Coeur: A heart for road transport

Established in 1926, Coeur – French for ‘Heart’ – started out with a fleet of horse-drawn carts before it ventured into the motorised transport market in the 1950s. Still based in Merville, a small town in northern France, it can now boast more horse power than ever before and operates anywhere between Paris, London and Berlin – upholding the family tradition of hard work, versatility and flexibility, even in a time of economic turmoil.

Considering the distinct name, it is no surprise that each of the 30 company trucks is still bearing the blue and green heart on the bonnet. What’s more, each family member working in the company has a heart for transport as well.

Second generation Director, Jean-Pierre Coeur, for instance, has been retired for a year already, but he is still working as a consultant to support his sons, who now run the company. Almost every day, he can be found at his desk, keeping in touch with old customers and occasionally even taking place behind the wheel of a truck if someone is needed on a short route in the surrounding area.

Like so many, Jean-Pierre Coeur started out in the company as a driver, until he took the helm from his father in 1970. “My son Damien also worked as a driver for a year, even though he had already completed a five-year degree programme,” Jean-Pierre says. “Now he is the CEO. He knows the business down to the last detail and no driver can pull the wool over his eyes.”

Damien’s place is now behind a computer screen, staring at maps that track the entire fleet in real time and reveal whether the order has been delivered according to plan. He can also access data about the driver’s travel and rest time, which is simultaneously transmitted to the head office. At his desk, Damien feels like in the tower at an airport, similar to the one located right next to the company’s premises. If instructions have to be given to a driver – for example if there is a problem with the scheduled delivery date or a return load – they are sent via satellite as a text to the on-board computer in the cabin; and the driver replies in the same way.

In fact, the drivers don’t use mobile phones at all as it is illegal to make calls while driving. According to Damien, the ‘written’ communication can even be an advantage as all messages can be saved so nobody can pretend they did not receive or understand instructions correctly. “The initial concern that our staff would reject the new technology because they would feel permanently controlled and kept on a leash proved to be unfounded,” says Damien. “The responded very positively because it gives them security, and today, they are the first ones to complain if something is not working right.”

Jean-Pierre’s sister, Christine, is still working in the business as Chief Financial Officer and a walking encyclopaedia of the Coeur family’s history. “The company has been around since the 1880s,” she says. “It was purchased in 1926 by our grandfather, a baker who was allergic to flour. At the time, everything was transported by horse and cart, and funerals were also included in the range of services.”

According to Christine, the company did not switch to motorised vehicles – initially dump trucks for the transport of coal and construction materials – until the 1950s. When the company started to implement trucks in the business, only eight out of 20 employees were left, and none of the once 40 horses was kept. However, the number of employees quickly grew again as Coeur’s client base increased during the decade to follow.

The now motorised “Transports Coeur” business became a key partner of SNCF, France’s national railway, transporting cargo to a freight terminal in nearby Hazebrouck or from there to the end-customer. “Back then, the railway dominated the long-distance transport scene,” says Jean-Pierre.

It was not before the company’s main customer, Franco Belge, a foundry in Merville that manufactured heating appliances, switched from rail to road in 1967. As a result, Transports Coeur had no choice but to become a long-distance transport company if they wanted to maintain the business.

During that time Transports Coeur also moved away from the town centre of Merville when Franco Belge, now Coeur’s main client, asked for warehousing and logistics services. As a result, the company moved to an industrial area nearby Merville’s airport, opening up 3,000m2 warehouse that I still in use today. From Merville, Coeur services all of France, as well as Germany, Belgium and the UK.

Jean-Pierre Coeur’s second son, Olivier, now is General Manager and responsible for vehicle technology and driver deployment. “Our trucks – all of which are made by Renault – travel one million kilometres, or about six years, before we replace them with new ones,” he explains. “Our trailers, meanwhile, are replaced every six to eight years.” At the moment, Coeur is switching over to German brand Krone, slowly replacing the old fleet.

“We currently operate six Krone curtain-siders, one closed box model and one refrigerated trailer,” says Olivier Coeur. “We are not only satisfied with the quality and service, but also enjoy the fact that Krone strictly adheres to its offers, commitments, schedules and deadlines. They would rather deliver one week earlier than a day too late, and inspections and repairs are fast and reliable, too. It’s a real difference in terms of business culture as compared to what we often experience with companies from our own country.”

Just as the trailer brand may change over time, Coeur’s client base has changed greatly as well. “Coeur is a generalist, and we transport what is needed,” Jean-Pierre says. “Due to the variety of freight we cart, the peak times that arise during the year are pretty evenly distributed, which is a main advantage.

“Plus, we no longer depend on one or two key accounts, but generate 60 per cent of our sales revenue with twelve customers. If a client doesn’t need us anymore or cancels an order, we are flexible enough to replace it.”

Coeur still transports cast iron heaters on behalf of Franco Belge, but now also carts pots and pans for the foundry, along with plastic laboratory equipment for Gosselin, an American company, travelling from northern France to Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux and Toulouse in the south.

For the Kiabi and Camaieu textile brands, pallet loads of textiles produced in Asia are brought from the Port of Dunkirk to a warehouse at Roubaix in northern France. Transports Coeur also services retail chains such as Leroy-Merlin and Lidl, albeit only in its home region of Nord-Pas de Calais.

When it comes to refrigerated transport, Coeur transports bananas for the Fruidor Group, moving them from the Port of Dunkirk to all areas of France, and chocolate products for the Cémoi company, taking them from the production site in northern France to warehouses in Macon and Orléans. In addition, there are regular shuttle services between Lyon and Lille for groupage freight.

All of Coeur’s refrigerated trailers are equipped with telematics systems to continuously monitor the temperature en route and provide proof to the client that the specified temperatures were maintained and that the cold chain was not interrupted. However, that data not transmitted to the head office in real time. “Since we drive relatively short routes, it would not make any sense. That’s more for longer, international journeys,” says Jean-Pierre.

Coeur does not utilise combined road and rail transport, either, because the nearest CT terminal is some 50 kilometres away. Plus, the company only covers between 500 and 600 kilometres per trip, hence combined transport would not be feasible.

In order to organise a regular transport service between northern France and the Lyon region in the south without making drivers stay away from home for too long, the company hired five people who live in Lyon and stationed just as many truck and trailer combinations there. The trailers intended for destinations in northern France are then taken to a rest area near Dijon, where the drivers meet their colleagues from Merville who bring freight destined for Lyon. In what Jean-Pierre has labelled ‘truck-meets-truck traffic’, the trailers are then swapped so everyone can drive back towards their hometown.

Despite the current success, Jean-Pierre's heart is heavy when he thinks of the next year. From mid-2013, the French Government wants to introduce a so-called eco-tax, which will be imposed on trucks travelling on federal roads and highway stretches that are now still toll-free. According to Jean-Pierre, that change will be expensive for everyone involved in the supply chain, “especially for the end consumers who are not even aware of it. For transport companies, particularly smaller ones, the question is how and if we can pass on the additional costs to our customers. They are already annoyed about increasing surcharges caused by rising diesel prices.”

As Jean-Pierre sees it, the much-discussed topic of cabotage is less of a problem within France than it is for cross-border transport. He is especially irritated with Spanish companies that look for return freight and undercut prices in order to gain market share. Because of these practices, Coeur lost its long-standing Merville-to-Madrid business to a Spanish competitor. “The competition charges about €1,500 per job,” says Jean-Pierre. “We would not even cover our cost for that amount.” Nonetheless, Jean- Pierre Coeur is confident that the Coeur family will stick together in solving that problem well, rising to the challenge as it did ever since the truck replaced the horse-drawn cart.

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