Kings of Chaos: Interview: Move One CEO Curt Clements
This month [November 2012] is the 20th anniversary for Dubai-headquartered logistics firm Move One. But for a company that spends most of the year being part of significant historical moments while working in challenging environments such as Afghanistan and Iraq, birthdays can sometimes be overshadowed.
“It’s been a blur,” says Curt Clements, CEO of Move One, when asked about the past 20 years. “We’ve never finished a day thinking, ‘What did we do?’ It has never been boring, and because there’s always been so much work, we’ve never had the time to sit back and think: ‘Oh, it’s our birthday, and it has been 20 years’.
“But it sounds good to know that [if you’ve operated for] 20 years, you probably have got something right, you probably fulfil a need in the logistics industry, and you probably have a good chance to make it for another 20 years.
“Usually we’re juggling so many balls that we don’t have time to think about it, but it’s a nice way to reflect on all the craziness that has happened over the past 20 years.”
That ‘craziness’ though, is what Move One thrives on: from delivering shipments of armoured blankets to Russia for the decommissioning of their nuclear arsenal after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to expansion in the newly formed Southern Sudan last year, the firm and its CEO Clements has had a front seat for many of the more significant moments in the past two decades. The firm has also learned a great deal from experience.
“We understand emerging markets, chaotic situations and external forces and how they can affect your operations,” says Clements. “Just before the new millennium when the Y2K scare was going around, we used to get 100-page faxes from our customers asking what our Y2K preparedness is. And one of our managers finally just told them, every day is Y2K for Move One. Every day we don’t have fuel, we don’t have electricity, our communications don’t work, and the banking doesn’t work! In the areas that we’re operating in, there is no predictability!
“So our unique selling point is that we really understand emerging markets: how to handle large amounts of project-related frame, how to go and build relationships in these areas and offer predictable solutions. When you’re going into Afghanistan or South Sudan, people don’t know what the result is going to be. They don’t know when this is going to be finished, how much it is going to cost, when the goods are actually going to get there. But, we try to offer predictable solutions in these emerging markets.”
One of the ways Move One does this is by completely integrating itself with a customer’s project, reveals Clements. “So if you are going to be building a power plant in Africa, for example, and you need someone who is going to be working at the site, in your offices, coordinating the logistics of everything, well, that’s the kind of company we are.
“We’re very project driven, so we buy assets, rent facilities specifically for a customer’s project. And there is usually a defined start and finish to the project. Each project is not really the same size; we don’t work in standardised environments and really it’s not commodity-based. That’s what other logistics companies do exceptionally well: we do everything else. If it is very big, very heavy, with special permits and special equipment needed – that is our kind of stuff.
“But, if you want ten trucks moved from A to B, we’re never going to be competitive.”
And because of the specialised nature of its services, the company has actually benefited from the growth of the integrators, such as DHL, FedEx and UPS, over the past decade. “The bigger they get, the more opportunities it opens for us,” says Clements. “Because our customers will have tried some big player, but they didn’t get the solution they needed. That’s where we fit in. We are there for someone who needs a great deal more touch on one end of the logistics cycle, or a great deal more communication.”
Despite the fact that the firm operates in chaotic and unpredictable environments, Clements reveals that through effective communication and an investment in technology, Move One has been able to maintain a ‘predictable’ standard of its services through the past twenty years. These have also been the major reasons why its customers request the firm to expand into new emerging markets with them.
“I would say that this is how we at Move One have made the difference: we’re on the ground, in the locations that the customers need us. We are actually handling things ourselves, so it is a closed communications loop, plus we’re able to match their requirements as far as data security, proper firewalls, proper back-up, proper security, legal requirements,” he says.
“Also, what makes us different is the level of technology we have. There are no filing cabinets here. We manage the project. We have invested so much time and process, analysing the whole flow of the logistics cycle for customers. We rely heavily on technology.
“In this town you can’t throw a stick without hitting ten cheap air cargo forwarders, but you don’t always know their name or brand. But what we tend to do is have very long relationships with our customers, and our customers usually pull us into new markets. For example, some of our customers are now pulling us with them into Africa.
“There are existing companies that they can use, but those companies don’t understand our customers’ billing requirements. They don’t understand the FCPA compliance, training, reporting or the data security requirements.
“When we first started, everything was very paper-driven. Each file was one kilogram then, but now it is just a mass amount of information that the customers want - more and more every year - so unless you can meet that data technological standard, you’re just going to be another forwarder who gives cheaper prices than the next guy.”
“So the customers may say, ‘yes we can get our trucks cheaper from those guys, but we’re going to spend more time trying to figure out their invoice than managing the information’. And most of our customers don’t want the cheapest, they want the best value. It’s all about compliance for our customers.”
But no firm can survive 20 years without the right staff. So what kinds of people want to work in the challenging environments that the company operates in? “Most people who come to work for Move One are not recruited out of school or some logistics programme, they’ve come to us from different sources, but are interested in the areas that we are working in, or they are interested in the equipment that we are handling, so we have a very growing and active heavyweight department. But there is a certain group of people who like that,” says Clements.
“They like to live and work in Africa, or central Asia. I would say a lot of people have been pulled into the company and stay for a long time. They have a bit of a pioneer spirit and want something different from analysing spare parts flow. That [spare parts flow] is not what interests the majority of our employees. And I think there are enough people who do that quite well.
“It’s a different breed of people, so you have to keep that project pipeline full, and that’s why we keep expanding – we want to make sure we keep the good people. It’s a very young company [staff], and so to keep them interested you have to keep them challenged with new areas.”