Virgin Atlantic's Steve Buckerfield - Like father, like son

07 / 02 / 2017

A young Steve Buckerfield sampled his first taste of the air cargo business when his father Chris took him to the Seaboard World Airlines offices at Heathrow on a Saturday morning.

Those first glances of a glistening Boeing 747 freighter on the tarmac and playing with the telex paper tape in the office left a clear impression on the mind of Buckerfield, who some 40 years later is now Virgin Atlantic Cargo’s vice president sales, based at the airline’s headquarters near London Gatwick Airport.

Buckerfield leads the airline’s global sales team and is responsible for sales across its international network. Prior to joining Virgin Atlantic, he spent three years as managing director, UK & Ireland, at Toll Global Forwarding.

He has returned to the airline side of the business – his career namecheck includes American Airlines Cargo – after 15 years in freight forwarding.

For many people of a certain age in the global air cargo business (including this journalist) the surname Buckerfield brings back fond memories of Steve’s father.

Chris Buckerfield was a popular figure who worked for Seaboard, Emery Worldwide and Air Express International, among others. He brought a certain style to an air cargo industry that, in the 1980s, was establishing its role as an enabler of rapidly growing international trade.

It was also a time when traditional air cargo carriers like Emery Worldwide watched with interest as the domestic parcel giants FedEx and UPS turned from a US domestic footprint to international express carriers.

Sadly, Chris Buckerfield passed away in February 2016, but his legacy of how to conduct business relationships with customers and staff has been a strong influence on his son.

Says Steve Buckerfield: “When my dad passed away I received hundreds of emails from all around the world. I read them all and there were some common phrases about my dad and his approach to doing business. It was really quite powerful to me to receive those messages.

“When it comes to saying what kind of influences someone has on your life, even after their death, my father continues to have a strong influence. The messages we received reminded me of some of the key things about how you do business: personality and friendship.

“He was somebody who was caring in business, who gave people opportunities and somebody who was considerate and took care of the people that worked for him. I got lots of anecdotes that were good examples of that.”

There was never an overt influence on Steve Buckerfield to follow in his father’s footsteps but when he was at college he used to work part time on a Friday night at Emery. “I used to work in the export department, splitting air waybills (AWBs) every Friday night, because in those days it was a very labour intensive activity.”

While Steve did not meet the famous showman John Emery Junior, he remembers the official opening of a refurbished Blue Ribbon House at Heathrow where the great airfreight man turned up in a white Rolls Royce in his typical flamboyant style.

Emery: “I loved it”

After a few years in retail sales, Steve Buckerfield joined Emery full time as a consolidation clerk, working alternative nights and earlies at Heathrow at a time when you had to be over 18 to work night shifts. Airfreight was in his blood: “I loved it.”

The young Buckerfield enjoyed the variety of the job and the experience it provided: “Emery was a great company for teaching people the fundamentals of the air cargo business. It was a really good proving ground with really great people and camaraderie. I made great friends and there were some interesting and challenging bosses.”

Buckerfield was working there when the ambitious Emery launched its DC-8 freighters out of Dayton and Chicopee in the US to Manchester in the UK and Maastricht in the Netherlands.

Says Buckerfield: “I had the opportunity to go to Manchester from time to time to cover for holidays or sickness. I spent a lot of late nights working in Manchester, working in the old Servisair cargo shed.

“I used to do the turnaround on the freighters, preparing the document pouches, dealing with customers and liaising with the handling agent.”

Although he started in operations with Emery, Buckerfield made the move into sales during the late 1980s: “I had a reasonably good operational understanding and I think I had the right personality and aptitude. I was conscious that I wanted to progress and at that time I saw sales as the best avenue for my career development.”

Buckerfield was selling Emery’s traditional air cargo service at a time when the company was strong on the transatlantic and Asia Pacific markets, plus it also had a courier express product.

Shipper’s dark art skills

In the pre-internet, email and mobile app days, was the life of a travelling salesman easier than today? No, says Buckerfield: “In those days I was selling in Middlesex and west London, and there were still hundreds of freight forwarders chasing the same business, so competition was no different to how it is today.”

But he observes that the shipper side of the business has altered significantly: “Logistics within companies has changed massively from those days, when the decision maker was the shipping manager, who was probably looked upon as a person of some mystery, with dark art skills.

“That ultimate decision-making process in manufacturing organisations has shifted; finance directors and finance managers now have a lot more influence.

“It is now less about the physical movement of goods from one side of the world to the other, but more about the cost of doing that, as much as anything else.”

He adds: “As technology has moved forward and the process of doing business internationally has become simpler, I think it is inevitable that some of the mystique has left the industry in terms of how you physically move products around the world.” But air cargo is more than just digitisation, drones, electronic AWBs and Good Distribution Practice (GDP), because at its heart it remains a people business.

Says Buckerfield: “One of the things that relates to us here at Virgin, and one of the things instilled in me ever since my days at Emery, is that you have to maintain strong relationships with your customers.

“We now refer to it as customer-centricity, but it is really about managing relationships and making sure that when you make business decisions, you do so with the customer in mind. That is a key part of what we do at Virgin and it is consistent with many of the companies I have worked for.”

Buckerfield has a career spanning 30 years in air cargo, spending the majority of the first half working in the airline business and most of the second half in freight forwarding.

He was working at American Airlines during the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, one of the most significant and devastating events in modern aviation. “Prior to 9/11, I would have said that in freight forwarding, the highs could be higher and the lows could be lower, while in the airline business it was probably not quite so extreme.

“I think that over the second half of my career so far, that gap has narrowed. We operate with the same kind of financial controls, disciplines, targets and stretch as our freight forwarding customers.”

Attitudes are changing too. It used to be that an airline and the shipper were separated by a freight forwarder insisting “they shall not pass”. But now they are talking in the same room, with the forwarder present and welcoming that exchange.

What is Buckerfield’s view of this trend? “I would not agree that you need to do that for the air cargo process to be optimised in any shape or form.

“I think that forwarders are more than capable of understanding and communicating their customers’ needs to an airline, and an airline is completely capable of working with freight forwarders to deliver on the expectations their customers have.

Working with forwarders

“There are times when we are invited by a freight forwarder to participate in discussions with shippers but we certainly do not seek those out and we wouldn’t act independently of the freight forwarder.”

Since taking on the role at Virgin, Buckerfield has travelled twice around the world, meeting customers face-to-face and also the local station staff, establishing those personal relationships that were so important to his father, Chris.

As part of its expanding portfolio, Virgin Atlantic is increasing its focus on the pharmaceuticals sector, GDP compliance and also Wholesale Distribution Authorisation (WDA).

It hopes to leverage the pharma certification of partner airline Delta at the latter’s Atlanta and Los Angeles hubs.

“Pharmaceuticals are an example of where the government and shippers have certainly driven the agenda, and the information we need to work on in terms of attaining those standards is very clear to us,” says Buckerfield.

After leaving Toll and then working on an interim project with Etihad in Abu Dhabi, why did he elect to join Virgin?

“I have been a customer of Virgin and a competitor of Virgin. I was at a point in my career where I was reviewing what I wanted to do. Virgin is a company that adheres to a lot of things that I value too: keeping customers at the heart of what you do, valuing relationships with people and investing in those relationships, and being a great employer.”

Working closely with John Lloyd, senior vice president cargo at Virgin Atlantic, Buckerfield says that the airline’s cargo strategy is to build on its strengths and brand, and to try to sell even more effectively.

“We are investing in systems like Salesforce.com for our sales team so that we have really good information and visibility on how we work with our customers and how we develop new opportunities.

Meeting the customer

“We all sell. John Lloyd sells and goes to see customers, I go to see customers. There is a lot of travel involved and the purpose is to meet our customers throughout the network and to meet our local teams.”

He continues: “The message I get back all the time is that Virgin is an airline that people want to do business with, that the values we stand for and the way that we position ourselves in the market are something that our customers appreciate.”

There is always room for improvement: “We look to evolve to meet our customers’ needs and in line with our network and how it develops.

“Obviously, there is a lot of focus on the transatlantic because of the joint venture with Delta and our deployment of capacity in that market, so it is of great significance.”

The transatlantic is a key lane for Virgin – it currently has around a 30% share of capacity – and has always been well served by bellyhold capacity since the early 1970s. It has always had a reputation as a tough market but is it any different now?

Observes Buckerfield: “It has not got any easier; the transatlantic market is just as challenging as it has always been. That is the one thing that has not changed significantly since I came back.”

And of the future strategy? “What is important to us is that we hit all of our financial targets and that we do so while adhering to doing business in the Virgin way.

“We are passionate about customer service and staying close to our customers. We also want to focus on relationships with customers that are well balanced, in other words good for them and good for us.

“That is very important and I think the majority of our customers understand that and share the same philosophy.”

Like father, like son: People come first.