Russian freight takes the suburban route

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SURBITON, the traditional butt of anti-suburban jibes, is hardly the obvious site of a company that is leading the way in sending freight from the UK to the former Soviet Union. But the managers of Spedition Services seem unfazed by the fact that their home base is linked in the popular imagination with net curtains and manicured lawns rather than seafaring and exotic trade.

They are Danes - and pragmatic ones at that. The company is based in Surbiton because they live close by and because 'there is no point in having an office in the City', on account of the rents. 'It seems as good a place as any to be based,' said Henrik Christensen, the general manager.

It certainly does not appear to have held them back. Established just three years ago by Mr Christensen and his former boss in Denmark, Jens Rastorp, Spedition has grown from just the two of them and a turnover of pounds 500,000 to a staff of 17 handling sales of pounds 4.5m. It has just bought a two-storey office building in the area and expects turnover to double this year.

To Mr Christensen, who came to England several years ago to learn English 'and never made it back', the secrets of success are service and contacts. Twenty years in the freight-forwarding business have given him the ability to supply the former, while the latter come from Mr Rastorp's similar depth of experience in dealing with Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union. The company was born when they met again in 1991 and decided the time was right for such a venture.

Having the right partners is also vital. Mr Rastorp and, to a lesser extent, Mr Christensen make regular visits to the region to check on the political situation and to make sure that the right standards of service are being met. But they also place great emphasis on the relationship they have built with Sovavto, a longstanding and well-respected transport company in Russia that is proving especially commercially aware. A huge organisation, it has 6,000 to 7,000 trucks and a presence throughout the region and one of its depots is the size of Felixstowe port.

Although Spedition uses these facilities, it is creating its own presence in the region. It has offices in Moscow and St Petersburg and is setting one up in Kazakhstan, the republic that is attracting Western interest for its oil.

Mr Christensen likens the market to that in the Middle East in the 1970s - a lot of opportunities, but also many risks. 'The rules and regulations continuously change without notice,' he said. 'We go out there just so that they can see you're there. If you're not sitting on their backs all the time, it doesn't work. You can't leave anything to chance.'

Such attention to detail has won the small company such prestigious clients as Cadburys, Mars, Shell and BP. It arranges everything associated with shipping goods to the region, from arranging paperwork to organising the transport from door to door.

It has also made it one of the few companies to retain the valuable Lloyd's 'open cover' for cargoes to the region. The spate of hijacks there has led the insurance market to abandon much of this type of protection, but - as an expert in the trade, Spedition has been exempted - giving it a further edge over any competition. Even so, the cover is becoming expensive, with rates of 1 per cent this year, compared with 0.5 per cent last year.

'In order to do business with Russia you have to have the right set-ups. Without contacts you can't do it - because otherwise everybody would be doing it. It would be like sending freight to Germany,' said Mr Christensen.

Nevertheless, he added that the growth had exceeded 'our wildest dreams'.

(Photograph omitted)