Geschäftsführer Airmail Center A. Heitmann und M. Bellinghausen

Interview with Axel Heitmann and Markus Bellinghausen

Markus Bellinghausen (49) is new at the Airmail Center but he is an old hand when it comes to mail. He has 29 years behind him at Deutsche Post. He was always involved in operations during his time there in a variety of roles, with a strong focus on processes, cost, and quality. His passions are travelling, whenever he can, and music, even when it is loud. He loves the big black discs, especially rock and jazz, that he plays on his archaic record player on the weekends.

Axel Heitmann (50), the “senior” one in management, is a passionate airliner. After stops at British Airways and Deutsche BA he switched to Lufthansa Cargo in 2001. For the last 16 years he has been looking after cargo in special niches with special products, for example the animal lounge or now airmail handling. And he has been doing this primarily with a business background and commercial activities. Privately animals are still a part of his life: his two Siberian cats show this.

Does it actually make sense to separate the management of the operations from the business at the Airmail Center

Axel Heitmann:
In small units like the Airmail Center the relationship to operations is always there because they are directly involved with each other. Although our business fields are separated there are big overlaps between operations and business. It also depends on where the passion and talent lies for each individual. The separation between operations and business should be included like this in the business plan and also makes sense in my opinion. But most importantly for our customers it should be clear which managing director they can go to about which topic. This is also true for our employees and shareholders.

What do you think that the Airmail Center stands for?

Markus Bellinghausen:
When one is thinking about mail at the Frankfurt and Munich airports, they should think about the Airmail Center first. The Airmail Center should be the postal operator at the airport. We aren’t quite there yet but that would be a logical development path for us.
What are the boundaries for mail?

Axel Heitmann:
The mail does not do what we understand under the concept of ground handling processes. The mail takes over after a certain point or it is the preliminary stage. Where is the Airmail Center? Exactly between the mail and the airlines. We are the hinge that everyone should think of first at this junction. As a high-quality service provider located near Deutschen Post and not far from the airlines we are the number one choice for this hinge.

What keywords and images go through your head when you think of the Airmail Center?

Markus Bellinghausen:
This question is not easy to answer because one doesn’t want to use eye-catching keywords. But my first thought is a keyword: excellence. I know that this is a difficult concept. What is excellence exactly? What do I associate with it? When the Airmail Center is preferred by customers because it doesn’t make mistakes. When it is preferred by employees because they are happy working here. When our shareholders are happy with us. We can achieve all of this when we are excellent.

Axel Heitmann:
Keywords are still reliability, availability, responsiveness, transparency. This is what the Airmail Center stands for. Our customer surveys continue to show us that we are achieving these. Sometimes we are our own toughest critics. Nothing prevents us from taking a critical look inward on the way to excellence and questioning a lot, making improvements, and continuing to develop. In fact I believe that the hinge function I described earlier is not a viable one. In this changing world we have to be much more open for other services so that we can weave ourselves into an integrated logistics chain and make ourselves indispensable. Otherwise we will end up in arbitrariness and mediocrity.

What does continuous improvement mean for you? In relation to customer relations, partner relations, and processes? Where do you see potential?

Markus Bellinghausen:
There is no question that continuous improvement is a key concept for further development in a company. With regard to customers and partners this means a regular dialog with them at first. Understanding the pain points of our customers and the concerns and needs of our partners. And then trying to find the best possible solutions and the right answers to the challenges. This can only be done – as the term continuous shows – through regular dialog because these customer requirements are constantly changing. This is why it is so important to keep in constant contact.

Axel Heitmann:
It is also critical to ensure that processes are being continuously improved. Because it is only when we keep working to improve that we can survive in the market with all of the quality parameters, error rates, run times, or damages. This is also usually true for pricing because we also have competition so price is also always of importance.

Markus Bellinghausen:
With processes it is hard to determine if the optimal has been reached yet and one can say: I have done everything I can to optimize this process. It is much more of an evolution process that we can go through multiple times and continue to identify potential both qualitatively and in terms of price. To summarize we can say: The Airmail Center is already in regular contact with customers and partners but this will be intensified still further. And with the processes we will implement a continuous improvement process that goes even further than what we have now.

How important is the topic of networking for handling airmail?

Axel Heitmann:
All aspects of networking are extremely important, first and foremost in the area of partner and customer management. The Airmail Center is in a rather distinct sandwich position where nothing would be possible without networking. This is also true for the topic of IT.

Markus Bellinghausen:
We’ve discovered: Our customers have been asking for more and more transparency along the process chain in the past few years. Each packet generates messages in the process chain and our customer wants visualizations and notifications for these messages. To the same extent that IT is essential for our sorting machine, cross-system networking plays a pivotal role.

Axel Heitmann:
The question we are often asked on this topic is: Who are you customers actually? The airline? The postal company? Yes that is how it is and how it will continue to be in the future. But we should also be on the lookout for other customers that might appear on the horizon like other postal authorities or other shippers who are involved with moving mail. Of course at the end of the day some things are already determined for us because of our portfolio business. But we can’t shut ourselves off to new developments and we have to be open for opportunities beyond the described hinge function. For a small company like ours this is a big challenge.

Markus Bellinghausen:
For me the big question is: How do we find out if other service providers could use our portfolio? How are these service providers working right now? Can we do something for them? It is a very complex, heterogeneous market and we are asking ourselves: What can we do in this market to better our position? Even at the airport there is some mail that does not go through us. So there is more out there and we need to look after it.

Change is great. But how do you control it? What lies ahead in the Airmail Center business model?

Markus Bellinghausen:
I am going to answer your question on the topic of change and that is the key to success. A change process can only be made together with the all of management. We have to be careful that we don’t throw our employees off mentally with it. For this reason, we need to properly explain the reason for the change processes because they often come with sacrifices. Change is not always nice. This is why the necessity of it must be explained and compensating actions have to be taken in case there are too many victims. Management in particular is required to do this. The necessity of change is tied closely together with continuous process improvement. Some might not agree that such a process is necessary. 
But a continuous change process is always directly a change process and we are both required to regulate this by intervening.

What does that actually mean?

Axel Heitmann:
In principle, this means that it is the change in the direction of continuous improvement. And at the end of the process is excellence and then the cycle is complete. This kind of a process comes naturally and cannot be stopped. We have to shape it and without a doubt that is the hardest thing to do. That is a general context: You can only achieve excellence on the way to continuous improvement if the change process is actively shaped.

Where do you see the company in 3 to 5 years?

Markus Bellinghausen:
New on board, I don’t see the company in 3 to 5 years yet. I don’t have the insight for that yet. But I know what we need to do in the next 12 months. I am in the position to come up with an operational short-term strategy.

Axel Heitmann:
Of course we always look into the future when thinking about economic considerations. With our products we are right on the pulse of globalization. We are hanging onto the flypaper to put it another way. I cannot claim to be able to evaluate how the Airmail Center core business will develop in the next three to five years in terms of its business with the USA. Or to have an answer to the questions: How will the Chinese market develop? What will the impact of the regulatory changes be on our core business of postal dispatch? How will the mail streams change in the Frankfurt hub? Our best advice is to position ourselves so that we can react flexibly. We also need to be lean in the future and only provide what we can actually provide. I can also say one more thing about where I see the business in three to five years: that it can survive in the market with excellent service.

Markus Bellinghausen:
I also think that it is not possible to predict how the business will be in three to five years. Five years ago no one could have predicted that China would be coming. You always have to decide: Is it a trend or is it hype? Sometimes it is hard to separate those but you have to react to hype the same way you react to trends. And in this respect in the end all you can say is: always stay moving.

The management in the Airmail Center: The fortunes of the Airmail Center are in the hands of Axel Heinemann and Markus Bellinghausen