The merger of the former SCS France and GH Team Freight businesses to create France Cargo Handling, under Claudine Bonthoux’s direction, has created a real competitive cargo handling alternative, report Justin Burns and Will Waters
The French air cargo handling market has been shaken up this year with the arrival of France Cargo Handling (FCH), which launched in June with ambitious plans to expand.
FCH was created after Swissport International sold off its cargo businesses at airports across France to its former French unit’s CEO, Claudine Bonthoux, bringing together Swissport Cargo Services (SCS) France and GH Team Freight and creating a network of 13 stations.
After many years holding senior positions at WFS, latterly running its North America business, Bonthoux had become CEO of Swissport France in June 2017, giving her the opportunity to take over the Swissport Cargo France (SCSF) business through the CB Holding company that she had set up. There were several candidates to purchase SCSF, but Swissport’s board chose the offer from Bonthoux.
In July, CB Holding also acquired the bankrupt France-based cargo handler GH Team Freight − the cargo activities of the GH Team business, which had, in turn, been formed in 2014 from the sale of Swissport’s loss-making passenger ground handling operations in France. GH Team Freight’s five stations have now been integrated within FCH.
Until September, Bonthoux was the sole owner of FCH and CB Holding, soon to be renamed International Airport Services (IAS). But in September, she asked veteran cargo handling expert Olivier Bijaoui – her former colleague and boss at WFS − to join her as associate. Bijaoui, keen to return to the cargo handling sector after a two-year period of ‘gardening leave’ following the sale of WFS, accepted the invitation, becoming co-owner with Bonthoux of FCH and IAS. Bonthoux is president and CEO for IAS and FCH, and Bijaoui is non-executive chairman of IAS, with his role expected to involve exploring investment and acquisition opportunities.
Bonthoux says the first four to five months of business have gone better than she ever expected, and the transition has been smooth. “Our customers − airlines, GSAs and freight forwarders − have been enthusiastic, mainly based on the quality improvement we implemented in the last 12 months after I joined Swissport as CEO France,” she notes. “The overall assessment is very positive; our customers are very supportive.”
Since the formation of IAS, Bijaoui separately invested in the start-up of Belgium Airport Services at Liège Airport, with which FCH has formed a working partnership. And in October, Bijaoui also launched Transborder Aviation Holdings in the Americas with former co-chairman of Cargo Airport Services, Simon Caviezel, with the intention of forming a network for cargo handling and related services in the Americas region. Discussions over the opening of its first station in the Americas are said to be ongoing.
Bonthoux says the operations on both sides of the Atlantic will all work together to gain as much synergy as possible. “It is already the case between France and Belgium,” she says. Although there is no equity relationship between FCH and Transborder, with Bijaoui himself the common link, the strategy will be to work in partnership in order to offer a worldwide network – probably under the banner or branding of IAS.
But for now, FCH is by far the largest entity within the partnership, following the merger of SCS France and GH Team Freight, and the now-sizeable merged company and its portfolio of customers mean it is already a major player in France’s air cargo handling market.
Bonthoux acknowledges that there have been challenges to overcome since the launch of FCH, the main one being gaining independence in terms of IT solutions, as the handler is still in a transitional period using Swissport IT tools. “However, most of the migrations of the information systems have been done,” she says.
Another challenge FCH is facing is at Paris CDG, where Bonthoux says there is no space available from Aéroports de Paris for the development of new or expanded infrastructure, and so “creativity” is essential.
Short-term investments will focus on the immediate priority for FCH to gain independence in terms of IT solutions, but she says creating a new unified, outward-facing brand image for FCH is also essential moving forward − complete with new signage, a new corporate identity, and a new staff uniform. In the medium and long term, developing and improving infrastructure at all stations will also be high on the agenda, and Bonthoux says the company is speaking to the respective airport authorities, which she hopes will support future facility developments.
She says the cargo handling sector continues to be dominated by the major players such as WFS, Swissport and Menzies Aviation, and she says France needed a new alternative for airline cargo operations, and so setting up FCH was an opportunity she could not pass up, “to take over this company with a great team and very loyal customers for many years. I spent many years within WFS, so I know the market very well. There is space (in France) for two cargo handling players dedicated to airlines,” Bonthoux explains.
In her view, airlines want to have more choice in the cargo handling marketplace, but continuing consolidation means that in the last few years, the trend has been in the opposite direction. The choice must also be “a real choice”, between providers offering broadly “the same standards, the same product, the same offer, and the same network”, Bonthoux says. For example, year after year in France, competitors had never really been able to compete with WFS “because they never offered the same services, such as a network of major stations in France and, especially, a trucking network linking all the stations”.
But with the creation of FCH, that real choice is now available, Bonthoux says. “We are a strong and experienced management team with experience in new customers starting up and successful implementation plans; and most airlines know us,” she adds. “FCH has raised interest among airlines.”
FCH’s network of 13 French airports handles all kinds of shipments from general cargo, to dangerous goods, live animals, perishables and pharmaceuticals, also providing trucking services to, from and between its stations. Stations include Paris CDG, Lille, Nice, Lyon, and Rouen (formerly in the SCS France network) and Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and Brest (formerly in the GH Team Freight network). FCH opened at Strasbourg in August and now also has a warehouse at Paris-Orly, while maintaining a “strong partnership” with Air Cargo Logistics in Mulhouse.
Bonthoux sees more future opportunities to exploit in the French air cargo handling market and the company has lots of ideas and projects in the pipeline, with FCH in discussions with airports, airlines and the French authorities. More stations are on the radar, including discussions with airports and partners to start at Rennes-Saint-Jacques Airport and at Montpellier Airport, where it already manages some shipments. FCH expects to be at 15 French airports before the end of the year, making it the largest cargo handling network in France, Bonthoux says.
Among the airlines FCH handles are Aeroflot, Air France, Air Tahiti Nui, Atlas Air, Chronopost, Finnair, JAL Cargo, Kalitta Air, KF Aerospace, Nouvel Air Tunisie, Oman Air, SAS, Silkway Stabo Air, Virgin Atlantic, WoW Air, and Yangtze River Express. But FCH is looking to add more airline contracts. “A lot of discussions are in progress,” Bonthoux says. “Most airlines in France are very interested to have a real cargo handling alternative in all major French airports and a good trucking network.”
One element of the “alternative” that FCH offers is its “lean managerial structure”, which Bonthoux claims allows “quick and effective decision making, flexibility, and strong team motivation which will ensure customers develop and succeed”. The strategy focuses on the customer and in making sure their needs and demands are met at all times. “These points will make the difference,” Bonthoux insists. “Our cargo handling offer proposes a high level of dedication, flexibility and proactivity. Our way of doing business is a strong customer-oriented philosophy.”
Boutique cargo handling
Bonthoux likens FCH to a “boutique” cargo handling concept − offering services and facilities in unique or smaller settings, but with a full service. She says FCH has ambitious plans for the future, but initially the goal is to satisfy all its current customers, which Bonthoux says have supported the company during the transition. “Naturally, our wish is to increase our market share in France in order to reinforce our viability, our image, and our development outside of France. However, our strategy is to maintain a business on a human scale − flexible and proactive,” she says.
“We aim to operate in an environment where quality, safety, and security policies are the primary requirements,” Bonthoux continues. “Furthermore, we want to be a reference for quality. Quality is not given; it is built every day by the skills and professionalism of our teams.
“And last but not least, with a great associate like Olivier Bijaoui, our development is on the right track,” she adds.
Indeed, the involvement, association, and partnership with such an internationally high-profile and well-regarded figure as Bijaoui ticks a number of boxes, including the potential access to an international and potentially global network in the future. And for the time being, the formation and development of FCH under Bonthoux’s direction appears to provide a strong, competitive cargo handling alternative in France. nnn