Port Pro of the month

Port pro of the month: Jacques Vandermeiren (B)

31 October 2018

Our Port Pro of the Month for November is Mr. Jacques Vandermeiren, CEO of the Port of Antwerp. In this interview, we will talk about his vision for the Port of Antwerp for the next decades, Brexit, the role of ports in the climate change debate and many more interesting topics.

You have been leading the Port of Antwerp since 1 January 2017. Can you briefly present the Port of Antwerp? What are its main characteristics and challenges?

Antwerp is a major international port, the second largest in Europe and the 15th largest container port in the world, which makes it a major lifeline for the Belgian economy. More than 300 line services to over 800 destinations ensure its global connectivity. The Port of Antwerp annually handles around 224 million tonnes of international maritime freight and is home to Europe's largest integrated chemical cluster. The port accounts, directly and indirectly, for a total of around 143,000 jobs and more than €20 billion added value. 

The continuous growth of our port also creates challenges. The port is increasingly confronted with its physical boundaries, but there are still possibilities for growth. Growth can be achieved by optimal use of our existing capacity and infrastructure in a sustainable manner and by future expansion, for instance by providing additional container capacity (ECA). Beyond our port borders we’re developing intensive collaboration with other ports, for instance with the port of Zeebrugge (MBZ).

Our second challenge is the issue of mobility. The port must, at all times, remain accessible for goods and people alike. Only a far-reaching modal shift will offer a sustainable solution. To improve mobility in and around the port, we aim to create a modal shift that brings the share of truck transport down from 55% to 43% by the year 2030. To help achieve this we want to double the share of rail transport to 15% and raise the barge share from 38% to 42%. In 2017 we’ve acquired the pipeline company NMP (Nationale Maatschappij der Pijpleidingen), owner and operator of approximately 740 km of pipelines serving the petrochemical industry in Belgium. Through this acquisition we are able to offer the (petro)chemical cluster an open access towards the most environment-friendly, energy-efficient and safe means of transport. This alternative mode will increase the attractiveness of our port and will reduce cargo traffic on our roads.

What is your vision for the Port of Antwerp for the next decades?

We all know that new technologies create new challenges as well as new opportunities. It will eventually shape – or even better ‘is shaping’ – our new reality and future. We understand the strategic imperative to adapt and innovate to stay ahead. The port of tomorrow will differ fundamentally from today’s. Big data and corresponding dataflows, blockchain technology and ‘internet of things’ are some examples of new technologies that are gradually introduced on the port platform and will define the future course of the Antwerp port as a Smart port. In that respect we consider innovation and digitisation as one of our strategic priorities over the coming years.

As port authority, we have to evolve in the role we assume, in order to be ready for ‘Change’. Instead of our historic role as passive landlord, we will become more and more an active facilitator and community builder. Hence the acquirement of NMP and our active participation in Nxtport. This digital platform aims to streamline the supply chain in and around the port by exchanging data. In addition to data exchange, the goal is to create an efficient ecosystem of partners, building targeted supply chain solutions, across all modes of transport and across all supply chain processes. This innovative platform will increase the efficiency of our port and processes. It is our mission and vision to build a sustainable future for our customers, suppliers, employees and all other stakeholders. Besides ‘Sustainable growth’ and ‘Mobility’, our other strategic priorities ‘Transition’, ‘Operation excellence’ and ‘Safety & Security’ will determine our course in the next years.

Also this year, the Port of Antwerp is on track to have a record year with regards to container traffic growth. What are the main drivers for this growth? Do you expect the growth in container traffic to last in the coming years? Does the Port have a strategy to cope with possible growing pains (e.g. capacity, congestion, etc.)?

We are indeed on track for a sixth record year in a row. The container volumes continue to rise.  Furthermore, the wave of investments in 2018 with the decision of major players in the chemical industry to opt for Antwerp confirms and reaffirms our strong appeal as the largest chemical cluster in Europe. The significance of this wave of investments, to the tune of some €2 billion, cannot be stressed enough. They will make an essential contribution to the sustainable future of our port and to the continuity of our role as the biggest economic driving force of our country. The growth figures also confirm the previous forecasts that we will soon reach our maximum container capacity. We will therefore continue to emphasise the importance of having additional and commercially useful container capacity before the locks.

Together with the port community and our governmental partners we have launched several initiatives to mitigate congestion as a consequence of our sustainable growth. ‘Ensuring an accessible port’ is one of our strategic priorities that we will focus on in the coming years.

At the same time, protectionist policies and geopolitical tensions threaten to slow down global trade growth. Is the Port of Antwerp monitoring these developments? Do you think the Port of Antwerp will be affected by this?

Ports can be considered as reliable barometers of the economic health of global trade. We live by the grace of it. The dynamic nature of the global economy continuously creates new challenges and an ever increasing pace of change. We closely monitor these developments. We believe that the answer to these challenges is our ongoing ability to connect with our relevant stakeholders, to collaborate and to continuously innovate in order to be as prepared as possible.

As a consequence of the Brexit, the UK and the EU will have to negotiate a new trade relationship. What are the main priorities for the Port of Antwerp in view of the negotiations on that new trade relationship?

The outcome of the Brexit is currently still uncertain. But we need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, which is a no-deal. The most desirable situation for us post-Brexit would be that trading conditions remain as close as possible to what they are now. Any obstacle to the free movement of goods, whether tariff or non-tariff, would in our opinion be prejudicial to trade relations between our port and the British market.

Considering the current uncertain situation, our priority is to concentrate on maintaining and even expanding our market position within the United Kingdom, by emphasising our added value. With an annual freight volume of around 15 million tonnes the UK is the port of Antwerp is largest maritime trading partner after the USA and Russia. Antwerp is also ideally situated as an investment location close to the European centers of decision-making, and as the gateway to Europe from where the continent can be served quickly and efficiently, given that 50% of UK production is bound for continental Europe. Therefore we are taking various initiatives including the appointment of a new representative for the UK and Ireland, who acts as our eyes and ears, keeping us in touch with the economic situation and the impact of Brexit on Antwerp's business, and placing Antwerp even more strongly on the map for the UK and Ireland, and attracting new sources of cargo and investment. Furthermore, a Brexit taskforce has been set up with representatives of the port community, Customs & Excise and the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain.

The Port of Antwerp accommodates a large industry cluster. How important is this for the port? Can you describe how it contributes to the success of the port?

The port is home to Europe's largest integrated chemical and petrochemical cluster. Many of the market leaders have built their production facilities here. And our port continues to exert a great power of attraction for potential investors. Antwerp has recently been deluged by a wave of investments, with projects large and small (Oil Tanking AGT, Borealis, Ineos, Nippon Shokubai, Covestro, and many more). As a result the Port of Antwerp is able to reinforce and indeed expand its role as the largest chemical cluster in Europe. Being able to facilitate this growth by creating necessary preconditions, such as pipelines, only strengthens Antwerp’s competitive position.

The Port of Antwerp is a core port on the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T), and is part of Rhine-Alpine, North Sea-Mediterranean and North Sea-Baltic Corridors. How has being part of the TEN-T network been of benefit to the port?

High quality transport infrastructure is essential to maintain the European Union's competitiveness and wealth. The TEN-T network is of great importance for the further development of Europe’s transport network. It improves connections between different modes of transport and contribute to the EU's climate change objectives.  

Reducing CO2-emissions is crucial in the fight against climate change. How do you think your port can contribute to reduce CO2-emissions?

The transition to a circular low-carbon economy is a challenge and will demand efforts from all. We aim to introduce innovative concepts into the port platform. For instance, we’ll setup a cross-industry CO2 reduction project along with our stakeholders while providing support mechanisms such as a transition fund and an entry-level testbed for circular demonstration projects. Simultaneously we practice what we preach and try to be an exemplary sustainable actor. We are improving the ecological footprint of our tug fleet, equipping port infrastructure with onshore power supplies and provide LNG bunkering facilities.

Corporate social responsibility is and will continue to be part of our DNA. Antwerp Port Authority also participates in the World Ports Climate Action Program, in which 7 large port authorities join forces on a number of projects that address the issue of global warming.

In ESPO’s new Environmental Report 2018, the relationship between the port and the local community features as the fourth most important environmental challenge. Is the Port of Antwerp taking initiatives to ensure a good port-city relationship?

As port authority, we strive for societal buy-in by actively reaching out to society. We organise public events where we enter into dialogue and listen to people living nearby the port area. We are present in events organised by partner organisations (city of Antwerp, surrounding municipalities) and actively cooperate with other regions and (inter)regional projects (Grenspark Groot-Saeftinghe, Nationaal Park Oosterschelde, …).   

We also support a large number of activities and social objectives. Examples include the sponsoring of sports clubs and events in the area and the financial support of social organisations such as the Antwerp University Hospital foundation, (youth) unemployment projects (Rupel, Belgica), local community festivals (Part of Antwerp, Water-Rant, Drakenbootfestival), the Antwerp Book Fair, …

On 7 November, the 2018 ESPO Award on Societal Integration will be handed out during the official Award Ceremony to the port authority that creates a good workplace for its employees. As a CEO, what is your vision on motivating and creating a good work environment for your employees? Are you taking any initiatives in that respect?

Part of our business plan 2018-2020 is The DeLTa initiative. This aims to raise the adaptability of our entire organisation, challenge our employees to Dare, to Experiment, to Learn and to Trigger peers. In practice, we give our employers chances and opportunities to grow and get the best out of themselves. In the meantime we join forces to create a pleasant, safe and stimulating work place. As for the improvement of mobility, we offer numerous possibilities as alternatives to avoid traffic jams. The Water Bus and Bike Bus are great initiatives and provide alternative means of transport for the 60,000 employees in the port. 

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