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Profile: Liansen Tan on e-commerce logistics and the impact of the coronavirus crisis

09:15 13/10/2020
When company director Liansen Tan needed a European presence for his Chinese e-commerce business, he found an effective support network in Belgium

As we chat to Liège-based businessman Liansen Tan before our interview, it’s a sign of the times that one of the first topics he mentions is the coronavirus crisis, which is impacting not only his business, but many of his European colleagues and compatriots in China. While the crisis continues to evolve rapidly, he shares his insights and predictions.

But current issues notwithstanding, Tan’s Belgian journey – which began on a wintry day in 2014 – has been one of growth and success. Having arrived to set up a ‘reverse logistics’ operation for a China-based web-shop, he went on to establish ECDC Logistics on the edge of Liège Airport, which deals primarily with air freight. The firm offers e-commerce logistics for goods coming in – mainly by air and sea from China – such as customs clearance, transport and distribution, storage and handling, reverse logistics for returned goods, and other professional services. As one of the first Chinese businesses to invest in Liège airport, ECDC and its predecessor EC HUB, helped pave the way for other big players such as Alibaba and Sinotrans.

Settled in a village outside Liège with his wife and two young children, Tan says the support of organisations such as Awex and Logistics in Wallonia were invaluable for getting established as a business and as a family. He chats with ING’s Dave Deruytter about navigating the relatively new world of e-commerce, contributing to efforts to contain coronavirus, and how homesickness can strike even when you feel at home.

How did your career bring you to Belgium?

I came to Belgium in 2014. Before that I spent about eight years exporting granite and marble products from China to Europe. Then I changed career to join an old classmate’s web-shop in China called shein.com. My work included developing its e-commerce hub in Dubai and the USA.

With that project I also created my first company in Belgium, EC HUB, which does reverse logistics. With e-commerce, when you order something online and you don’t like it and the seller is in China, how do you return it? That’s a real challenge. We were early birds in the concept of organising a return centre in Belgium to receive all the European e-commerce returns, with no need to send them back to China. We do quality control, re-packing and warehousing and if there is a new order we can even do the fulfilment. We improve customer satisfaction, reduce the cost of shipping, and improve the efficiency for the e-commerce shops.

In 2017 I left shein.com to concentrate on the ECDC Logistics project. The majority of our business is with Chinese companies. We have 63 people in our team here – there are about 10 Chinese and the rest are local. We’re among the first Chinese companies here to have a team that is majority Belgian.

With so many countries to choose from, why come here?

It was because of AWEX (the Wallonia Export & Foreign Investment Agency). They promote the region in China, and globally, to attract foreign investment. I was invited to join a roadshow in 2014, in Shenzhen. From there I knew where Belgium and Liège were! That was a fantastic moment.

I speak some German and my first choice was to do the reverse logistics project in Germany. I also investigated the Netherlands, UK and France. We visited all the countries, but there is one difference between them, and that is the people here. I felt there was the will to do it. I always say you can do something, or you want to do something, and it really makes a difference. And I saw the people here really wanted this. From the Belgian government, to the customers, to the airport, and to the companies we talked with, I felt that very strongly.

Until then there had been no serious investment by Chinese businesses at Liège Airport or in the city. Once Shein was a success here it gave a good example to the Chinese community. And then from 2017, other companies came, including Alibaba, Sinotrans and 4PX.

What has been the impact so far of the coronavirus outbreak on business?

It’s having a really big impact on my friends, my customers, my people there. Starting with my company, in February air freight dropped more than 90%. There were already planned cancellations for Chinese New Year that month – which would normally cause a 30–40% drop – but then there was the unexpected coronavirus situation on top. And as no Chinese factory really re-started work, it also meant no containers were shipped out. It takes up to one month for containers to reach Belgium, so in March there were nearly no containers arriving. If this situation continues it will impact on April too. My best guess is that at the end of March air freight could be regular again; for sea freight and train, my best guess is the end of April. It depends on controlling the spread – we have to check daily for updates.

For European companies the impact is also huge. This is a perfect business case to really understand the international supply chain. My friend has a company at Brussels airport that has a team with 50 people, and now he has only kept four on for picking up the phone, with the rest on technical layoff. Imagine the financial pressure for all the airlines… all their cargo and passenger flights connecting China and Europe, those aircraft are parked on the ground and they have to pay daily to the bankers. Many European companies are also waiting for orders from China, and will already be facing a lack of spare parts.

From a logistics point of view, with the cancellation of the big vessels, if this continues for three or four more weeks there will be an impact on European exports because there won’t be enough empty containers.

Chinese people really care about being united. For coronavirus, I personally have donated about 100,000 RMB (more than €13,000), and masks and protective suits worth around €17,000, to the hospitals. When such things happen, this is what we do. I am not alone. Every Chinese person you’ll meet in Belgium or Europe, they will all contribute something.

What was the experience of moving to Belgium like?

In November 2014, I took a flight from Beijing to Brussels, it was a rainy morning but when I arrived I felt kind of home. I had a feeling about this location. With support from the local people it wasn’t too difficult to find a house or schooling for the children. In this I saw the warm side of Belgium. AWEX and Logistics in Wallonia (LIW) helped me find the house, the kids’ school, the office to start up, everything, so it was a great help.

How easy was it for the family to settle in?

I have travelled a lot but to stay for a long time somewhere is really different. We send our son, who’s seven, to a local school and our daughter will start kindergarten this year. I was born in a poor farming family in China, I went to an ordinary school and had no plan to send my kids to an international school. Living life on a normal path is important to understand society. To grow from the ground is good for them. My son’s school is in French, and the maths and science is in English. Every weekend I send him to Mandarin school.

In the beginning, it was not easy at all for him, because my wife and I hardly speak French. We are a Chinese-speaking family and he has a French-speaking school – it’s just two different planets!  He is much better now, and I found a teacher at home for two hours a week. In the first year he got 87.5% for French. For maths he got 93% – we are good at numbers.

The biggest challenge for my wife was cutting off all the connections – family, friends, colleagues, her network… they are 10,000km away. But she is braver than me. This year I suffered serious homesickness. I talked with my wife and she said stay, she likes the feeling of freedom here. She has found her network, first of all in the Chinese community – of which there are about 2,000 in the Liège area – and we have some good local friends.

I also had a serious talk with my father. I am their only child. In the Chinese culture you are raised by your parents but when they get old you need to support them. My father is getting old so I said ‘do I stay here or go back to China?’ He said, ‘stay there, it is better for my grandson’. My mother gave him a punch and said, ‘listen to the boy!’

What would your advice be to newcomers?

The first thing is to really find local support. Start to trust people. From a business perspective, the sooner you find a local partner that will show the same concern for your business as you do, the better. It makes a huge difference.

On the private side, try to learn the local language. If you have a mission to stay here two or three years, send your kids to an international school and then go back to your original country, then fine. But if you want to stay, the faster you learn, the better and faster you can do everything. I’ve learned this lesson.

How do you spend your free time?

We all love travelling – we have a wish list of where we want to visit. Europe is so beautiful with so many good landscapes, old buildings, museums… you have actually built a society that is so close to heaven.

I also like to cycle. When I was young, I rode from my home town of Qingdao to Beijing, a distance of 1,027km. I really would like to ride from Brussels to Madrid. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely I’ll have the free time!

Photo: Bart Dewaele. This article first appeared in ING Expat Time

Written by Paula Dear