Getting Brexit-ready: the lessons learned at DPD
For the last 48 years, it was as easy to ship a parcel from Birmingham to Berlin as from Birmingham to Bolton. Not any more. This all changed six weeks ago, following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU Single Market and Customs Union.
DPD had started to get ready for Brexit in June 2016. Still, nothing could have prepared the team for the reality of the first day trying to send vehicles across The Channel into mainland Europe.
As both the company and its customers grappled with new rules and new IT platforms to tackle customs clearance, it meant that 20% of parcels had incorrect or incomplete data and had to be held in our network (a figure that dropped to 5%).
Next, delays and congestion hit at UK ports. Within days, the backlog in the system meant a pause in road services to the EU and Ireland for the first time in living memory. Not a decision taken lightly, given that the company was part of DPD Group’s massive European road network connecting 900 sites across 30 countries.
Brexit – a bigger mountain to climb than Covid
In fact, if you’d asked me last June whether anything could be as challenging as adapting to Covid-19, I’d have said “No”.
I was wrong.
Getting Brexit-ready was by far the most challenging thing the team had ever done to keep our £300m international business on the road.
there had been an investment of nearly £14m in the previous two years getting ready. That included recruiting almost 300 additional people – mainly to handle customs clearance – plus a massive spend on warehousing space and IT systems.
There was also a knock-on effect across numerous departments, from Sales to Customer Care to Finance and beyond.
To make sure the company made joined-up decisions, there was a project team of 20 people who met every morning and afternoon to discuss issues, pool ideas and create solutions for DPD’s customers.
As I have discussed previously, when massive change hits your business, you find out what your people are made of. Team DPD stood at 22,000 strong (9,000 more than this time last year), and during 2020 I lost count of how many times I asked all of them to “dig deep and go again”.
I felt humbled by the incredible resilience DPD employees showed when faced with the double-whammy of Covid and Brexit. They displayed enormous grit and determination to keep going on a path where there were no shortcuts.
Do you speak Brexit?
It’s also been fascinating to see how different customers have reacted to the new trading environment, and there were three distinct groups:
- Customers who started making thorough preparations months ago and were ready for the extra bureaucracy now required. And as a result, they have barely missed a beat.
- A group of customers who decided to ‘wait and see’ before making significant changes.
- A segment which put Brexit in the ‘too hard pile’ and/or decided that the cost of being Brexit-ready outweighed the potential benefits.
Re Option 3, of course, it may have been tempting to hide under a rock in the face of seismic changes and hope that you’ll never need an EORI (Economic Operator Registration and Identification) number, that signing up to the GVMS (Goods Vehicle Movement Service) is not a thing and that the words Movement Reference Number (MRN) will never pass your lips. You might also have been tempted to ignore the NCTS (Newly Computerised Transit System). It’s fair to say that Brexit brought with it a whole blizzard of new acronyms!
In short, getting Brexit-ready was like learning a whole new language. While everyone will be more fluent a year from now, the odd stutter, miscommunication and faux pas during the early stages were to be expected.
The DPD approach to Brexit was similar to the approach adopted to tackle Covid: focus on what’s most important and on what can be changed, and accept what’s outside the company’s control.
And that would be my advice to companies in options 2 and 3 above. If you’re still in the ‘wait and see’ group, now is the time to get back on the horse.
If you still feel reluctant, remember that, as a wise leader once said, ‘you don’t have to enjoy everything you want to do’. At DPD, the systems were in place, and they have worked well with the NCTS. From 1973 to 2020 trading with our European cousins was a breeze. But, as we discover in times of adversity, only the headwinds make you stronger, so I remained confident that by continuing to work closely with our cherished customers, DPD could achieve this target.