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Maersk expands logistics supermarket with airfreight investments

Ocean carrier doubles down on air cargo with Senator acquisition, new freighters for in-house airline

A Maersk cargo jet, flying under the brand name Star Air, takes off. (Photo: Flickr/Eric Salard CC BY 2.0)

Ocean shipping giant A.P. Møller – Maersk on Tuesday further expanded into the airfreight market with the planned acquisition of German freight forwarder Senator International and investments in new cargo aircraft. 

The moves are part of the company’s recent strategy to diversify beyond the volatile ocean freight sector and be a logistics supermarket that meets the transportation needs of large global shippers, which can pick service levels and transit speed based on whether time, cost or control is the most important factor. 

They also make Maersk more resilient to pandemic-generated disruptions like those besetting supply chains this year by allowing it to more easily shift shipments between modes, including rail, depending on market conditions or transport delays.

The deal is valued at $644 million and is expected to close in the first quarter of 2022 following a regulatory review by competition authorities. Maersk said it paid 8 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization for Senator, which investors consider as an average industry valuation.

Maersk’s third-quarter profit, reported Tuesday, was its best quarter ever, thanks to a strong seller’s market in ocean freight.

Hamburg-based Senator International is a large logistics company with 1,700 employees and operations across Europe, Asia, South Africa and the Americas. Its core business is airfreight, which represents 65% of its revenue. Senator expects revenue this year to reach $950 million, up from $730 million in 2020, and adjusted EBITDA of more than $80 million.

The freight management company has a significant air charter network with 19 weekly all-cargo flights operated by contract carriers, such as Magma Aviation. This year it leased an airside warehouse at Chicago Rockford International Airport to handle freight on its dedicated flights. It also operates a cargo facility at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina, a less-congested alternative to Atlanta for serving customers in the Southeast such as BMW.

Senator also arranges intercontinental intermodal rail service between China and Europe and provides warehousing, distribution and packaging services. 

The logistics company specializes in serving the automotive industry, with growing exposure within industrials, technology and pharmaceuticals. 

It uses CargoWise One as its core operating platform, which will accelerate integration with Maersk’s air and less-than-container load (LCL) products, according to Maersk.

The purchase will double Maersk’s air cargo volume. 

“We are acquiring this company as a growth platform. … We believe we will have a competitive offering in some of the main corridors … [and] hope that we can make this business grow very, very fast, as we have done with some of our other acquisitions,” Maersk CEO Soren Skou told analysts. 

Maersk, the largest container shipping line in the world, said its ambition is to have about one-third of its annual air tonnage carried within its own controlled freight network. That will be achieved through a combination of owned and leased aircraft, replicating the mix the company has within its ocean fleet. The remaining capacity will be provided by commercial carriers and charter flight operators.

“As a global provider of integrated logistics, Maersk is improving the ability to provide a one-stop shop and end-to-end logistics capabilities to our customers. We have strengthened our integrated logistics offering through e-commerce logistics acquisitions, tech investments, expanding our warehouse footprint and, as a natural next step, we are now ramping up our airfreight capacity significantly and creating a broader network to cater even better to the needs of customers,” said Vincent Clerc, Maersk’s executive vice president and CEO of ocean and logistics, in a statement.

“This improves our ability to respond to our customers’ demands for higher reliability, speed and accountability,” he added on the earnings call Tuesday.

Maersk Logistics is the 16th ranked third-party logistics provider in the world based on gross revenue, according to Armstrong & Associates. Last September, the Danish shipping line fully integrated its Damco air forwarding and LCL business. Earlier this year, Maersk acquired e-commerce companies HUUB, Visible MSC and Europe B2C. 

“By joining Maersk, we strongly believe that we will be able to deliver an even broader portfolio with our own controlled air capacity as well as other modes of transportation, said Senator CEO Tim-Oliver Kirschbaum.

Maersk said its private airline, Star Air, has rented three Boeing 767-300 converted freighters from the leasing arm of Air Transport Services Group (NASDAQ: ATSG), based in Wilmington, Ohio, and purchased two factory-built 777s direct from Boeing. The leased planes will enter service next year and the 777 freighters are scheduled for delivery in 2024. 

Star Air, established in 1987 and based at Copenhagen airport, currently operates 15 medium-capacity aircraft — 12 Boeing 767-200 and one Boeing 767-300 converted passenger aircraft plus two 767-300 newbuilds from Boeing. It has 160 pilots and 50 mechanics.

“Today, we are a midsized global airfreight player and through our core carrier program we can manage time-critical, oversized or high-value cargo transportation for our customers,” said Torben Bengtsson, global head of air and LCL, in a message to customers. “Senator operates a significant part of their business through a dedicated air bridge using 19 weekly flights across its network with guaranteed capacity. This focus on own-controlled capacity is highly aligned with Maersk’s airfreight strategy. The moves we are making will allow us to offer customers a truly unique combination of airfreight integrated with other transport modes.”

Last February, large ocean rival CMA CGM launched its own airline with four Airbus A3430-300 widebody freighters operated by leisure passenger airline Air Belgium. In September it placed an order with Boeing for two factory-built 777 freighters. CMA CGM Air Cargo currently operates to three U.S. cities plus Dubai.

Like Maersk, CMA CGM is branching out to be an end-to-end provider of logistics services, having also acquired CEVA Logistics, a major third-party logistics provider, in 2019. 

(Senior Editor Greg Miller contributed to this story.)

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]