Q&A: A look at what it takes to run a global on board courier business
Nikolai Bergmann, Global Business Development Director for Chapman Freeborn OBC, explains how he came to co-manage one of the world’s leading on board courier companies and how this unique air cargo service helps to keep production lines running.
What exactly is an On Board Courier or ‘OBC’?
Put simply, an OBC service provides hand-carry transportation solutions with dedicated couriers accompanying each shipment every step of the way, from pick up to delivery direct to the recipient.
It’s different to other express models because with an OBC service the cargo isn’t being passed around or moving from warehouse to warehouse, with the added risks of being misplaced.
As a colleague of mine says, until they invent teleportation there really isn’t a quicker way of delivering a time-critical item from A to B.
So can anyone set up shop and declare themselves an OBC specialist?
Definitely not! The reality of running a global OBC cargo business is far more complex than some people may think.
Our on board couriers need to be fully insured and professionally trained, as well as possessing passports and visas for countries that are traditionally more difficult to access.
This is part of what makes hand-carry services invaluable for multinational businesses which are vulnerable to supply chain delays.
Our guys have years of experience in providing this service and an in-depth understanding of the legal and operational requirements – as well as the necessary insurance to carry high-value cargo on flights around the world.
Clients also require the ability to monitor the progress of their cargo at any time by using an online tracking system, so that’s another important element to consider.
A worrying development in recent years is the number of companies rushing to launch their own OBC products without having any of the necessary operational expertise. It’s not simply a case of buying an air ticket and quickly packing something in a suitcase.
So the OBC business isn’t just a 9-5 type job?
Again, definitely not! A successful OBC provider needs to be available 24/7/365 and can’t use call centres.
Having a global office network and access to couriers worldwide is a key factor, so having 30 offices around the world is a plus for us. The nature of the business means requests can come in at any hour and we need to be available to respond immediately.
So what initially attracted you to get involved in the OBC business?
I was always fascinated by flying since I was a little boy, growing up I learned to value the element of providing an excellent professional and proactive customer service, which are key factors for a successful hand carry operation.
I started to work in this industry almost two decades ago, as an on board courier and learned the business hands on. Since then things have changed dramatically. In the early days most of the communication was done over the phone, by fax or even telex. Nowdays it is mostly done online. With more and more processes being automated.
I established my own a specialist logistics company based in Hong Kong and for nearly a decade we provided hand-carry services in Asia and worldwide.
Three years ago we had the opportunity to become part of the Chapman Freeborn group and merge with their existing OBC division.
As a company looking to expand we had already explored the possibility of opening our own branch office in Europe or entering into a close partnership with an existing company already offering worldwide coverage.
Given the global nature of our business, it was a logical step for us to join forces with an established international company and market leader such as Chapman Freeborn OBC.
The business is managed by Carsten Volk and his team in Germany who also has many years of experience in this market. It was a natural fit to combine our expertise and we haven’t looked back since.
How important is the Asian market?
The Asian market is very important for obvious reasons. Our Hong Kong-based hub is key as it serves an inter-connecting hub between Europe, US, China and other parts of Asia – particularly for the shipment of electronics and high-tech equipment, as well as deliveries for other industries such as the automotive sector.
Where do you think the next big market might be?
We’ll go wherever the business is and where we believe we can add real value. Emerging markets like Africa and Latin America are obviously exciting prospects for the future, but the more mature markets like Europe and North America are still key to our growth plans.
What sort of clients benefit from OBC services?
Over the years our OBC teams have flown with all sorts of air cargo – and for pretty much every industry you can imagine.
Automotive, high-tech, energy, pharmaceutical, medical and fashion sectors all rely on us on a daily basis with their time-critical spare parts, samples, prototypes and documents.
Any impressive OBC operations recently?
There’s a misconception that on board couriers can only be used to transport a single item, or a small number of hand-carry packages.
For example, our team in Germany was recently contracted to perform a contract to deliver 162 automotive pieces to the US, each weighing up to 19kgs each.
Four of our on board couriers met the van delivery driver at Frankfurt Airport to receive the boxes. Unfortunately, the pieces did not arrive in air transport-ready-condition – but we were able to repack the load into airworthy courier bags to ensure the safe transit of the cargo.
While our couriers were readying the packages for the flight, the operations team was arranging all of the customs paperwork and securing a trucking company to meet the couriers at port of entry in the US.
The shipment arrived safely in the early afternoon of the same day, was retrieved by the couriers, processed through customs and loaded into the waiting truck for immediate delivery to the manufacturing facility.
By 1900 hours, the delivery was safely delivered to the manufacturing facility ready for installation on automobiles.
The success resulted in an identical request by the same client within 48 hours and we were able to keep their production lines running.
So a happy customer?
A very happy customer! When it comes to time-critical deliveries, there really is no faster way of transporting goods. It avoided a costly plant shutdown, as well as the costs of a full charter.