By Jack Kohane

Innovation, infrastructure improvements and strategic partnerships have enabled Duisport to become the world’s largest inland port. Located in the hinterland of Germany, hundreds of miles from open sea, Duisport has grown into an international transportation hub, most of that achieved in the last decade.

“There’s no single recipe to make a port successful,” opines Erich Staake, President and CEO of Duisburger Hafen AG, the parent company of Duisburger Hafen Group, which manages the port of Duisburg, Germany (“Duisport”). “But one must think outside the box and seize the opportunities that arise,” he affirms.

Certainly geography helps. Two-thirds owned by the State of North-Rhine Westphalia and one-third by the City of Duisburg, Duisport is sited at the central crossing point of the most important European transport corridors. From here, 150 million consumers can be reached in just eight hours. And with a direct connection via the river Rhine, Duisport represents the hinterland hub for maritime cargo from the North Sea Ports Zeebrugge, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp. Being located in the biggest industrial conurbation area, the industrial companies in the Rhein-Ruhr area supply a vast amount of continental cargo which further stimulates the logistic services of the port. Direct, multi-modal networking with international freight traffic underlines the port’s leading position as the gateway to European markets.

With a 3.5-million-TEU container-handling capacity (slated to expand to 5.0 million TEUs by January of 2015), 110 million tonnes of cargo handled each year, and business volume of over 160 million Euros ($230 million) in 2012, award-winning logistics operator Duisport has positioned itself as Europe’s leading logistics centre and placed itself firmly on the map.

Staake credits the port’s rise to Continental stardom on forward thinking and diversification. “By being focused on the optimization of processes within value chains, we have developed from a traditional landlord into an integrated solution provider,” he says. “This further enabled us to understand the needs and requirements of our customers (shippers, carriers, logistics service providers etc.) and to develop solutions in partnership.”

A nexus for Continental trade since 1716, the port of Duisburg has long relied on the constant flow of goods as its main lifeline. Founded in the 1920s, the original Duisburg-Ruhrorter Häfen Aktiengesellschaft (the new name of Duisburger Hafen AG was adopted in 2000) has undergone substantial changes and redefined its strategies to reflect the growing trend from bulk cargo to higher-grade general cargo.

As the new millennium dawned, Duisport ramped up its global strategy to attract new services and more cargo. The port company identified growth markets, including container and coal importation operations, and boosted networking initiatives with other major ports to increase cargo shipments through Duisburg (ties have been strengthened with most major international ports, including contracts with the U.S. ports of Memphis and Pittsburgh).

Today, the port’s infrastructure covers nine container terminals, twenty container bridges and two roll-on/roll-off facilities with 220,000 square meters for automobile logistics containerized, and bulk and general cargo. “More than 300 companies are located within the port which all together are responsible for a value creation chain of 3 billion Euros (over $4.3 billion) per year,” Staake said. Duisport’s logistics network covers maritime transport and inland navigation as well as transport on the roads, in the air and on railroads. Duisport covers 1,350 hectares (3,335 acres) of logistics space, two million square meters of covered storage area, sustained by over €250 million in investments made annually by the port.

From humble beginnings as a backwater town at the confluence of the Rhine and Ruhr Rivers, Duisburg first rose to industrial prominence with the arrival of mega-plants here in the 18th century of a number industrial conglomerates such as iron and steel producing firms Thyssen and Krupp. Now more than 300 companies are located within the port, with A-list clients like Kuehne & Nagel, Siemens, Bayer, and Volkswagen, and the number of those employed by Duisburger Hafen Group has doubled to 1,000 within the last 15 years. The port posted 4 per cent growth in 2012 compared to 2011. It has more than 360 weekly rail services to more than 80 direct destinations throughout Europe and Asia, including Moscow, Istanbul and Chongqing. “This constant expansion of our portfolio has certainly contributed to our growing reputation,” emphasizes Staake.

Duisport also offers full-service packages in infra and supra-structure to manufacturers and logistic service providers. One example is rail freight transport with its own railroad company, Duisport Rail (established in 2001). “We help our customers to develop intermodal concepts for the optimization of their supply chains,” Staake points out. Duisport offers state-of-the-art packing services, including customized packing and transportation systems for a range of cargoes, from small parts and hazardous products to heavy equipment, machines and even entire industrial plants. In order to more effectively control the transportation routes, Duisburger Hafen AG recently introduced an IT-based tracking and tracing system to follow the progress of the port’s shipments around the world, which Staake boasts provides his customers with the kind of state-of-the-art technology they need to be competitive in tough global markets.

In Toronto recently as keynote speaker for the 9th Annual Highway H2O Conference hosted by The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, Staake relished the opportunity to tell the Duisport story to attending delegates. “The Duisport-group has generated steady growth over the last 10 years,” he told the audience of marine industry leaders. “Today Duisport belongs to the top 50 container ports in the world, offering an international network with a multitude of partners worldwide … with value-added services like multimodal transhipment terminals, warehouse and storage resources, elaborate packing as well as market- and client-oriented service concepts, we can claim that we take quality the extra mile.”

As far as the port’s business model is concerned, Staake believes it is well prepared for future expansion. “All our business areas have a strong growth potential, which is crucial for our further development,” he stated in an exclusive interview with Canadian Sailings. “As far as markets are concerned, we are beginning to expand our focus beyond the BRIC states to countries such as Turkey, Indonesia or Mexico.”

Duisport already has regular rail and short sea connections to Istanbul every week. From 2016 onwards, the Audi group, which has chosen Duisport as the location for its world’s largest CKD-center (“Completely Knocked Down,” or fully disassembled to reduce freight charges to the end-user or reseller), will be exporting automobile components to Audi production facilities in Mexico. Similarly, Volkswagen will use Duisport to start its CKD business in early 2014. “We expect similar business opportunities in other countries in the future,” Staake concluded. Business volume at Duisport will surpass €200 million ($288 million) in the next five years, he predicts. “We will also enhance our container-handling capacity to 6 million TEUs in the near future.”