-one”