posted on 3rd April 2018

Menzies Aviation already has a significant cargo business, but it wants to do much more, vice president for cargo development Robert Fordree tells Will Waters

Robert Fordree returned last October to Menzies Aviation after nine years at Etihad Cargo, a no-doubt challenging and formative period for both the Gulf carrier and its cargo team as it expanded rapidly and developed into a significant and respected player within international air cargo. That period also included the development and implementation of Etihad Cargo’s well-regarded Preferred Handling Partner (PHP) programme. Designed to assure consistency in quality across its operations, Etihad Cargo’s PHP initiative has since been followed by similar programmes from other major carriers to test cargo handling suppliers against specific performance benchmarks in areas such as safety, security management, regulatory compliance, training, IT interfaces, business planning, and risk management.

Fordree’s time at Etihad Cargo included senior service delivery and network performance management roles, and ultimately head of cargo operations. His previous experience also includes 10 years at Lufthansa Cargo in various operational roles and then as quality manager during the introduction of ‘network standards’ at the airline. That was immediately prior to his first spell at Menzies from 2003 to 2008, where he served as general manager for commercial development and VP for global key accounts.

Although Menzies may argue that the company never took its eye off the ball in terms of air cargo, Fordree’s return to Menzies Aviation appears to come with a renewed cargo focus and a new cargo strategy from the Edinburgh-headquartered aviation services group, and one that looks set to be shaped in part by the journey of its new vice president for cargo development.

In an interview with CAAS, Fordree confirms that he has been heavily involved in the design, development and introduction of ‘preferred partner’ programmes for carriers, and that experience certainly influenced the shape of Menzies Aviation’s new cargo strategy. “The success of those programmes depends heavily on a handler’s ability to deliver an exacting standardisation model which meets the carrier’s needs, and I want us to show the industry that we can live up to such rigorous standards daily, consistently, on a global basis,” he notes.

So, having worked within and then taken a step outside of Menzies, what are his perceptions now about Menzies Aviation − and the independent cargo handling business?
I have a fairly unique point of view, having been part of the original Menzies commercial team, then a close customer for a long period of time, and now back during an exciting period of growth and development − especially for the cargo business.

My outlook hasn’t changed a lot since my first stint with Menzies, however: we remain an extremely well-structured, well-funded organisation with an entrepreneurial spirit and a long history in logistics. I am now based at our Edinburgh headquarters and there’s a tangible energy amongst the management team, particularly following the success of our ASIG acquisition in 2017.

During my time in the Middle East, the independent cargo handling business has undergone quite significant consolidation, particularly in the US, and has seen creditable global providers emerging. It can be very attractive to airline customers to have the ability to conclude multi-station or multi-regional agreements with a provider delivering consistent and standardised service provision. That is clearly something that Menzies is well aware of and will be a key focus as we implement our cargo strategy.

Menzies Aviation had an ambitious expansion phase in the ‘noughties’, taking a leadership role in the cargo handling business and its consolidation, although this seemed to come to an end around the time of the GFC. So, what happened back then, and what is the strategy now?
I was indeed part of the Menzies organization during this phase of our evolution and I recall the amount of facilities that had Menzies branding − particularly in London Heathrow and Los Angeles, for example.

I don’t believe that Menzies’ cargo expansion really came to an end during the global financial crisis or at any time; consolidation can also happen when you have multiple facilities in one location and for cost control and productivity reasons in some of our markets there simply wasn’t a necessity to operate from multiple facilities − this may have been perceived as a reduction in Menzies’ cargo footprint but was simply good business practice.

Our expansion into other aviation services, most notably last year into fueling with the acquisition of ASIG, has probably captured the headlines outside of our organisation, whereas the cargo business and associated network has been operating efficiently, with targeted smaller-scale growth when the right opportunity has been identified. In recent times we have acquired cargo businesses at Gold Coast Airport in Australia and at Budapest. These are carefully identified acquisitions which may not be front page news to some but strongly complement our existing network and allow us to continue our growth plans.

Our cargo business today spans 18 countries and 36 separate airports and has been providing safe, efficient, reliable service to our customers, many of whom have been with us since the ‘noughties’ − which I think demonstrates both our consistency of service delivery and attention to our long-term customers.

I am working with our regional teams to spearhead further growth and to deliver greater standardisation across our global network. This strategy is endorsed by our board and leadership team.

What are the priorities now for Menzies Aviation’s cargo business?
My immediate priority is to communicate and implement our cargo strategy right across our business and to ensure we understand our customers’ needs and that they are aware of what we can offer. The first task has been to review our operations and opportunities at as many of our stations around the globe as possible. This will be made easier through the formation of our Cargo Executive Committee chaired by our president and managing director, Forsyth Black, and made up of senior executives from within the business.

We have an internal Cargo Working Group with representation from operational managers across all regions and an IT working group providing the software and hardware solutions for the delivery of the operational aspects of our strategy. The strategy consists of a number of elements including focused attention to our customers, standards, performance, training, technology and compliance.  Each element has an aggressive timeline for implementation that we are busy ensuring is delivered.

Where would you place Menzies Aviation in the cargo handling market now, and where do you see scope for improvement?
We have a significant cargo business with a strong platform for growth, but we want to do much more – which is one of the reasons I have re-joined Menzies. Our cargo business today continues to deliver service performance to our customers’ expectations in key markets and in the main we provide consistent service, which is obviously a strength, and we continue to be known for our stringent standards on safety and security. A key opportunity is to identify those locations where we are not currently present and where our customers would like us to be, and to pursue those strategic growth opportunities.

Where would you want to be in 12 months, three years, five years?
The vision for our cargo business is to be recognised as the ‘best in class’ cargo handler. We will do this by providing a standardised global service based on customer demands and needs, innovating our approach, and understanding how the sector and customer expectations will change. That is the journey we will be on in 12 months, three years, five years, and beyond.

People often say that the idea of standardisation within the big cargo handlers is more a branding thing than a reality. Where would you say we are in that process, within Menzies and as a cargo-handling sector? What are the benefits?
Thinking from the perspective of our airline customers, I would want a standardised approach by a cargo handler providing service at multiple locations. Our ethos within Menzies is to deliver excellence, consistently. I understand that 100% standardisation is not always achievable with local markets and customer relations to consider. However, a significant part of our cargo strategy is about standardisation, in the way that we operate every day, for example in the operating system that we use, messaging formats, our approach to safety, security and compliance and performance reporting.

I have recently joined IATA’s Cargo Handling Council and want to ensure that Menzies is on the ‘same page’ as IATA’s industry standard initiatives, as much as possible, starting with the Cargo Manual, CEIV certification, and Cargo iQ. Within the cargo handling sector, I think much has been discussed about standardisation and there are clearly two camps − those that agree that it has substantial benefits and those that disagree. I sit firmly in the ‘agree’ camp as I believe the benefits to our airline customers speak for themselves − as they will know what service they can expect from Menzies, no matter where in the world they may operate.

How far would you want to go with the ‘Starbuckification’ process? Where is the right balance between local entrepreneurship and local initiatives versus standardization and common standards?
I would like to see every Menzies cargo facility possess the same look and feel wherever it may be across our network; the same uniform for our employees and PPE; the same GSE; the same security access control procedures; the same safety programme; the same cargo operating platform; a standard set of SLA targets agreed with our customers based on Cargo iQ principles; and the same audit concept centred around continuous improvement.

Our Cargo Working Group will be identifying best practice and will harness local entrepreneurship, so that we can look at ways of adopting the best local initiatives more widely throughout our network. We firmly believe that a joined up approach to cargo will be of significant benefit to our customers.

There will always be the need for specific local work instructions and we would not want to dampen the entrepreneurial spirit that our teams have often demonstrated throughout the years. Our Cargo Working Group will ensure we harness the best ideas and initiatives and implement within the framework of our cargo strategy.

What are your thoughts about Cargo iQ? To what extent is Menzies involved, and how would you see that involvement evolving?
As a very recent board member of Cargo iQ, it could be argued that I have a biased view!  I firmly believe that Cargo iQ offers a clear way for our industry to achieve standard and comparable performance reporting; those organisations that want to deliver quality service should not be afraid of publishing this data. Our cargo strategy clearly defines messaging compliance to Cargo iQ as one of our specific targets; our operating system of choice has this capability and we will be working very closely with our customers over the coming months to ensure this is achieved.

CEIV Pharma: Is Menzies involved in this? What potential do you see to build this and other kinds of specialist handling capabilities? Is it sufficiently well rewarded to justify further significant investment?
Like most carriers, forwarders and handlers, we have seen enormous growth in this sector, which we expect to continue. We are busy right now evaluating where in our network we can proactively invest in pharma handling solutions and ensure the best utilisation of our warehouse capacity – working in conjunction with our customers and their forecasts. Where we have, or will have, pharma handling capability, it would be our intention to also secure CEIV certification where we don’t have it already.