Chris Green, managing director of Supreme Freight, tells Tim Wickham how spotting opportunities early has helped his shipping, forwarding and logistics company keep growing for over 30 years.
Chris Green’s first job on leaving school at 15 was cycling between his freight company employer’s office and Southampton docks with paperwork for customs clearance on goods arriving in the UK. He learned the ropes, gained professional qualifications, and in 1986 set up Supreme Freight with a business partner.
“We started in a room above a telex and fax bureau with no customers, £100 of working capital, and a Rolodex of contact names,” he recalled. “It helped that we were usually paid immediately, so cashflow wasn’t a problem.”
Since then, turnover has increased every year bar one, which was during a recession. Growth has been rapid in recent years, with turnover rising from £47.6 million in 2014/15 to £67.6m in 2016/17. Green expects it will be £72m in 2017/18.
Get in early
Seizing new opportunities has underpinned this growth. Green tapped into the market for Chinese-made goods just as it began to boom. Supreme Freight has around 2,000 active clients, mainly small and medium-sized businesses. As well as China and the Far East, goods come from the US and Middle East. Three-quarters of the company’s staff of 40 work in Southampton, with the rest based in Hong Kong and China.
Typical cargoes sent by sea and air include toys, clothes and furniture. One of the company’s more unusual jobs was arranging to ship the ‘Batmobile’ from a Hollywood movie set to the Middle East.
Embracing emerging technology has meant growth is sustained without adding to headcount. “When UK Customs introduced a new computer system we were one of the first to invest in the same technology, so we could communicate. It reduced the time to create documents from 20 minutes to about two minutes. We spent several years handling customs clearance for other freight companies who had been slow to adopt the new technology.”
Supreme Freight is currently developing a secure cloud-based portal for sharing documents with clients. “It should be another important competitive differentiator,” Green noted.
He isn’t overly concerned about the potential threat of price comparison websites muscling in to the market. While technology can be used to reduce freight handling costs, he believes fully automating processes would be difficult as rates are usually set individually, can change regularly, and many clients prefer negotiating deals directly. “Although technology is important, a lot of our business comes from dealing face-to-face with people. The personal approach has always been important to us,” he said.
Green is also fairly relaxed about the impact Brexit might have on the company’s activities, noting that new borders could mean extra business. “When we started there were still borders between European Union countries, and it could go back to that. But I think the UK Government is committed to free trade,” he said.
Price and service
The company’s formula for success is based on a combination of price, attractive credit terms, and service – in that order. “You’ve got to be good on price just to get to the negotiating table, and then be flexible on your rates. Offering credit terms often helps secure deals. Clients always expect quality of service, and it is something I believe we have always been good at.”
Following a recent visit to Vietnam, he is now planning the company’s next step. Opening an office there could be another timely move, with the country’s manufacturing base starting to rival its Asian neighbours.
Green is as active in the company as ever. And with his son on board as sales director he has no intention of taking it out of family ownership. “Why would I?” he commented. “We are strong, growing, and I enjoy what I do. I love coming to work, travelling and meeting people. That’s what it’s always been about for me.”