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Sun 9 Feb 2020 01:18 PM

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Competition in Middle East logistics sector will impact price and quality of service

Saudi-based supply chain solutions provider Starlinks has plans to quadruple revenues, increase its network, and bring true supply chain quality to the KSA marketplace. We talk to Gary Blythe, managing director, Starlinks to learn more about the company

Competition in Middle East logistics sector will impact price and quality of service

Gary Blythe, managing director, Starlinks.

Tell me about Starlinks, what are your areas of expertise?

Starlinks is a fully integrated supply chain solutions business operating within Saudi Arabia and is 100 percent owned by Ali Zaid Al Quraishi & Brothers (AZAQ) who have been operating for over 60 years in the region. We are a start-up in brand and strategic focus, but far from it when it comes to scale and expertise, with a large portfolio of well-known and diverse industry brands already partnering with us, and we are growing fast.

Our mission is to provide expertise, and fully packaged solutions in well identified segments vs a generic approach of the big multinationals. We deliver a level of quality that the market is demanding with changing consumer habits and needs.

AZAQ both own and distribute brands across many verticals including automotive, premium electronics, travel, FMCG, industrial electronics, and personal care. This strong heritage gives Starlinks inherent expertise in multiple categories making us much more than a third-party logistics firm.

What services does Starlinks offer?

We have invested heavily in assets, as this is a must to stand by our promise ‘We Deliver’. Asset-lite businesses are just too exposed to variable quality. Our services can be simplified into four core areas: Intermodal transportation; omni-channel fulfilment on a full cold chain basis - including final mile; Customer solutions - our value-add division focusing on sales and operation planning; and customer service solutions as part of a turn key end-to-end product offering.

We are very excited to be launching our ‘Connect’ product in 2020, an open network parcel pick-up and drop-off service. This will be the largest and most advanced technology solution in KSA and will give customers the quality and reliability they need and also disrupt the monopoly that exists today in parcel final-mile.

It is important to us that we bring more to the table than competitive rates and exceptional quality. Our solutions will always be tailored to the business we are partnering with, who often have a clear need for market-leading supply chain.

What does Starlinks bring to the marketplace that competitors do not?

A relentless quest for quality. I listen to our current and potential new customers and the feedback is always the same; the market is changing fast and the biggest single opportunity is supply chain that delivers for the consumers. Direct costs are not the issue, it’s the hidden costs that fall under quality of services and reliability, repeat custom that doesn’t materialise due to a supply chain negative experience, damages and expiry of products, ineffective promotions and missed sales due to a lack of supply and planning.

What are your plans for expansion over the next three years?

In the holistic sense, Starlinks will quadruple in revenues, our network will continue to expand in all key growth cities in KSA, and regionally we will expand in UAE, Oman and Bahrain. Our sister company Assayel Arabia is delivering four purpose-built facilities to us in 2020.

We will continue to grow our core tech platform with Oracle Cloud and with additional propriety technology products that give Starlinks and our customers an edge in the market in e-commerce, sales and operations planning, and express on-demand transportation. We will also invest in free zones across KSA to facilitate our automotive and e-commerce businesses in particular, we’ll support this by having strategic international offices where we see either consistent volumes or a fast-growing market. China and the US will be first for us, which we are planning for in 2021.

Where do you see the company in 10 years?

Starlinks will be the market leader in our focused strategic segments, our brand will be synonymous with a quality experience. Connect will be the preferred choice to receive or return online purchase across the whole GCC. Our culture will be our competitive edge, our employees will encourage their nearest and dearest to join Starlinks. We will be the owners of our own technology destiny, developing applications that continue to change the game and disrupt what is understood as excellent. Our customers today will still be our customers in 10 years. We will be minimising our impact on the environment and have a neutral carbon footprint through renewable energies and zero waste tolerance across our whole network.

What technologies are you implementing this year?

Technology is the key foundation of our strategy, we have invested in our own people to manage our products, integrations and developments. I set the team a challenge that any new business should be integrated within our platform within four weeks and they have delivered this. Come to think of it, maybe I should make this two weeks! We run a full suite of Oracle Cloud supply chain apps, of course we never stop and this year we will see the expansion or our WMS and TMS across KSA, we will introduce our proprietary e-commerce pick up and drop off solution under the ‘Connect’ brand.

Our customer solutions team are pushing hard on the development of demand-and-supply planning application supported by intuitive business intelligence. On the transportation side some very exciting additions to our platform, we will launch our ‘what if’ application, which will give us the advantage of modelling any requirement in minutes depending on the criteria to prioritise lower cost, fastest speed, route, temperature and weight constraints on movements.

In addition we plan to have launched our crowd source application by Q1 2021, which will connect over 50,000 drivers and assets across KSA. We will enable them with full track and trace technology so a B2B customer can guarantee instant same day movements of pallets anywhere in GCC at 50% of the cost of pallet movements on LTL networks today as we will fill the capacity and as such drive down cost.

Where do you think the company could improve?

It is all about expectations and standards, ‘We Deliver’ means so much to us as our core value and has to remain our main differentiator in the market. We don’t aim to do everything at a world class level, we’ll leave that to the multinationals to promise and aspire to. Our aim is clearer and more focused. Any segment or customer business model in which we operate, we will be second to none. I am asked over and over why we aren’t doing parcel final mile in the traditional sense - because we can’t promise the kind of quality that is synonymous with a Starlinks solution, given the many of the challenges in addresses, COD, and privacy. That’s why we are introducing Connect.

Is talent in supply chain a challenge in Saudi Arabia?

Frankly yes, supply chain and logistics has been through a global revolution over the last ten years with the adoption of technology and the growth in e-commerce. This, of course, has had the positive impact of attracting young talented technology literate people into the industry. The ripple effect of that is just reaching Saudi Arabia now. I see a huge amount of experience here, but not necessarily innovative and forward-thinking ideas.

Our people strategy is to do exactly that, we have nine nationalities on our leadership team, of which 30 percent are female, and overall our total Saudisation quota will be 35 percent against an industry norm of 11 to 15 percent. We are proud of our local heritage and as such we will be fast-tracking young Saudi graduates through our organisation. These are positive signals that our future is in good shape. However, it can not stop here, we need to find solutions to keep talent moving into and around the industry and mobility is important in spreading great practices. Logistics is a pillar of Saudi’s Vision 2030, so we are all invested in making it work through promoting local talent and bringing global trends into Saudi and the GCC.

Are there any other areas we should watch for with Starlinks, or in the region generally?

There will be many players that enter the supply chain services sector, and as such fragmentation is inevitable over the next one to two years and I believe quality will suffer and drive rates to an unsustainably low level. Many are offering services on an asset light model and this will add to the low quality services in the market. Expect further regulation related to licences, safety, tracking and driver hours which will squeeze the smaller local players. Technology-enabled asset-owned businesses will win along with the multinationals. Starlinks sits firmly in that leading pack, we believe our products, services and solutions will speak for themselves.

The next three years will see the region’s supply chain go through transformation in every respect driven by more demanding consumers and convenience a must, an expectation of transparency in how and where products are manufactured and delivered to their homes, and huge investment in logistics, infrastructure and digital platforms. Sustainability and environmental impact will be a key differentiator.

I see Starlinks winning and winning big. More importantly I see Saudi Arabia becoming a top ten supply chain market in the world; a gateway that Asia and the west will connect through, with e-commerce reaching 10 percent to 15 percent of retail sales and a wealth of delivery solutions for consumers and businesses to choose from.

What has been the greatest business challenge you have faced, and how did you overcome it?

I’ve had the opportunity to work across the world and experience the unique challenges of each of the continents and countries I have operated in. In all cases what I reflect on is the strength of the teams I’ve worked with and how important developing and harvesting talent is.

I have used the multicultural experience I have to overcome many challenges I have faced. I led an M&A in Lagos Nigeria. Weeks after the completion, the currency devalued by 200 percent in an import-driven economy, the ebola virus crisis hit and the local economy ground to a halt. Here I learnt adaptability, re-establishing everything from price to supply. Many businesses failed in that time period, we focused on setting three-month plans as anything longer was too unpredictable. I’m pleased to say that business absorbed $35 million of gross margin impact and with as a result of our plans, it is operating today successfully in the region.

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