Nimble logistics is this market’s beating heart now more than ever

Without a steady flow of sodium carbonate (commonly and historically known as soda ash), entire industries would instantly grind to a halt. Hundreds of manufacturing plants around the world that make glass, detergents and many other products would be forced to suspend production, and companies would lose millions for each day of interrupted activity. But even in the troubled context of these past couple of years, such a nightmare scenario has not happened.

And that’s partially thanks to Solvay’s committed teams at its Soda Ash & Derivatives business unit. These teams do their utmost every day to make sure customers stay supplied despite major disruptions in global supply chains (recently caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Suez Canal blockage, etc.) which have been wreaking havoc on the world’s logistics streams. 

We asked a few members of those dedicated teams to share their story…

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“I’m in charge of coordinating the production of our six European production plants. It’s a constant game of balancing scales between sales on one side and output on the other. When Covid-19 hit, international maritime transport was suddenly at a standstill, but we needed to make sure we could continue evacuating our product and answering the demand that remained high, especially for sodium bicarbonate. So we created an operational executive committee (six core members supported by various experts) and gave them the power to make high-level management decisions on a daily basis without having to wait for top-down validation. Thanks to this, we were able to be creative in our solutions: segmenting customers, consolidating demand and switching transportation from containers to conventional shipments or the opposite for more agility. My colleague Vanya’s work was key in doing this (see her story below). We basically made operations the center of our business at a time when acting fast was essential. This crisis team saved us.” - Alessandro Caleffi, European Sales and Operations Planning Manager, Brussels.

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“With saturated ports, unavailable ships and containers, and service interruptions, international shipping became extremely complicated due to Covid-19 restrictions. It wasn’t a matter of delivering on time; simply being able to continue delivering at all was a feat. On top of that, shipping costs have increased to levels never seen before.” 

“Our plant in Devnya is the Group’s largest soda ash plant in Europe, and we’re one of the biggest exporters in the region. My role is multifunctional: buyer, scheduler, auditor, problem-solver - it’s never boring! I’m proud of the fact that despite the context, we still managed to ship 8,000 containers in the first half of 2021, as many as a normal year. We adapted to this new reality of transport scarcity by thinking more out of the box. Every day, I’m in contact with my colleagues in sales, production and front office, as well as with carriers, in order to better understand everyone’s expectations and limitations and take advantage of every available container. It’s more work for the same tonnage, and our productive collaboration is the key. And when we commit, we find a way to deliver. My colleagues call me a magician.” - Vanya Tsvetkova, Regional Logistics Manager, Bulgaria.

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“Soda Ash & Derivatives has no industrial base in Latin America. We distribute product imported from Europe and the USA, so logistics is our heart and soul. When a request came to open a new logistics channel by road between Chile and Argentina to supply a major glass manufacturer’s facility located much closer to the border than to the ports on the Argentinian coast, we had to create from scratch a new route through 3,000-meter passes across the Andes. This meant negotiating with customs – such a quantity of merchandise flowing across the border in that direction had never existed – and working with a carrier to equip a large number of trucks with a special liner to protect the sodium carbonate from extreme weather conditions. All in all, it’s been a big success that we’re looking to replicate for other routes. We came up with an innovative, simple and cost-effective solution, and our customer is happy and grateful because now they have reliability of supply like never before, which is good to have in this day and age.” - Nelly Perez, Country & Market Manager, Chile.

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“I serve a vast portfolio of customers across Asia, particularly local players with whom we have developed great customer intimacy over the years. Since last year, they all experience problems with supply, and every day is a challenge. In order to be more reactive, and because logistics has become the key element in our industry, we created a buffer stock in Singapore: a few hundred tons of soda ash and sodium bicarbonate enabling us to answer specific demands very fast. In fact, most of the product is rerouted towards customers before it even has a chance to be stored! Customers are ready to pay a premium for guaranteed quick delivery. We manage to be more agile than our competitors: that’s what differentiates Solvay – our capacity to deliver products on time is unique! In times of crisis, it’s a matter of day-to-day management to reroute shipments whenever necessary and keeping our customers informed with full transparency. We’re among the good performers in the industry. All that has value for them.” - Michel Wierinck, Head of Sales and Marketing, Asia-Pacific, Singapore