Three decades after its creation, Tobacco Care remains as passionate about the freight-forwarding business as it was on day one.
By Stephanie Banfield
The vast majority of tobacco industry players are well-versed in the process of transforming the golden leaf into a marketable product; however, the route tobacco takes from the time the leaves are harvested to the day the finished product hits the shelves of a retail store is often overlooked. From fumigation and marking to inspections, sample drawing and shipping, freight-forwarding companies play a pivotal role in tobacco’s journey from farm to finished product. One particular freight-forwarding company—Antwerp, Belgium-based Tobacco Care—has been organizing and executing international transports for the tobacco industry for more than three decades.
“We are a shipping and forwarding company specializing in unmanufactured tobacco,” says Tobacco Care CEO Veerle Denie. “We organize worldwide shipments, as well as shipments in and out of Antwerp. In Antwerp, we can also offer warehousing, customs, documentation, handling and fumigation.”
Tobacco Care was founded in 1981 by Denie’s father, Juergen Denie, who developed a passion for storage and logistics in tobacco while working at the shipping department of the tobacco trader Intabex.
“When they [Intabex] moved offices to the U.K., my father decided to start his own company—Tobacco Care,” says Denie. He loved the job but didn’t want to move to the U.K. Based in the port of Antwerp and having the warehouses in Antwerp was more convenient to work than being based in another country—especially because in those days there were no computers to exchange documents.”
Having been exposed to the industry at an early age, Denie also developed an interest in freight-forwarding and logistics. She sought higher education in the shipping aspects of the industry, earning her degree from Karel de Grote University in Belgium.
“After my studies and [receiving] my degree in shipping and forwarding in Antwerp, I started working at Tobacco Care in February 1991,” she says. “Working in a small family business meant that I had to do everything myself—starting from negotiating quotations to organizing transports, sending out instructions, issuing documents, finding solutions and being flexible.”
Armed with knowledge in virtually all aspects of the logistics and freight-forwarding industry, Denie set out to provide a series of top-notch services to companies in need of someone to organize and ship their unmanufactured tobaccos. Although Tobacco Care could have cast a wider net and offered its services to the entire tobacco industry, Denie recognized the importance of specialization and decided to stay true to the company’s roots when she came onboard.
“Unmanufactured tobacco was, from the beginning, our main commodity,” she says. “I grew up with this; it is in my heart. Being a small company, it is better to specialize in one main product so you know the product and its needs [and can offer] a more specialized service to your customers.”
By providing specialization in unmanufactured tobacco, Tobacco Care is able to exercise a cutting edge over its competition, companies that also offer freight-forwarding services but don’t provide specialized solutions to any issues that are encountered along the way.
“Everybody can ship containers, but only those who know the product know what to do when problems occur and can provide the customers with a solution,” says Denie. “We never give up. We go for the personal touch, and we keep on fighting to fulfill the customer’s needs.”
Thanks to its specialized services and its focus on providing exceptional customer service, Tobacco Care boasts a loyal client base of leaf merchants and manufacturers pleased with the services the company continues to provide in the unmanufactured tobacco arena.
“Customer service is very important,” says Denie. “A happy and satisfied customer will come back and talk positively about your service. Our goal is to offer a personalized service. Every customer is different, and every company has a different way of working and different systems to follow. We aim to give a direct and personal service and listen to what the customer wants. Building up a relationship with trust is very important.”
In order to provide high-quality, personalized services to its diverse client base, Tobacco Care forged a strategic partnership with a warehousing company in Antwerp that specializes in the storage and handling of tobaccos.
“We have worked together with Zuidnatie NV for more than 30 years,” says Denie. “It is a general warehousing company based in the port of Antwerp. [There is] no need to say that trust and working closely together are very important. They take care of warehousing/handling/monitoring, and our tobaccos are stored in a separate warehouse at their terminal.”
This partnership with Zuidnatie allows Tobacco Care to ensure the tobacco that ships to customers around the world is properly stored, free of infestation and of the highest possible quality—all aspects of freight-forwarding that Denie emphasizes as being extremely important to her company’s continued success in an ever-changing industry.
“The business is demanding a higher level of service and flexibility in comparison with 20 years ago,” she says. “These are the main capacities you need to fulfill the requirements of your customers: to give the ‘a la minute’ service your customers require. Our customers have to follow the different rules and regulations being imposed to them by governments and worldwide organizations, which means that we have to think with them and offer them the service.”
In addition to a series of ongoing changes faced by its customers within the tobacco industry, Tobacco Care is also presented with an assortment of challenges ranging from taxation to strict health regulations.
“The business is changing enormously due to the international crisis—companies being taken over, the merger of companies and the pressure on the product: tax laws, health laws, etc.,” says Denie. “These are indeed challenges; we have to change the way of storage, handling, the way we issue documents and certificates as per the new implemented rules and regulations. The work is more complicated than [it was] years ago; it puts more pressure on the job.”
But in the face of ongoing challenges that place pressure on the entire supply chain, from seed to storage and transportation, Tobacco Care has fought hard to find solutions to the issues they face and has worked diligently to combat such issues.
“Due to all these different rules and regulations and company automation systems, personal contacts are disappearing,” says Denie. “Therefore, I believe that there will always be a need for small companies offering a personalized service, as we think outside the box. We can offer the service from beginning to end. We know how to fight to get the solution, the answer to the problem. We stay on top of issues [and are] willing to learn new things every day!”
To stay on top of these changes in the industry, Denie and her team at Tobacco Care have embraced with open arms the challenges and hurdles they’ve faced and implemented new systems and programs to ensure their processes continue to run smoothly.
“Mainly [we are] keeping an open mind, talking to customs, shipping lines, customers, etc.,” she says. “[We are] reading articles in specialized magazines, putting systems into place wherever required and installing programs when needed. We are doing whatever is needed to get the job done.”
Due to its dedication to the industry and its efforts to embrace change, Tobacco Care has managed to stay afloat while many other firms have folded under the pressure placed on the industry from outside sources. And the fact that the company is still going strong after 35 years of coordinating and providing international shipments of unmanufactured tobacco via road, rail and sea is the very aspect of the company Denie considers to be its most significant accomplishment thus far.
“After all these years and all the different and sometimes difficult situations we have been in, we still exist,” she says. “We are still in business, not only working for small companies but also for multinationals. In a world where companies merge and crisis hits business, we can still exist based upon our own identity and personality since 1981. People who know us know what we stand for. We offer a worldwide service, we are open to all ideas, and we make sure the work is done.”