Thomas Schwarzenbach, managing director of the Swiss Freight Forwarding and Logistics Association, is often asked by his fellow colleagues in the International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations (FIATA) why so many forwarders are attracted to Switzerland, especially Basel. He replies that the answer is rooted in the past.
'Basel has been a crossroad for trade since the Roman times,' Schwarzenbach said in an interview. 'It remains a vibrant transit point for cargo moving between France, Germany and Italy.'
In 1225, the first bridge was built over the Rhine River in Basel, and for a long time remained the only firm bridge over the river from Lake Constance until it emptied into the North Sea in the Netherlands. 'This bridge brought Basel economic success in the 14th century and helped develop the first professionals in freight forwarding,' he said.
By the 18th century, the Rhine allowed for the flow of prized consumer goods, such as tobacco, pepper, tea, coffee and sugar, from the seaports of Antwerp and Amsterdam to Switzerland via Basel. There were 23 forwarding companies registered in Basel in 1789.
The development of the European railways in the mid-1800s began to reshape the way freight was transported across the continent and hence the way forwarders managed their business. In some cases, forwarders were faced with new obstacles that pressed for their collective action.
In May 1882, the world's first forwarder association of eight companies was formed in Basel. Sammelladegemeinschaft Basler Spediteure traces its roots to the opening of the Gotthard tunnel, which required an organized structure of forwarders to negotiate with Swiss customs and the railroad company because of the augmentation of cargo traffic by rail through Switzerland. The tunnel allowed for faster transit through the Alps.
Swiss Freight Forwarding and Logistics Association
|'We're the architects of transportation, and like the architect we can't build the wall, but know who can.'|
'In the 19th century, when our association was founded, the main focus was laid on a structure of the business, standards of processes (uniform documents) and a vocational organization,' he added. 'They knew that it was easier to negotiate with one voice with one strong association which represents the interests of the freight forwarding industry.'
Some of the founding forwarders of the Basel association concentrated their operations on the Italian market and set up branches in Chiasso in the south of Switzerland, because Italy's Genoa had become an important port of cotton for Switzerland.
Other Swiss regional forwarder associations formed with various focuses, including cross-border operations, rail and truck transport and specific industries. In 1920, the 10 regional associations formed a national group.
'Basel as the first point of entry into Switzerland was predestined to be the birthplace of our Swiss Freight Forwarding and Logistics Association,' first named Schweizer Spediteur-Verband, or SSV, and since 1995 called SpedLogSwiss, said Schwarzenbach, an economist who joined the association's staff 10 years ago.
'A lot has changed during the past 130 years since our start and so has the business for the members,' he added. 'Nowadays, their portfolio consists not only of transport-related services, but a lot of added-value services like customs clearance, safety and security compliance, warehousing, consolidation, pick and pack, and insurance are all part of their offers to the customer.
'These are topics which have to be tackled by our association,' he said. 'We have the according bodies installed to cover them.'
Yet the association is perhaps best known for its intensive vocational training ' a three-year program that includes classroom and workplace learning.
'With modern technology, the forwarder can be located anywhere in the world,' he said. 'This is why SpedLogSwiss believes the Swiss vocational training system has to be kept and further developed.'
Forwarder executives volunteer their time to teach courses. Trainees must pass a comprehensive exam, and more than 200 students complete the program each year.
'Top-skilled freight forwarders are the key to the success for our industry,' Schwarzenbach said. 'This is why we just invested a lot of time, knowledge and money into a program called 'blended learning,' which combines the learning in school with e-learning on the Web.'
'These programs are providing added value to the entire industry and the region, which secures its future prospects,' said Beat Simon, Agility's chief executive officer, in The European Times ' Switzerland. 'Agility believes in the future development of Basel-Stadt (where its European operation is headquartered), which invests significantly in its attractiveness for our industry.'
For European issues impacting the forwarding industry, SpedLogSwiss works with its counterparts through Brussels-based CLECAT and internationally through FIATA in Glattbrugg, Switzerland.
Despite Switzerland's independence from the European Union and its maintenance of a separate customs territory, the country remains home for some of the world's largest forwarders, including Kuehne + Nagel, Panalpina, DHL Global Forwarding and Agility.
'We couldn't be happier with the cantonal authorities and the support they have given us here in Basel,' Simon said. 'Basel has a long tradition of being home to the logistics sector; there is immense industry know-how and talent available in the region from which we can profit. Basel is a prime logistics location within Europe.'
SpedLogSwiss includes 310 individual member companies with more than 10,000 mercantile employees, covering 95 percent of the country's forwarding business. Switzerland has no restrictions on who can set up a forwarding operation.
'It is a politically and economically stable environment that offers highest quality of life,' Simon told The European Times. 'This makes us feel confident ' in business and in private life.'
Schwarzenbach said the association will certainly stay focused on its non-asset-based forwarding roots. 'We're the architects of transport, and like the architect we can't build the wall, but know who can.'' Chris Gillis