ARMOS, deriving its name from the Greek term for Anchorage, symbolises a sanctuary where ships find solace and protection after enduring voyages. Since its inception in 1994, ARMOS BV has been devoted to serving every customer with care and attention, providing a sense of anchorage to all clients. ARMOS initially focused on trading and operations in the Greek waters, the Mediterranean region and adjacent African coastlines. However, ARMOS serves a much wider audience today, including clients from both Western and Far East regions.  They proudly identify as general forwarders, engaging in the scrap metal business and boasting breakbulk expertise, positioning themselves as true generalists in the industry.

ARMOS continues its journey towards excellence and global recognition. With extensive experience as both a shipping agent and a freight forwarder, they offer comprehensive end-to-end solutions to their clients today. In an exclusive interview, we had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Martijn Nöe, the managing owner of ARMOS, who represents Belgium in the New Silk Road Network. Join us in this conversation with Martijn as he shares insights into the company's values, experiences, and approach to an ambitious yet sustainable expansion...


NSRN: You have had a long career in the shipping industry and still operate Ship-Shape BV. You are very much active as a shipping agent and ship broker. Tell us about your journey and what influenced you to choose shipping as a career.

Martijn: I began my journey nearly 25 years ago as a ‘junior water clerk’ in a prominent shipping agency. In the ARA ports, a water clerk refers to the shipping agent who boards vessels during their port stays, managing all formalities with relevant authorities such as customs, immigration, pilots, etc. In short, they serve as the captain's primary contact onshore during their time alongside. For nearly a decade, I dedicated myself to this role as a water clerk or agency operator (the more colloquial term 😉) across various companies and vessel types, including RORO, tankers, container vessels, and breakbulk vessels.

During this period, I developed a fondness for 'breakbulk,' the unconventional cargo that defies standard containerisation or reaches destinations inaccessible to container lines. This steered me towards a career shift, leading me to serve as a line manager for a shipping line connecting Russia and Benelux, which further evolved into roles in chartering and brokering.

About three years ago, I reached a crossroad in my career and was presented with an opportunity for personal and professional growth, this time delving deeper into the forwarders' domain. The chance arose to acquire shares in ARMOS BV, a company owned by Georges, a familiar figure from my early days in the shipping industry. And so, here we are today...

Martijn Nöe; Picture Credit: ARMOS BV

NSRN: Can you shed some light into the early days of your time at ARMOS? How was it different as compared to being a shipbroker?

Martijn: Three years ago, as you would remember too, was exactly the time when COVID-19 was still severely impacting us on the global scale. The entire world seemed to come to a standstill, and a difference in opinion with my previous partners led me to explore new opportunities. During this time, I reconnected with Georges, who was contemplating retirement. However, his commitment to his employees and clients prevented him from closing his company. After several months of discussions, we reached an agreement, a decision I certainly do not regret.

ARMOS, at that time and still today, is a company with a strong focus on breakbulk, handling both small and large shipments. My background and network as a shipping agent and broker proved valuable. It's a shift from being a supplier and a shipping agent to forwarding companies to becoming a client of shipping lines and agencies. This transition marks a significant difference in roles. My previous experience as a ship agent in liner agencies allows me to understand the challenges lines and carriers face. On the other hand, wearing my forwarder hat, I assess shipping agencies and carriers, considering the information they share and the positions they take. I've been in their situation before, allowing me to discern when they might be trying to outsmart us. I can reflect on their excuses, having been in that seat myself. This experience is what's currently aiding us in navigating the industry dynamics.

NSRN: ARMOS was a well-established company focusing on trade in the Mediterranean region.  Once you took over, you expanded the service capabilities and made the company more global. What were the challenges you needed to overcome? At the present moment, what would you say are your key markets?

Martijn: Originally and historically, ARMOS focused on the Mediterranean and North African ports, served by numerous breakbulk lines sailing from Antwerp. However, thanks to my network and strategic partnerships, including NSRN, I decided to broaden our horizons for the long term. With strategic additions to our team, we swiftly expanded our footprint and experience. Now, we can offer both existing and new clients expertise in breakbulk and containerised shipments.

Our key markets include Turkey on both the breakbulk and container sides. Primarily on the breakbulk side, our significant destinations are Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey. We've seen increased container bookings from these countries, thanks to the dedicated efforts of our sales team. In addition to Turkey, our presence extends to other markets, notably East Africa and India, where we have recently established a presence thanks to our diversification in commodities which extend now to various recyclable products such as steel, rubber etc in addition to finished aluminium products.  However, our primary emphasis is on the Indian market, which is experiencing substantial growth. Shipping lines also eagerly welcome our business to these regions.

Picture Credit: ARMOS BV

NSRN: How does the global push for greener steel production impact ARMOS BV's operations in the scrap metal trade, particularly regarding exporting scrap to countries like India? Are you witnessing changes in market dynamics, such as increased demand or altered pricing, due to these environmental initiatives?

Martijn: Yes, specific agreements are made worldwide for steel production to be more environment-friendly, meaning less CO2 emissions. As part of this, for example, a certain amount of recycled steel must be used during the production of new steel. Countries like India don't have sufficient domestic scrap to meet their production needs. Therefore, they import scrap from Europe, Canada, the US, or Australia for their steel production to be more environmentally friendly.

The Green Deals in place guarantee that this global demand and market for steep scrap will remain steady, though of course the market dynamics change from time and time and some countries become more or less active compared to others. For example, on the importation side, Turkey currently has a better market position than India. On the other hand, scrap traders are buying more in Australia and the US because transport costs are lower than bringing it from Europe to India.

When we see scrap traders making bookings on a certain trade lane, this usually means that either the price of scrap is going up or the transport cost is going down sufficiently to be interesting enough to send it over.

ARMOS Office Space; Picture Credit: ARMOS BV

NSRN: At NSRN, we promote building relationships which transform into sustainable partnerships. As a long-standing member, how important is building and sustaining partnerships with other logistics entities or networks in ensuring successful international operations?

Martijn: I believe that without these networks or partnerships, expanding on a global scale for a small Antwerp-based forwarder would be impossible. Thanks to networks like NSRN, we've established an international footprint, allowing us to provide our clients with the same level of service they expect from us in almost every part of the world.

NSRN: Talking about providing services worldwide, it is becoming increasingly common for carriers to provide end-to-end solutions to clients directly, skipping over freight forwarders. How do you think this trend will be going forward? Do you think the major shipping giants would ultimately cut out the forwarders?

Martijn: Well, have you recently tried reaching out to someone in the local office of one of the big carriers? It's more often a miss than hit – either you speak to someone who has no clue about you or your needs, or you get connected to a distant back office with limited understanding. I believe that by offering a more personal service and positioning ourselves between the carrier and the industry, we can resolve a lot of frustration and problems before they even reach the end client. While this might not be as critical for major accounts like P&G and PepsiCo, smaller accounts still seek and appreciate the personal service that forwarders can provide. It's something they are looking for and rightfully entitled to.

NSRN: On another note, how do you view the trend of major acquisitions of smaller forwarders into larger conglomerates? Or even large companies joining forces to be even bigger?

Martijn: My response to this question echoes the one from before. Aside from financial aspects like cash flow and the potential for a broader global footprint, I don't see a significant advantage in being a large forwarder or part of a conglomerate. Unless the structure is genuinely decentralised on a country or regional level, or even within the same country but segmented by departments or commodities, providing the same level of service to our clients seems challenging. In my experience, dealing with vertical structures and hierarchies often introduces frustration and differences in views that can impact the quality of service. Trust me, I've been there and seen it!

Picture Credit: ARMOS BV

NSRN: Due to the conflicts in the Red Sea region, many shipping lines are rerouting to avoid the Suez Canal and, of course, cranking up the prices. It seems like it might be 2021 – 2022 again. What is your view on this? Is it history once more, or do you think there will be something different this time?

Martijn: Honestly, I don’t think you can compare the current situation to '21 – '22, where the carrier’s arrogance was unprecedented. Unfortunately, the arrogance persists, but my feeling is that now carriers are just cranking up rates and hoping it endures. We see this in the hidden form of an extra General Rate Increase (GRI). However, it is obvious, and we are aware the actual operational costs for deviating around the Cape don't align with the surcharges they claim. Currently, these surcharges are already decreasing.

As a shipbroker and charterer, I understand the running costs of various vessels, and we are confident that the cost is not significantly higher. Comparing the expenses shipping lines pay for Suez transit and the fees they incur, calculations by one of the Chambers of Commerce in Belgium indicate that the total running costs for a large container vessel going around the Cape or through the Suez differ by only $200,000 to $300,000. When you divide this by the average TEUs carried, the rate increase is not proportionate to the actual cost. Most of us believe this is just a strategy by carriers to maximise profits. They are aware the world is constantly changing, and any event affecting the world economy becomes an opportunity for them. However, carriers might overestimate their control considering the unprecedented events during the pandemic. The market will likely resist, and the balance will be maintained. It's not a situation where global production halts, and no cargo exists. This specific event revolves around choosing between going around the Cape or through the Suez; the only additional running cost is related to that decision. Carriers will need to adjust schedules in the coming weeks and omit certain port callings, but once the schedules are rethought and refitted, stability is expected to return after the Chinese New Year.

NSRN: The ARMOS team is growing but still maintaining a small size of less than ten people, which gives flexibility and agility. What is your philosophy and strategy for moving forward as a company owner? What kind of developments do you have in mind for the company over the next year or two?

Martijn: I always say that having not more than ten people gives me the flexibility and agility needed to move quickly in the direction that both the team and I have in mind. I lead the team in a very horizontal way, staying close to them. This approach is something I truly value and hope to maintain. On the other hand, as an entrepreneur, it would be odd to turn down opportunities that signify expansion and natural growth.

In the short term, the most crucial aspect for me is to bring stability to the company. In 2023, we experienced exponential growth, moving from three people in 2022 to seven by the end of 2023. Now, my focus is on aligning the old-school mentality and working methods with the new-school approach, as ARMOS has been primarily breakbulk-oriented for many years. With the surge in container volume and the expertise of new team members in container trades, my challenge is to integrate these two groups, harmonising their mindset and working methods. Achieving stability and unifying the two sides within the office with a common approach is a significant objective for this year.

As for expansion, there is currently no plan to increase headcount further. However, being an entrepreneur, I understand the importance of staying open to opportunities. This presents my greatest challenge and motivation—constantly keeping an eye open for opportunities, whether in the form of new business, talented individuals, or valuable partners. The key lies in connecting all these elements and ensuring they work harmoniously. While there's no immediate plan for expansion, I am always thinking about the future and the end game for the company, especially regarding its net worth. If an opportunity arises that aligns with the company's growth and goals, I will explore it. This ongoing mission drives me and defines ARMOS's commitment to adaptability and excellence in the logistics industry.

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