Van der Vlist Belgium expands its European hub at Zeebrugge

The Dutch group Van der Vlist specialising in special and heavy transport has had a European distribution centre in Zeebrugge since 2004. Last year this facility handled a record number of more than 7,000 agricultural and excavation machines.

Since 1930 the Dutch family firm of Van der Vlist has grown into a European player in special and heavy transport. The company's 85 years of logistical experience is put into practice by a workforce of nearly 700 employees. The headquarters in Groot Ammers – half-way between Rotterdam and Utrecht on the banks of the Lek – manages branches in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, the UK, Poland and Russia. 

Van de Vlist regularly makes the news in Belgium. For example, with the split multimodal transport of the Doosan DX800LC-7, the first Korean excavator to arrive on the European market. After its arrival in Zeebrugge the 49-tonne main unit of the machine was sent by shortsea to its final destination in Finland, while the counterweight and excavating arm travelled on to Scandinavia by road. In June a Caterpillar excavator weighing 72 tonnes was carried by low lower from the Netherlands to Antwerp for onward shipment. And in July work started on transport of 43 coaches from Spain for the Brussels metro. For this transport by road the company's in-house engineering office designed unique trailers.

From small to big

In addition to such project business, the main activity in Belgium is more permanent in character. In 2004 Van der Vlist set up a distribution centre for agricultural machines and excavators in the Transport Zone in Zeebrugge. "In 2005, our first full year, we handled 600 machines. Last year we handled a record number of more than 7,000," says managing director Pascal Pannier. "In that space of 15 years we have expanded to 40,000 m² owned by ourselves plus 10,000 m² leased."

Van der Vlist Belgium specialises in handling rolling stock for agriculture and the construction industry. "Currently we work for two main customers: the French group Manitou – with among others their dependent brand Gehl – and Caterpillar whose machines come from plants in China, Japan, the USA, the USA and Austria. These range from compact excavators to huge machines weighing 20 to 40 tonnes. The customers send them to us 'semi-finished' while we take care of the whole process of storage, transport, inspection (PDI), final assembly, modification, shipping and customs clearance for the European market. The main destinations are Germany, Italy, France and the UK."

Concession for second site

In the record year of 2019 the team in Zeebrugge expanded from 40 to more than 70 people, most of them permanently employed but supplemented by temporary workers at peak periods. "We have mainly hired mechanics, because our technical know-how is what makes the difference. We distinguish ourselves by our advanced position in final assembly and by finishing work with customised options. In many cases we deliver uniquely personalised machines."

Around the turn of the year 2020 Van der Vlist experienced slight further growth, and in 2021 considerable growth is expected in the volumes for existing and new customers. "We therefore started looking for an additional location in Zeebrugge. After detailed preparations we obtained a 30,000 m² concession from the Port Authority, in the Maritime Logistic Zone. We mainly plan to handle the high & heavy machines there. There in the inner port we will be near neighbours of the large ro/ro operators Wallenius Wilhelmsen and International Car Operator (ICO). That will save us many kilometres of transport, which is good both for the environment and for operational efficiency."

Not scared of Brexit

Before the corona pandemic tanked the economy the plan was to open the new site in late 2020, but now the schedule is up in the air.

What the coronavirus has not changed, however, is the location of Zeebrugge. "For a distribution hub such as ourselves it offers an ideal combination of deepsea and shortsea. This is the largest car port in the world, with liner services to the Far East and the USA and other services to all parts of Europe. We in turn represent an additional advantage for the port of Zeebrugge, helping to attract potential new customers in the high & heavy segment."

In the meantime Pannier is looking with confidence towards Brexit in 2021. "We're not scared of the extra paperwork. We are used to working with non-EU countries, so it's nothing new for us. On the other hand we are still waiting for a trade agreement to regulate the flow of trade between the UK and the EU. The port community has already done everything possible to make itself Brexit-proof, for example by setting up the RX/SeaPort digital platform to handle customs formalities among other things. My only fear is that an economic downturn will make Britain poorer and thus less eager to invest in the kind of projects that require our machines."

Roel Jacobus

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