Monika Ribar: The first lady of logistics
Place a logistics executive in the middle of stormy seas, and you’re sure to learn about his or her strengths. Panalpina CEO Monika Ribar hopes her ability to weather the rough waters of 2011 proved her competence as an effective leader.
“It’s a very challenging environment,” Ribar admits. So much so, in fact, that the industry has adopted a sink-or-swim mentality. “Competition is fierce because the pool has shrunk,” she explains.
Fortunately, Ribar has never been one to balk at a challenge. She came to Panalpina in 1991 because she wanted to experience a “truly international environment.” In the ensuingyears, Ribar transitioned from managing the group’s controlling, IT and project-management departments to serving as Panalpina’s CIO. She has held her current post since 2006, a role she calls “never boring.”
The lackluster economy has kept Ribar on her toes more this year than in the past. “I think the biggest challenge right now is the economic uncertainty,” she says. After all, Ribar explains, visibility is very limited. “I call this environment ‘managing the unpredictable.’”
To do so, she says Panalpina executives take a strategic approach and then improvise as unique situations arise. “We think and act in scenarios,” Ribar says. “On one hand, we have a long-term strategy that spells out how we do business, but then we react tactically to the given environment.”
This approach has helped Panalpina maintain profitability in the third quarter. Although its airfreight volumes couldn’t contend with its seafreight traffic, Panalpina’s air cargo sector saw vast improvement from July to September, Ribar says. In fact, the airfreight group narrowed the gap to the market from 8 percent in the second quarter to 3 percent in the third quarter and saw gross profit per tonne rise 3 percent, year-over-year.
“Our focus on sustainable, profitable growth is clearly starting to pay off,” she says. We’ve made good progress in volumes, while gross profit remained high. In airfreight, we narrowed the gap considerably.”
Ribar remains equally optimistic about Panalpina’s immediate future. “I think 2012 will be a very challenging year, but I’m quite confident that we will be able to go through it in calmer waters than we had before,” she says.
From her position at the helm of the company, she says she will continue to work with the board of directors to develop long-term targets and differentiate Panalpina from its competition. Although she acknowledges the volatility of the market and its direct impact on global supply chains, she says Panalpina will stay one step ahead of the game. “If the market shrinks, we will also shrink,” she says. “But we won’t shrink to same extent.”
Fleet modernization will be instrumental in ensuring this, Ribar explains. Panalpina inked a multiyear ACMI deal with Atlas Air in September to fly two Boeing 747-8Fs on its behalf. The aircraft, which will bear Panalpina’s logo and will enter its service in the first half of 2012, replace the company’s Boeing 747-400Fs. Not only do the 747-8Fs have better emissions than the previous models, she says, they also feature separate cooling compartments.
Ribar says such fleet investments demonstrate Panalpina’s commitment to adapting its airfreight division to meet the challenges of tomorrow. “Panalpina has always been known as a airfreight company,” she says. “We are pioneers from an air cargo standpoint, and we will continue to innovate in the future.”
Stephen Dawkins: Seeing upside during a downturn
The high-flying times of 2010 have lead to a disappointing back half of 2011, but for Stephen Dawkins, who founded Air Logistics Limited in 1994 and currently serves as the managing director, UK and Ireland, a slowdown in the market doesn’t equate to a lack of business.
As a general sales and service agent, Dawkins has focused on helping airlines reduce their overhead by providing third-party cargo resources. And with the economy only looking more rocky next year, he says GSAs will become more popular.
“2012 is going to be a tough year with the economic crisis that’s going on now,” he says, noting that fuel costs will most likely keep rising and the passenger side of the business, which tends to trail economic fluctuations on the cargo side, will take a bit of a hit. “Airlines will want to be looking to strip costs out of their business. Obviously, they’ll be looking to the cargo department to make their contribution to getting costs out of the business.”
The whole business angle of outsourcing cargo sales and services through GSAs is relatively new. According to Dawkins, organizations like his really started appearing in the late 1970s as a way for carriers, who had been accustomed to providing all the cargo-related activities themselves, to cut out costs. Business for GSAs picked up in the mid-’80s and ’90s because, as Dawkins says, officials were looking for help with cargo bookings, financial support and a host of other services.
GSA organizations have their detractors, and while Dawkins’ future outlook for the business as a whole is rosy, there are a few difficulties ahead. As technology changes the face of the cargo industry, Dawkins says companies like his simply have to adapt to new competition. Online booking portals that directly connect shippers and carriers present a new wrinkle in his business model, but one thing these systems can’t offer is the added bits of value he says GSAs bring to the table. Dawkins is confident, however, that online booking portals and the like present no real challenge to his business.
“We’ve seen them come, and we’ve seen them go,” he says. “At the end of the day, there are some organizations who will book online through a portal, and then there are other organizations that want to continue working with a freight forwarder.”
One sticking point that is much more out of his control is the perception of cargo throughout the aviation industry. Passenger-related activity seems more glamorous to people, he says, because cargo rides on the dirty end of the plane. But even fighting the perception that cargo isn’t worthwhile is fun for Dawkins; he loves the industry, that’s why he’s been in it for so long.
“It’s a very dynamic business to be involved with,” he says. “It’s like climbing Mount Everest. There just never seems to be an end to it.”
Hiking that peak, which to him is a continual, steep ascent even when the industry is at its most depressed, hasn’t tired Dawkins out yet.