This blog takes a look at a career in customs from a different point of view: that of our customer. Stefanie Decaluwé is the Supply Chain Coordinator for Agristo, a Belgium-based manufacturer of delicious potato products that exports to more than 130 countries around the world.
When Stefanie first started with Agristo in 2009, she worked in Customer Service for export customers. Over the next several years, the department grew from four to 20 people. In addition to the specific customer service areas, she also learned about Agristo’s production planning, logistics planning, expeditions… but not very much about customs. In 2018, she was eager to go for a new challenge, and that’s when the new role of Supply Chain Coordinator came up within Agristo. “I immediately saw the link between my experience and the Supply Chain Coordinator role. I was in the right place at the right time. I already knew our workflows, our products, and the countries we import and export to. I saw this as an opportunity to extend my career within Agristo and to create a high value for the company.”
One of Stefanie’s first projects in her new role was to take the lead to obtain an Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) license. She was working together with various departments to collect and organize the data required for AEO certification using the CAS AEO tool. “I had already been working with Customs4trade in my customer service role and then got more involved with them working on our AEO project. In fact, that’s how my role grew into what it is today. During the AEO project it really became clear that there were quite a lot of advantages to focusing on customs and taking full ownership of it in-house.”
The more Stefanie learned about customs, the more passionate she got about the potential. “During the AEO project, I got more and more involved in the import and export flows as well as in certain specific customs fields like Free Trade Agreements and preferential origin. A customs education doesn’t really exist here in Belgium today. People involved in customs are mostly people who got ‘bitten’! They learn in the field and they get passionate about it. That’s how it happened for me.”
When Stefanie started her role as Supply Chain Coordinator, customs was only a small part of her job but it grew quickly. As the role of customs continues to grow within Agristo, additional team members are being trained to handle customs-related matters. Stefanie also serves as Agristo’s Brexit coordinator, a crucial function considering about 30% of Agristo’s product volume is exported to the UK.
“Many companies are relying on brokers, which is good of course, but sometimes they do not realize that their company is responsible for the data set to be compliant to customs, not the broker. We realized we were missing the helicopter view and really saw the benefits of diving into customs internally. We wanted to focus on automation with CAS.” Agristo started by automating export declarations and continued with imports under the inward processing procedure and more recently with imports into the UK. “Before, we spent a lot of time exchanging information and documents, for example sending invoices to brokers, informing our expeditions that the customs release was received, and so on. By using CAS and introducing internal improvements, this all vanished. It’s one data set starting from our SAP system, sent through CAS to the customs systems, and returning to CAS for the releases. There is no need for personal communication between colleagues and brokers—it’s all done automatically. This creates time and opportunities to communicate with those same brokers and colleagues about less operational topics, focus on exchanging knowledge, and discuss long-term visions. This is an evolution I was very involved in and I really saw the change in efficiency of how quickly shipments are released. We also achieved significant optimisation by having one data set arranging export and import through one and the same system in a very short timeframe.”
Stefanie ended up immersing herself in customs much more than she had ever anticipated going into her Supply Chain Coordinator role. “What I like the most about my job is that it keeps evolving and changing. It’s never boring! It’s nice to see more and more colleagues getting involved and interested in customs. It’s not that easy to have a clear view of what customs really means. When you see the bigger picture, you realize not only how complex customs is, but also how motivating and challenging it can be.”
In 2020, Stefanie’s motivation earned her a nomination for the Customs Professional Award. “I was pleased and a bit surprised that I was nominated! I had to learn about customs in a very short time and I was recognized alongside other nominees who had been in customs for 30 years and had a lot more knowledge and experience than I had. I was very flattered that I was given that chance as a newcomer to the field. It also made me realize there are a lot of opportunities ahead of me in customs and that’s the challenge I need.”
How does Stefanie see her role playing out in the future? “At Agristo, we aim to create value for our customers by, for example, strengthening the supply chain. Digitization and automation of the supply chain including customs is an enabler to achieve this value. Now, with the UK outside of the EU, approximately 70% of our total volume is export. More automated flows translate to more efficiency within our organization. I’m quite convinced that more challenges and opportunities will cross our path.”
At C4T, we’re really excited to share our passion for customs with our customers, and Stefanie is a perfect example. This partnership is proof that #weareinthistogether. “It’s quite impressive how much Agristo has grown since I started. The same for Customs4trade. We’ve grown together and that’s been really nice.”