As globalisation continues, moving products better, faster and cheaper is the mantra in business today. For that reason, Belgium’s region of Wallonia is working to capitalise on its transport and logistics advantages and position itself as the “land of logistics excellence”.

The landscape for attracting distribution and logistics operations in Europe has become highly competitive as the centre of Europe continues moving eastward. Still, given the growing number of companies wanting to set up logistics networks for quick, efficient and cost-effective access to European markets, Wallonia offers advantages.

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Baxter Healthcare’s selection of Wallonia in the mid-1990s still offers a valid example of the region’s strengths. Back then Baxter was adopting a pan-European approach to distribution and concentrated its site location plans on how products would be distributed from 2000 onward.

Baxter’s manufacturing plants were scattered throughout Europe. Yet the company chose Lessines near Brussels for its European distribution centre (EDC). The reason: low operating costs, tax incentives, and significant savings in transport costs due to Lessines’s highway connections to Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam, and Reims in France. Today, the highly automated EDC continues to service hospitals and home patients in France, Germany, the Benelux, countries in eastern Europe, and Greece and Turkey.

Combined assets

The Wallonia-Belgium Transport & Logistics Cluster was formed in 2004 to organise the region’s assets better and compete with Europe’s other top logistics locations. Its principal task is to package and sell Wallonia on its logistics advantages.

The cluster has its work cut out for it. Northern France, Flanders, Holland and Wallonia are in a brutal race to attract logistics deals. And Belgium slipped to a second-place ranking for distribution, behind France, in the 2005 Cushman & Wakefield Healey & Baker (C&W/H&B) European Distribution Report (Belgium ranked top in 2001 and 2003).

However, the Transport & Logistics Cluster emphasises Belgium’s and Wallonia’s advantages by federating local initiatives and bringing various players from transport and logistics, infrastructure administration, training and client companies together in its promotion. The cluster now has about 80 members and is structured around three local poles: Liège, the Province of Luxembourg and Hainaut.

Logistics banana

It is important to understand Wallonia’s overall advantages and its location in what has been dubbed the “logistics banana”: the geographical area stretching from the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp through the Netherlands, Belgium, France, the western part of Germany and northern Italy. Within this banana-shaped area live 371 million consumers.

That fact, coupled with Wallonia’s strength in transport networks of all modes – air, water, road and rail – is a major benefit to companies with large-scale logistics needs. The region is less than 200km from the hubs of worldwide integrated cargo carriers DHL (in Brussels), TNT (in Liège), UPS (in Cologne) and FedEx (in Paris). Wallonia has navigable river-based waterways that link to the Escault-Meuse-Rhine axis and is in close proximity to the major seaports of Antwerp, Rotterdam, Dunkerque, Zeebruge and Grand.

The region benefits from the National Belgian Railway, one of the largest railways in Europe. With a 3479km network, connections are quick: Brussels to Amsterdam, two hours 35 minutes; Cologne, two hours 40 minutes; London, two hours 40 minutes; Paris, one hour 30 minutes.

By road, Paris, Cologne, Amsterdam and Frankfurt are only 300km from Wallonia. London can be reach by car via the Eurotunnel. And Wallonia does not suffer from traffic congestion like Flanders and the Netherlands to the north. In the logistics world, congestion makes it difficult to estimate the time required to move goods from place to place.

Liège pole

More specifically, the Liège Transport & Logistics Pole offers advantages, given its location at the centre of the Amsterdam-Paris-Frankfurt triangle. Liège provides all four transport options: water, rail, road and air. The city has a high-speed rail link. And the E40-E25 motorway link, opened in 2000, will be expanded in the next few years by the Cerexhe-Heuseux-Beaufays link. Consequently, the most impressive logistics hub in Wallonia is found in Liège.

Several locations are available for distribution venues that take advantage of these assets. Next to Liège airport is Liège Logistics, a specialised park developed and managed by the intermunicipal SPI+ economic development agency. This air freight village is home to TTS Group, Wallonia’s premier road transport company. TTS operates from 30,000 square metres (m2) of storage/warehouse space in the park, in buildings that are linked to the rail network. Recently, it acquired 35,650m2 of land to expand its headquarters site to more than 18 hectares.

Liège airport, Europe’s first airport to focus its development strategy on air cargo and 24/7 accessibility, has been an important catalyst for growth for Wallonia’s distribution sector. Its cargo activity reached 406,525 tonnes in 2006, a 24% increase over 2005, which makes it eighth in Europe for freight handling. Core to that growth is express courier company TNT, which has been operating its European hub at Liège airport since 1998.

In 2004, TNT announced plans to invest €94m as part of a six-year programme to expand capacity and upgrade facilities at its Liège hub. The expansion was based on the increase in TNT’s connectivity at Liège airport from 46 airports in Europe to 65.

“TNT’s hub in Liège is the backbone of the company’s European air operations and this investment confirms our strong commitment to a region in which TNT is already the largest employer,” says Christian Drenthen, managing director at TNT Worldwide Networks. “Our investment improves transit times for our growing customer base and further increases the percentage of consignments delivered on time and in perfect condition.”

Among those improvements was the 2005 opening of TNT’s Value Added Service Centre (VASC), which is designed to meet customer demands including swift spare parts and emergency stock replenishment.

Israel Cargo Airlines (CAL), owned by Israel’s agricultural products and foods industry, also utilises Liège airport as its European air hub.

Liège is also the second largest European river port in terms of its capabilities to accommodate ships carrying up to 9000 tonnes upstream through the Albert Canal into port. To take advantage of this, the Liège Port Authority is developing the Liège Trilogiport logistics park on the banks of the Albert Canal in Hermalle-sous-Argenteau near the borders of Germany and the Netherlands. The 100-hectare multimodal park will include a multimodal platform with a 15-hectare container terminal and 1750 metres of quayside.

Inland navigation

“It is clear that we can bring full intermodal to the forefront through an inland port with excellent inland navigation links with Antwerp and Rotterdam and an airport that figures among the most important in Europe in the field of cargo,” says Francis Hambye, president of the Liège Transport & Logistics Pole. “When you combine this with excellent rail, road and motorway networks, you have the distinguishing features of Liège.”

Private projects are in progress in Liège, too, including the 89,832m2 Prologis Park and 48,500m2 Trilogis.

Skechers USA, a manufacturer of leisure and sport shoes, has a 25-year lease with ProLogis for a 22,500 square metre warehouse at ProLogis Park. The distribution centre disperses Skechers’ products throughout Europe.

Since Skechers took direct control of its product in Germany in 2001, the company has been selling, marketing and distributing its footwear directly to seven European markets: the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and, most recently, the Benelux region.

“The move from a third-party 12,000m2 facility in Gent, Belgium, to the more than 22,000m2 Liège warehouse (which is expandable to 93,000m2) will serve our current needs and allow us the flexibility to grow on an as-needed basis in an efficient manner, and at a moderate cost over the lease period,” says David Weinberg, chief financial officer for Skechers USA.

The company chose Liège and the ProLogis Park Liège because it is ideally situated on a major European motorway interchange, several hours from Paris and Frankfurt, near Liège airport, and easily accessible from the Port of Antwerp.

Elsewhere in Liège, CooperVision, the world’s fourth largest manufacturer of contact lenses, is investing e5.5m to set up its European distribution centre in the SPI+ business park at Hauts-Sarts. The centre will occupy part of the premises of Transport Logistique Services (TLS) and, when fully operational in 2007, will employ about 100 staff.

CooperVision selected Liège as part of its strategy to centralise its distribution business for Europe. “We went for Liège, which was in competition with cities in Germany and Flanders, because of where it is situated geographically,” reveals Michel Bosa, director of logistics.

“Liège is located close to the German, Dutch and French borders, plus the city has a good airport and a network of motorways. Thus, Liège was chosen because of its location, the ability to provide 24-hour delivery, the presence of strong logistics partners, a skilled logistics workforce, and the availability of capital and employment grants.”

CooperVision has a presence in 12 countries. These include, in Europe, France, Spain and the UK, where products manufactured in the US will be packed before being distributed from the new centre in Liège.

Luxembourg pole

Wallonia’s province of Luxembourg is less developed than Liège. But that gives it an advantage. “If I had to insist on one specific characteristic in regards to the Luxembourg Pole, it would be the availability of land in our region,” states Gabriel Catania, president of the Luxembourg Transport & Logistics Pole.

Bordered by the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg with its own specifics regarding direct and indirect taxation, the province benefits from the international companies that have established their international co-ordination centre in the Grand Duchy, and operating activities in the Province of Luxembourg.

This was an advantage for US group Scott Sports, which recently invested €7m in the construction of a 27,720m2 distribution centre on a 10-hectare site in Aubagne.

The location was preferred over the group’s location in Londerzeel, Flanders, for the distribution of its skis and bicycles. Company executives realised that Aubagne’s immediate proximity to the borders of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and France would enable them to get closer to their target markets.

To capitalise on logistics opportunities, the 85-hectare Centre Ardenne Logistics Park in Molinfaing, near Neufchateau, was offered to large-scale logistics projects beginning in 2006. The park is situated at the crossover point of the E25 and E411 motorways and is designed to host 250,000 square metres of built-up area. This comprises a dozen buildings of 10,000m2 to 20,000m2 and several establishments of more modest dimensions.

“This availability of land at reasonable rates is, naturally, an argument in our favour,” says Ms Catania. “I believe this availability is complemented by an economic-geographical position to be put to good use by logisticians.”

The Belgian Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce and Industry underlines that the project is “the kind that comes up once every 20 years in the Province of Luxembourg”.

Hainaut pole

Like Liège, logistics projects are in plentiful supply in Hainaut, the third largest logistics pole in Wallonia.

“We naturally benefit from the same advantages as the other Walloon regions: proximity to the north coast, good mobility, the central position on the natural transport axes and available industrial land sites,” says Alain Lefebvre, administrator of the Hainaut Transport & Logistics Pole.

Advantages are its trimodal capabilities formed with the road-rail-water platforms of Charleroi, the International Dry Port-Mouscron-Lille, and the Garocentre, soon to be complimented by the conversion to trimodal by the South Ghlin docks.

The Autonomous Port of Charleroi manages numerous land sites and equipped port zones spread over 30km along the Charleroi-Brussels and Sambre canals, as well as the recently developed Charleroi Dry Terminal.

Garocentre, a 55-hectare transport and logistics centre near La Louvière, is home to the EDC of Thomas & Betts, a US company that specialises in products for the installation of electric cables and electronic components. The company operates production sites in Germany, France, Hungary, the UK and the Netherlands.

Also at Garocentre, the Gazeley group, which specialises in logistics property and is part of Wal-Mart, is developing Magna Park with the support of the intermunicipal organisation Idea. The zone, which will be a mix of logistics and semi-industrial activities, could host up to 200,000m2 of buildings.

Garocentre is also being developed as a trimodal platform. Located at the intersection of the Paris-Brussels (E19) and the Dunkirk-Cologne (E42) highways, the freight village has natural connections to the waterways near the Canal du Centre and will soon be linked to the rail network. A port for containers is also under development at Garocentre.

At present, there are two multi-mode platforms providing full, daily services to and from the major seaports at Rotterdam, Antwerp and Dunkirk; they are the multi-mode platform at Charleroi-Châtelet and Mouscron-Lille International Dry Port. Others are being developed, such as the Garocentre multi-mode platform in La Louvière.

This article was sponsored by Wallonia Foreign Trade and Investment Agency. The writing and research were carried out independently of the agency, by fDi magazine.