'Local hero' forwarders can survive globalisation

10 / 03 / 2014

  • Philip Stephenson, chairman of Davies Turner

    Philip Stephenson, chairman of Davies Turner

NOT so long ago the orthodoxy was that medium-sized forwarders based in a single country - so-called “local heroes” - would either get taken over or become niche players.

Davies Turner has done neither and is still thriving after 144 years of existence as a family-owned firm, recently rising into the top ten of UK forwarders.

Its chairman, Philip Stephenson, is something of a survivor too, having been in the forwarding business since 1970.

That has given him a detailed perspective on what works and what doesn’t in the business.

Key insights are that you need to invest in IT and staff development - and that surviving in a global world does not necessarily mean having offices all over the world.

On the latter point, Davies Turner has always focused on having a strong presence in its home market - the UK and Ireland - rather than opening offices in Singapore or Los Angeles.

One reason, Stephenson admits, is that expanding takes a lot of money “and you have to be realistic about what you can finance”.

He also notes that it is difficult to have an intermediate position between having a lot of overseas offices and having none. “If you are clearly building a global network, then you frighten off your overseas partners,” he says.

Another factor, perhaps, has been that Davies Turner’s home market is an island. “If you are based in Austria or Poland, then you are more likely to have a branch in surrounding country, so you become a regional forwarder. But the only country we have that situation with is Ireland.”

Not having its own global network has not prevented Davies Turner from getting involved in global trade, however. Stephenson says it has always been able to find a good local partner to work with in other countries, and it reinforces these contacts with regular visits.

It does also have “delegates” - a Davies Turner employee - in several markets where it sees strong potential and wants to work more closely with customers or local partners. Examples include Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and - surprisingly - Iran.

“Historically we have also been strong in Iraq and still have very good links to Erbil in the autonomous Kurdish region,” Stephenson says.

Nor is Davies Turner limited to UK and Ireland export and imports by this approach. Stephenson says cross trade is also important to the business. “For example, we deal with a customer in China who has shipments to Mexico,” he adds. 

Read Peter Conway's full interview in the next edition of Air Cargo News  20  March 2014  – Issue 773