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The logistical challenges generated by Brexit have given rise to a number of new businesses, particularly those offering customs services. One example is CustomsLink, which is a part of FreightLink. The service deals with all the processes required to transport goods in and out of the UK under the new trading arrangements.

Keen to learn more about how Brexit has created space for businesses like CustomsLink, we got in touch with CustomsLink consultant Alex McDonald. Once the dust had settled following a turbulent start of the year for the freight sector, Alex got back to us regarding a number of questions covering topics including the recruitment of customs agents, digitalisation and the situation post-Brexit.

Hi Alex, thanks for speaking to us at Trans.INFO. First off, I understand that you worked very hard over the lockdown to get CustomsLink set up before the end of the year. How did the idea come about? And what challenges did you overcome before having the service up and running?

The idea came about because we could see that the traditional customs broker model was set up to deal with deep sea cargo, and that there wasn’t enough customs clearance capacity available for the additional RoRo (Ferry) movements post Brexit where the transport company has a much bigger involvement in ensuring customs are completed.

We identified this as a risk to our customers who are mainly SMEs and we wanted to help them keep trading!

Just for the benefit of those unfamiliar with CustomsLink, can you briefly explain what it is and how it works?

It is a service designed specifically to deal with all the processes that are in place for those transporting goods in and out of the UK post Brexit.

Put simply it covers all your border crossing needs – from Customs Clearance, Transit Documents, ENS (Safety and security declarations) through to port passes such as Portbase, GVMS and PBN’s. It is unique in that you can cover everything through a single window, rather than having to send data to multiple platforms.

Digitisation in the supply chain is growing at a rather relentless pace at this moment in time. Indeed, there are a number of startups vying for a slice of the digital freight forwarding market. What can you offer at Freightlink and CustomsLink that is unique compared to others on the market?

I think a big difference is that our solutions are independent, allowing our customers to grow and retain complete control of their own business and customers. With CustomsLink and Freightlink – your customer is just that – yours.

Some companies operating in your space have admitted to having to be rather persistent when it comes to convincing a few of the older heads in the industry of the benefits of digitalisation. Have you encountered this situation at all? If so, how have you dealt with it?

Ultimately, to get goods in or out of the UK now, no one can escape the fact that you need to submit data into a variety of systems. By having one system to do it all in one go – it is hard for any sceptic to argue with a solution that saves you time and money!

Presumably Brexit was one of the main reasons for setting up CustomsLink. Do you feel that some businesses are perhaps being a bit naive when it comes to the customs declarations they require in the event of a deal? So much has been said about no-deal, the worry is that some companies will underestimate the amount of paperwork if a deal is agreed.

I think that there was a lot of confusion about what a ‘deal’ and even about what ‘Trade and Cooperation Agreement’ really means. Whilst most people expected some sort of processes, the main thing that caught everyone by surprise was the lack of time between the agreement being signed and the implementation of controls. This was particularly hard considering there had been multiple ‘false brexits’ and countless extensions to negotiating deadlines.

Do you anticipate a surge in demand for services like CustomsLink once the reality of Brexit sets in?

We saw a huge amount of demand leading up and in the new year, now there is a second wave of enquiries as customers who are looking for a smoother more joined up process go out to the market.

One school of thought is that we will see more containerised freight moving between the EU and UK in 2021, partly due to the congestion and a lower willingness among EU hauliers to go to the UK. In your view, is this a genuine possibility? If so, will it have any bearing on your business and how you operate?

I don’t see this as a big threat. The short sea ferry market offers unrivalled frequency and reliability that modern supply chains depend on. It is the fastest way to get your goods to market. Some hauliers are choosing not to backload from the UK, but for transport companies who are have the border processes sorted, they are enjoying much higher rates for loads GB to EU.

One would imagine that to create CustomsLink, you would need to tap into some customs expertise, which is tough to find right now given the demand for customs agents. Did you already have people in-house to help in this area, or did you need to look hard to find the right person with the right knowledge?

This indeed was and continues to be a challenge. We recruited early which was a risk given the previous delays to Brexit, but our customs experts are the cornerstone of our business and their input helps out our customers on a daily basis.

A lot has been written this year about the importance of using the cloud to streamline supply chain processes or provide supply chain visibility. Naturally, you also utilise the cloud for your service. What kind of advantages does cloud computing offer, and in your case at least, how have you been able to harness this technology to the benefit of your clients?

Utilising cloud technology has two main benefits – firstly – you can access our real-time service from more or less any device anywhere and secondly, there is no need for expensive hardware and costly back up servers that you need to support older technology.

Finally, 2020 has certainly been a dramatic year for most of us, not least those working in the logistics industry. How optimistic are you about the future business outlook looking into 2021?

The logistics industry is famously resilient! If people want goods moving, we will always find a solution. Britain is an island nation, and regardless of Brexit the people of GB and EU will continue to trade. As we come through the other side of Brexit and COVID-19, those businesses that have invested will emerge stronger than ever and will be well placed to enjoy the better times ahead.

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