For an air cargo professional like Steven Polmans, there’s no such thing as a typical day. Between juggling his customer chief job at Nallian and his commitments as chairman of industry group The International Air Cargo Association or TIACA, Steven thrives in having different roles and responsibilities, one that he has learned to manage through years of experience. In a brief interview, Steven shares his view on new technologies, where the industry is headed, and the role TIACA is looking to play for air cargo and logistics.
How does a typical day go as Nallian’s customer chief and TIACA’s chairman? Where do you find the balance?
One of the fun parts of my job, something I also very much value, is the fact that there is not such a thing as a ‘typical day.’ And the combination of both, two completely different roles and responsibilities, only contribute to that. More than work-life balance, I am a believer of work-life integration. So finding the balance is not always easy, but over the years you grow experience and get better in doing this. You could also call it ‘getting old’ rather than gaining experience.
Can you describe TIACA’s vision for its current membership? What’s the secret to activating new ones?
We are not representing certain groups in or parts of the aviation or air cargo logistics nor have a geographical limitation. This often complicates building a strong image and clear mission, but at the same time gives us a unique position. Our mission is to support our members and work with the industry and all stakeholders to advocate and drive change for a safe, profitable and united air cargo industry. In order to make this change happen, we need to look at the logistical chain rather than part of it. Topics such as digitalization, innovation, sustainability, only reach their true potential when looked at from a 360° approach. So, it’s on those topics we really want to focus, as we can truly make a difference. Making a difference is how we want to convince companies to join TIACA, not by being just another industry body doing the same things others are already doing.
What do you foresee are the new tools or tech that would propel the air cargo to even better heights?
As far as new tools and digital evolution, our industry is really not making the progress it could or should make. Being very critical, we also need to look at the good things. Many years ago, we agreed on a common digital approach and our EDI messaging really allowed us to work efficiently together. Perhaps it was too easy, as it also stopped necessary evolution at a certain point. The fact we as an industry are not managing to get e-freight or even e-AWB to a good level of adoption is a clear signal. So no need to be too innovative, small steps implementing existing tools in a smart way can already make a big difference. But it is good to see that at least the mindset is there to consider these applications and technical solutions as an added value rather than an operational hurdle you need to implement. Too often, we still forget that change management is a much bigger factor for success and improvement than is the technical component.
How important is getting investor backing particularly for the startups developing these new tools?
Today, if you have a good idea and a solid business case, I do not think getting investors on board is the main issue. There is a lot of money in the market looking for good opportunities, and logistics, partially thanks to the Covid pandemic, is getting a lot of attention from investors. But more than investors, it is market demand and an industry willing to change and adopt new technologies that will be key. Each startup will need to decide how much funding they need to get their idea on the market, but not all need huge capital to do so.
Across the air cargo supply chain, which segment do you think is ready for more automation and technology investments to speed up the movement of cargo? Why so?
All segments are, no doubt! But with a different focus. And the more manual labor is involved, the bigger the potential and the need. Airlines might focus more on the sales part, for handling agents it is on the operational part. I am also a strong believer that a lot of waste in our logistic chain is not in the companies, but in the processes between different companies. And that is where more collaboration, to jointly benefit from the efficiency gains, will be necessary. The journey towards a good result might be difficult, but the gains afterwards will be bigger, for all involved.
Where do you see the air cargo and logistics industry headed, and what role is TIACA looking to play?
I am convinced that our industry has a great future ahead of us and a unique strength of being able to cover the globe in a very short time. But we are also a very diverse and fragmented industry. From a small niche forwarder or local trucker to global e-commerce players organizing all aspects of the process themselves. But there are a few things that will benefit our industry collectively: free trade, open markets, less protectionism, innovation and digitalization, sustainability—items where nobody on an individual level can really make a difference. This is where we, as TIACA, can and will be the organization making a difference.