Honesty, integrity, and respect, these are the guiding principles of Kopf + Lübben Cargo Services, a company established 44 years ago, and founding member of the New Silk Road Network (NSRN). Kopf + Lübben is an international logistics company with a network of offices in Germany and China. They are one of the critical players transporting along the New Silk Road, with years of experience and knowledge. To understand the remarkable history and legacy of the company, we had a chat with Thomas Manigk, the sole shareholder and one of the Managing Directors of Kopf + Lübben.
We delved into the changes over the years that led to Kopf + Lübben’s growth and success. He spoke to us about the relevance of the New Silk Road and its growing influence in the logistics industry. Mr Manigk also shared his perspective on diversifying one’s businesses and developing strong bonds with customers. His journey with Kopf + Lübben began in 1995, and with his ideas and determination the company has achieved many laurels.
NSRN: Kopf + Lübben Cargo Services is a 40-year-old company with a remarkable legacy. Founded in 1976, it has established itself in all forms of logistics. We would like to hear more about the founding of Kopf + Lübben, and some incidents of interest that brought the company to excellence today. A little history lesson for our readers, per see.
Thomas: The company was founded in 1976 by Walter Kopf. He was working in the forwarding industry as an employee and after a while decided to start his own company. In 1978, only two years after commencing business, he acquired a small company, consisting of just five staff members, one of whom was Johann Lübben, which is where the second part of the company’s name is derived from.
In 1987, another company by the name of W. Lohmann & Co. , located in Germany’s largest seaport, Hamburg, was bought. By 1992, we had established an NVOCC service, and by 1994 the company obtained its IATA license enabling us to conduct air freight. I joined the Kopf + Lübben team in 1995 as a director. In 1998 Walter Kopf and Johann Lübben went into retirement, which is when my wife and I took over the shares. In 2002, we completely changed our corporate identity, moved our head office and took the company to another level. It was a common notion back then to understand freight forwarding companies as typical ‘sleeves-up’ kind of job. Some forwarders did have multiple offices but most were usually regional in reach. We changed the image of the company to what it is today. It was always my intention to differentiate ourselves from others by reflecting an image which is entirely different from the typical freight forwarding scene. It was our ambition to become more professional in what we did and to be taken more seriously, in an environment where freight forwarding was commonly seen as a necessary evil rather than a muti-facetted, exciting “go to” industry. The company is headquartered in Bremen and was initially located in the port area (Überseestadt) and later moved to the Airport area, which was a new and modern development. This move conveniently coincided with the image that we wanted to represent.
Two episodes were quite significant for the company and I. First, when I took over the shares of the company, the responsibility involved from then on It was a completely different aspect to being employed in a company. It had a considerable impact on my life from thereon. The second was the financial crisis of 2008 / 2009 which nearly broke our neck. Although in the long run, it probably did us good because it changed how we dealt with specific issues.
NSRN: In the year 1998, you took charge of Kopf + Lübben Please describe your role and the journey you undertook with this company and how has the company changed then? On a side note, has your mind always been set on logistics, or do you have other interests too?
Thomas: Let me briefly recap my background for you. I am South African of German descent and I worked for a German freight forwarding company in South Africa. Their head office is located in Bremen, and they sent me here on a two-year contract with the intention of me returning to South Africa thereafter. Shortly before my return, I met, Christina Kopf, daughter of the founder of Kopf + Lübben, now my wife, which is why I’m still here in Bremen (laughs). I believe that my upbringing in South Africa, known as the rainbow nation, has played an important role in my ability to understand people’s needs, irrespective of their background, colour or creed; a very important aspect of our business, particularly when operating internationally.
Since joining in 1995, the company has undergone many changes. We have added services, opened additional offices, both locally and abroad and have successfully adapted to shifting patterns and the transformation of our industry. As in many other industries, transportation and logistics is experiencing many changes in technology, customer expectations and business models. New entrants in the form of start-ups exploiting new technologies are creating an increasingly competitive environment. It is our goal to not only keep pace, but to also set trends, as is the case with offering rail freight services along the New Silk Road since 2014. Each day is different for me, and there are no routines. There are various issues to deal with everyday which makes the job very exciting and one which for many years now has dominated my life, both in the office and at home. I do, however, find time for other interests, such as good cooking and sports (I admit that nowadays it is watching rather than actively participating). I have a passion for a wide range of music and a great interest in African wildlife.
NSRN: Values preserved and lessons learnt, cement a company’s foundations. What are some of the values that you learnt while working here and what are the values that you would like to teach those who will carry your legacy forward?
Thomas: For a long time, the freight forwarding industry was not seen as an industry with much integrity. I am very pleased to see that over the years, the industry has become a lot more professional which has enhanced its prestige. Transformation which has taken place, such as supply chains which have become a lot more intricate, e-commerce, digitisation, blockchains etc. have attracted a large number of diverse professions to our industry. This, in turn, has made freight forwarding and logistics more attractive for younger generations. As a company, we are very involved in vocational training and in ensuring that our staff has access to further education. What I am getting at, is that while technology and the management and supply of data have become increasingly important, our business remains a people’s business with personal contact to employees, customers and vendors remaining an integral, important part of the total picture. So, while I recognise that technological innovation is indispensable, our staff remain our most valuable asset. I sincerely hope, that this social streak is something that our company will never lose, thereby making us a future-proof, exciting employer with a bright perspective.
NSRN: Since NSRN is a logistics network that focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative, how do you see the role of rail freight for the future of logistics? What challenges are there still to overcome for rail and intermodal logistics to be more effective?
Thomas: We have been involved in the New Silk Road, ever since it began. At the outset, much like everyone else, we didn’t think there was much of a future. There were a lot of uncertainties, including political challenges. It was only with time that people gathered more trust in the system and the New Silk Road. At this point, I can confidently say that rail freight will remain and grow. Despite harsh criticism towards China, I firmly believe in the Belt and Road Initiative, especially since the rail infrastructure along the New Silk Road has now established itself. We transport a lot different products via rail freight—automobile parts, textile, machinery parts, just about everything. Another added benefit is that rail freight is more sustainable too.
I think some issues require attention. The transit time can be shortened, apart from that, there are different rail gauges in China, Russia and then Europe. So, changing gauges can be time-consuming. But I hear that they are working hard to solve this challenge. Finally, the most time-consuming process is the cross border customs formalities. There is always the risk of political influence disrupting the trains, but other than that the service itself has a solid foundation with great potential.
NSRN: Finally, with your experience are there any lessons that you would like to share with our other members and readers, given that many companies are struggling to survive in these trying times.
Thomas: We have experienced many advantages by diversifying ourselves. We don’t focus on a single mode of transport; instead, we serve them all. In the current situation, when road freight has been weak, we saw the growth of rail freight. When the demand for ocean freight subsided, air freight boomed. It is advantageous to have a broad base.
We have been fortunate during the coronavirus crisis. Currently, we have been very busy with shipments. The first three months were a little harsh, but we have seen things improving a lot. We have always created sufficient reserves and we are loyal to our vendors and supportive towards our customers. When we look into the future, we see disruption, we see transformation and we see enormous challenges ahead as a result of the downturn in the world economy. But most of all, we see opportunities!