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An interview with Marc Smet, by Steve Jordan.
(The Mover Magazine, April 2021)
It was back in the 1930s that Vivet Gosselin acquired a moving truck and set up a company in Belgium in his own name. 90 years on, that company is one of the world’s largest and most successful in the industry, employing over 850 people and represented in 34 countries.
As Vivet’s company began to grow he employed his nephew, Dolf, to work with him and expand the business. Flor Smet was one of Dolf’s neighbours, the son of a dairy farmer. During the 1960s the dairy industry was going through a hard time, so Flor decided he’d had enough of farming and, in 1968, took a job with Dolf. He became the company’s operations manager.
Just eight years later Flor’s son, Marc, joined the company. “We had 25 people and one warehouse,” said Marc. “By 1983 we had doubled the size of the business. That’s when Dolf offered me the chance to become a partner in the business.” The Belgian government, at that time, was offering incentives to new companies, so Marc set up a new organisation called Gosselin Worldwide Moving. It would handle the sales and administration while the old company would handle operations.
The new structure was a success, boosted by the US military business. The company expanded, generically and through acquisition, until it had operations throughout Europe and Central Asia. By the end of the 1990s it employed around 250 people. Then came diversification to include general logistics, and a new contract with the US Department of State. “We still hold that contract today,” said Marc. “We are the European distribution hub for consignments going to US embassies throughout Europe, Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East. We have 35,000 sq mt of warehousing space for that one contract alone.”
The logistics business supported the handling of the big contracts. In the early 2000s, Gosselin set up its own Inland Container Terminal (ICT) in Deurne on the AlbertKanaal that connects with the Antwerp port in one direction and via the city of Liege on into Germany. “Most of the other agents worked out of Bremerhaven,” explained Marc, “but Antwerp was much closer to the main US military bases such as the Ramstein Air Base at Kaiserslautern.” The HQ of the US Air Force in Europe is 660km from Bremerhaven, but just 360km from Antwerp. “This made us very competitive and everything we did was always with our own facilities, including transport, port handling, stuffing and stripping of containers.” Last year the ICT at Antwerp handled 80,000 TEU of general cargo.
Today, Gosselin is a group of around 850 people split into three divisions: the moving division handling household and office moves for corporations, embassies, government organisations, global partners and RMCs; the US military division with 60,000 movements a year; and the logistics division that includes heavy and high haulage.
The United States Transport Command (USTRANSCOM) is planning to award the world’s largest moving contract, claimed to be worth $20billion, to one company. It went through the tendering process last year but had to step back from awarding the contract. The matter is not now expected to be resolved until late 2022. Marc is quite upbeat about the opportunity the contract represents for his company. “We will have one customer instead of around 120,” he said. “Since the 1970s we have absorbed all the risk by providing a service package that almost nobody else has. We provide all the services, the assets, the agency and the facilities, so we look forward to a strong partnership with whoever wins the contract. I think it will improve the service eventually.”
In 2020, Gosselin had a turnover of around €300million. Of that close to €78m was for corporate accounts, the rest split equally between US government and logistics. “We had a loss of revenue on corporate work of only 5%,” said Marc, “so I think we did fairly well, particularly as there was a big drop in March and April. The government support programmes helped. But now the question is how much business will come back? There will be a reduction in corporate business which has been going on for a long time, it's not happened just because of the pandemic. Because we have fewer expats and lower allowances, and because people are not addicted to furniture in the way that they used to be, we will continue to see smaller shipments. So it’s a bigger challenge to manage it properly.”
Opportunities from technology
Marc believes that the revolution to video conferencing will stay. “This has suddenly opened up the world,” he said. “We are in 34 different countries and now even our management meetings, where we used to get together every month or so, are done as TEAMS calls. Travel will be drastically reduced.” He doesn’t think it will go away completely, as it’s still important for people to meet in person. “But instead of doing meetings eight times a year we might meet twice and have six meetings on TEAMS.”
As far as annual conventions are concerned, Marc doesn’t foresee much change. “People supported virtual conferences last year just to support them, but they are not the same thing.”
Virtual surveys are here to stay though. Marc said that customers seem to be satisfied with the service and they don’t want all the movers in their houses to get a quote. It's a waste of time for them and they prefer to do it at a time that suits them. “So we are seeing a tremendous pickup in the use of virtual surveys. That means that salespeople will spend less time on the road, so they can become more effective and be able to do a lot more with the time they have.” Marc does not, however, expect to be operating with fewer staff. “We will employ the same number of people, but they will be able to do more revenue and more business.” One example is the use of real people behind the company’s website chat functions. “It’s amazing how many conversations they get going in different time zones. We are now thinking about adding more people because of the demand.”
What has made Gosselin successful?
Marc does not believe there is a magic formula for success. “First of all you have to like it, then you have to work hard, from early in the morning until late at night, especially at the beginning,” he said. “You need to put as much money as possible back into the business. We created assets and an infrastructure that attracts customers. The easiest sale for us is if a client visits us in Antwerp. It's not many moving companies that have their own Inland Container Terminal.” He also said that having this strong structure helps a company to become an employer of choice for younger people. “If they work in a good environment, they see that the company continues to grow and they're willing to work for it,” he explained. “It's the people that do all the work.”
Providing the right opportunities for people is important to Marc. “You get the top people by making the company attractive and by offering them the opportunities to grow within the organisation,” he said. “We can even offer them the opportunity to switch between divisions or to work in other countries. In smaller companies the level of opportunity makes it much more difficult to attract these people.”
Marc also points to the Group functions such as finance and legal services, as attractive elements of working with a larger company. “It means you can professionalise every segment of the organisation.” This gives employees the opportunity to focus on what they do best, knowing they have the support of experts should they need it. “In a small organisation the general manager has to do it all.”
He also believes that diversification is important. He said that if you diversify the products that you offer, you become tougher competition. “That's what we've done with the government business. We built a service package that goes far beyond what somebody else would do because we put four different types of service in one product.” Marc points out that any competitor, contracting in those services, will have to build in multiple margins. “If we link these services, we create synergies to get a better margin on the total price. That's how we gain market share. It's not that difficult.”
Every successful person has people who have influenced them. Marc was, of course, influenced by his father, Flor, and Dolf Gosselin; he would never have got into the business otherwise. In fact, Flor, now aged 91, still comes to the office and maintains an interest in the company. But who else has been a guiding light for Marc?
Marc is uncomfortable with mentioning individuals. “It's a dangerous thing to pick out particular people but in general I listen to what people who are smarter than me have to say,” he said. “The best piece of advice I had was to work hard, use my common sense and make sure that I make some money out of everything you do.” He said that if you are competing against a rate you cannot match, either you have the wrong operational system, or the other guy’s made a mistake and will go bankrupt after a while anyway.
Ups and downs
Marc is understandably proud of Gosselin. “We have built a pretty big organisation, we are financially healthy, and we keep investing so that we have an infrastructure,” he said. He also appreciates the contribution global partnerships have made in the company’s growth and believes that people need to treat each other fairly. “If you always try to cut their rates, then you're not going to get to the right product. It's a partnership between us, our customers and our suppliers. If you cooperate with each other, you can build something that works and will be successful.”
But Marc admits that not every endeavour has been without its problems. Some of his acquisitions have been more complicated than he anticipated, particularly on the logistics side of the business. “We acquired two local forwarding businesses that had different structures and mentalities. We thought integrating them was going to be easy, but the cultural differences became a challenge.” Marc explained that most of the workforce are happy to be part of something bigger. “It’s the previous owners that are sometimes a problem.”
Brexit had caused a reduction in volume between Europe and the UK during 2018 and 2019. Marc now thinks trade will pick up again as companies work through the new regulations. “Now we have some clarity, I think it will quickly resolve itself,” he said. “There were some logistical difficulties late last year as there was pressure to fill up UK warehouses, but that subsided in January. Everything has now become normal.” Gosselin is now developing regular services between Europe and the UK for household goods moves through its Antwerp hub. “This is an opportunity for us.”
Hall of honor
In 2020, IAM inducted Marc into its Hall of Honor. He is the second member of the company to be recognised in this way: Dolf was posthumously honoured in 2011. “It's a recognition from the industry, I'm happy and proud that I got it,” said Marc. “But it's an award that I dedicate to all the people in our organisation. They wouldn't give it to Marc Smet if I wasn't part of Gosselin.”
Published with the kind permission of The Mover Magazine, April 2021