The Atlantic Forwarding Group, headquartered in Schlieren, ships goods from Asia to destinations all over the world. Nevertheless, it remains a typically Swiss company. Similar to a travel agency, Atlantic's business reaches around the globe, but its activities are all managed out of the Schlieren offices.
The labels on many consumer goods indicate that they were manufactured in Asia: Made in China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, or Thailand. While the labor conditions in a number of Asian countries are time and again the focus of public attention, there is rarely ever any talk of how goods from the region are transported. Oliver Ernst, CEO of the Schlieren-based Atlantic Forwarding Group, explains why: "Transport by sea almost always goes smoothly. We've never had a major problem since the day our company was founded – that is, if you don't count the minor delays that occur when ports in Europe experience more traffic than they can handle."
Ninety percent of Atlantic's shipments are made by sea, the other ten percent by air. "You might describe us as a kind of travel agency for goods," says Ernst. He offers the following example: "Let's say a Swiss department store has hired us to ship 400 umbrellas from Indonesia to its distribution center in Switzerland. Just as a customer can go to a travel agency and choose from a variety of airlines, this department store can select from among the various shipping companies we work with. Price, which can differ dramatically depending on supply and demand, is the most important factor in making that decision – just as it is when booking a flight." Goods are transported in containers, either separately or, in the case of smaller orders like the 400 umbrellas for the Swiss department store, in a consolidated container. Before the umbrellas leave Jakarta, the local Atlantic subsidiary has made sure that the manufacturer was able to meet the scheduled delivery date and that the goods have been properly loaded onto the ship. Employees also see to it that the necessary transport documents are in order so that everything goes smoothly both when the goods are cleared in Antwerp three weeks later, and for the journey to their final destination – it's like an all-inclusive package for goods.
Anticipating Future Trends
The company's story begins in 1979, when Theo Ernst, father of the current CEO, founded Atlantic Speditions Ltd. Due to the strength of the machinery industry at the time, Swiss transport companies were still primarily focused on exports. "My father recognized that imports from Asia were on the rise, so that was his focus when he founded the company," says Oliver Ernst, who joined Atlantic in 1981. At the time, it had only 35 employees. Atlantic originally specialized in shipments from Asia to Europe, but when Oliver Ernst took the helm in 2002, he began to add other destinations: "I didn't want to be dependent on Europe; from an Asian perspective, Europe is becoming less and less important," he says. Mindful of trends in the flow of goods, Atlantic began to ship to Latin America, the United States, Australia, and particularly Asia. Today Europe accounts for only 55 percent of the company's business, although there has been no decline in volume. All of the shipments still originate in Asia: "We're basically a Swiss company that upholds both Swiss and Asian values, because many of our employees work in our 28 branches in Asia," he explains. According to Oliver Ernst, the company might best be described as an "Asian family"; hierarchical in structure, but with strong interpersonal relationships.
Transparency on the High Seas
Atlantic's goals for the coming years include further increasing volume and making logistics as efficient as possible. "The financing provided by Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd. is helping us put our plans into practice," says Oliver Ernst. "We're currently in the process of introducing completely new software in our 37 offices. This will simplify our procedures and make us more transparent and efficient." In the future, the freight monitoring system will be linked to the Finance division, which will make it possible to determine the profitability of a shipment at any given time. Even now, Atlantic knows the location of each shipment at all times – for example, the umbrellas en route to the Swiss department store: After spending 20 days on the high seas and passing through the Suez Canal, they reach the destination port of Antwerp. From there they make their way by train to Basel and then by truck to the department store's distribution center, where Atlantic Forwarding Group's responsibility for the merchandise ends. An attentive consumer will find a small tag on the umbrella reading "Made in Indonesia," but no indication that the umbrellas were transported by Atlantic across the world's oceans.