The air cargo industry is like a magnet, and it often draws back those who have ventured out at one point. Why is that? Where is it going? What makes it attractive to talents old and new? And what constitutes good leadership? These are questions that CargoForwarder Global (CFG) placed to Thilo Schaefer (TS), who returned to the industry this month in his new function as Head of Cargo at Condor.
CFG: Welcome back to the air cargo industry where you began your career almost 30 years ago. What has brought you back?
TS: First and foremost, it is the people in this industry. It has always been a pleasure to be connected with airfreight professionals from all over the world. This is what I missed most in the recent years and is perhaps also the reason why I never let go, emotionally. I still went to global fairs and events such as transport logistics or World Cargo Symposium, where I participated in the Cargo Executive Summits. They regularly confirmed to me what B2B in airfreight is all about; it’s about good relations with people you trust. And here I’m not talking about digitization of processes and interactions. That comes anyway.
In addition, I’m looking forward to facing the challenges which are always there in air cargo, be they peaks, lows, or crises. The industry has just escaped Covid and is now facing a more or less regular competitive environment again. Herein, I will contribute my share to the success of Condor in air cargo.
CFG: You've had a chance to observe the industry from the outside these past 5 years. What would you say have been the greatest changes?
TS: I would name three major developments. First, the successful and sustainable positioning of startups like cargo.one. Our industry had not been at the leading edge when it came to fundamental changes. With new arrivals, this has changed significantly. Old business models are being questioned and companies need to adapt to current developments. I get the impression that these fast-growing start-ups are the right answer to also make the ‘dinos’ move.
Second, digitization has finally been put in place. There is no questioning anymore nor looking back to the good old times, but rather a notion of how we can bring best value to the supply chain by applying newest technologies which are out there and available. In earlier days, we complained about technological shortcomings. Nowadays, technology is no longer a bottleneck. On the contrary; Technologies are broadly available, and we just need a good mix of experience and creativity to make best use of them.
Third, pandemic and some hick-ups in the ocean shipping industry have changed the landscape of air cargo significantly. During the pandemic, pure air cargo operators were able to make a lot of money. That seems to have attracted new market entries. It will be very interesting to see whether all three shipping lines (MSC, Maersk, and CMA-CGM) will stay in air cargo when things get rougher again. Anyway, the more competition we have, the more it keeps us on our toes.
CFG: One element that has remained constant throughout the past 10 years, is your function as a lecturer on Aviation Management at your Alma Mater - the Technische Universität Darmstadt. What can you tell us about how best to prepare students for a career within aviation and the air cargo industry in particular? In what way has the Aviation Management course developed over the past decade, with regard to focus points?
TS: It’s a great pleasure for me to stay connected with potential air cargo talents. Over the past 10 years, we were able to attract the one or the other talent to our industry and I’m glad if I have contributed my share to this. I think my most important messages to students are ‘purpose’ and the ‘opportunity’ to forge a career in one of the most vibrant industries one can work in. There is no day like the other. And everybody working in air cargo has the opportunity to create something, to make a difference and a real impact. This is what I try to bring across to my students from all over the world.
With regards to focus points, I have seen a clear shift towards ‘digitization’ and ‘sustainability’. 10 years ago, it was probably sufficient to explain business dynamics in air cargo, processes, rules and regulations. Today, managing the core of our business is considered basic or let’s call it a hygiene factor. The actual success factors are now these two fields which are taking much more space than before. So, we are well advised to show the new generation’s talents that we take both topics seriously in order to be attractive as an industry.
CFG: Who or what would you say had the biggest impact in your career within the air cargo industry? How important is it, to have a role model?
TS: I wouldn’t limit it to an individual. Personally, I have learnt most from inspiring leaders. People who showed dedication not only for strategy and targets, but for people. You can note the difference especially in crisis times when the ride gets rough. True leaders stand behind their people to support them, and stand in front of them when the group is under fire. This picture has always been my guiding light.
It must be the aspiration of every leader on every level to become a role model in his/her position. Yes, people work for money, but it is also true that they work for purpose and for people. From my own experience, one achieves most if given the right freedom to act while feeling the responsibility for the results. If people ask for more freedom, give them responsibility. If they are ready to take on more responsibility, give them freedom to act.
CFG: Digitization, Sustainability, or Sourcing Next Generation Talent? Which is the greatest risk to air cargo companies if not worked on? Or is there a way to combine all three?
TS: As pointed out earlier, digitization and sustainability are two of the most important success factors in air cargo. Digitization, because we have to be not only effective but also efficient in order to play a vital role in the global supply chain and still make some money. In our highly fragmented industry with more than 10 different players to just get a piece of cargo from A to B, digitization of processes is an absolute must. Therefore, industry initiatives like ONE Record are key and need to be supported by all relevant players in the market.
Sustainability is key because airlines and the whole airfreight industry have to prove that - in light of climate change - we are able to reduce carbon emissions ourselves. And we don’t need to hide here. About 12 years ago, fuel consumption of an average airline’s fleet was as high as 6 liters per 100 passenger kilometers. With the introduction of new aircraft, more efficient engines as well as new technologies such as ‘shark-skin’, we have now arrived at less than 3 liters. It shows that our industry is able to reinvent itself over and over again.
Does this sound sexy? I, at least, am certain that it makes us more attractive to new talents to join.
CFG: Though it is very early days yet, what will your focus points be as Head of Cargo at Condor?
You can imagine that I have already started thinking of all the relevant aspects that may make a positive difference in our air cargo offering. Let’s talk again in 100 days!
CFG: Any other message you'd like to share?
My regards and best wishes go out to the air cargo community worldwide. I’m happy to be back and looking forward to continuing our journey…
Thank you for your insights, Thilo.
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