Charting a new course

Nir Matalon was overwhelmed. "I've received so many emails and Whatsapp messages since I announced that I was ending my tenure at Malca-Amit! Here, look at this one!" and hands me his smartphone: Nir, I will very much miss you at Malca…you and your team have done me great service…given me excellent support and you were always there for me. Good luck with everything you [will] do…
Matalon smiles and says: "Note those last sentences. It goes to the heart of Malca-Amit's mission – to always be there for clients, to give them the service they specifically need, offer solutions, and when needed troubleshoot their logistic problems."

After 21 years at Malca-Amit, almost exclusively at the helm of the firms' Antwerp operations, Nir Matalon, 62, is not retiring. He is moving on the next chapter of both his professional, as well as his personal life. Recently married to a career woman who is a professional opera singer, he expects to be playing a supportive role within his young family. And he also hopes to be spending more time sailing, a passion he has pursued since his early youth.

​You grew up in close proximity to the diamond bourse complex in Ramat Gan?​

"Right, I grew up in nearby Givatayim, in a traditional family and household, but without any ties to the diamond industry and trade.  After my army service, I studied engineering. Once I had completed those studies, I found myself working in a managerial capacity at a leading Israeli insurance firm.

How did the move to Malca-Amit come about?

Very much like many of my peers found their way to Malca-Amit: through a combination of factors, such as professional training and background, mobility and a good measure of networking. In my case, I had a good and highly responsible management job at Phoenix Insurance company but, for personal reasons, was looking to relocate to Belgium. An introduction was made, there was what we call in Hebrew "chemistry" between the parties and in 1997, I started working for Malca-Amit in Antwerp."

Which, at that time, must have been quite different - still just a shipping company?

"Correct! Twenty-one years ago, in Antwerp, too, Malca-Amit's focus was on shipping diamonds, with jewelry slowly coming into play as well. At that time, we were definitely not the leader of the pack yet and were competing fiercely with the known competitors in our market's niche. To grow and to lead, we needed to expand, horizontally and vertically. I also think that at that time we weren't yet aware of the term 'logistics', but neither were any of our clients! However, since I came to Malca-Amit from a large industry -  insurance -  where the competition is murderous and with a strong client-oriented corporate culture and discipline, I immediately asked the question we always asked first: 'What do the clients want?'"

And what did the clients want?

"I ran a survey among the clients and most of them came back with rather identical answers, emphasizing the need for speed, good insurance, real time information, a low price, and last, but not least, security. The order of the clients' preferences was clear but for us, ground rule number one was -and remains -  security, meaning physical security and legal security. To us, these two aspects of security are inseparable: each physical move we make needs to be completely within the law. This principle also has a direct impact on the validity of insurance, and also on the price paid for the services.

Can you give an example?

"Here is one from twenty years ago. In 1998, a strike of all armored cars in Belgium was called. Nobody - Malca-Amit, Brinks, Ferrari-Monstrey, or any other company - could run shipments to and from the airports. We soon heard that some of our competitors decided to use regular, private cars to run their shipments. Be assured that was completely illegal - and, of course, also irresponsible. I called Malca-Amit's co-founder and CEO at that time, Rafi Amit, asking him what to do. Rafi's response was very simple: stop all activities until the situation is resolved and meanwhile see if there are any other - legal – solutions we can find?!"
"In the end, we indeed did find another solution – after lots of sweating - but it was clear that we would and could not compromise on the legality of our actions."
Matalon noted that Malca-Amit's insistence on proper protocol in this case drew the attention of a large diamond producer. "I got a call from the firm's head of security, who asked if we could provide them with service. We happily agreed, and the producer continues to work with us to this very day!"

Matalon emphasised that throughout the years, and certainly since the beginning of this century, the rules and regulations had become more numerous and stringent. "That's good for the industry, as it heightens the industry overall credibility and reputation, which is so important. Here's another, more current example: KYC – know your client, or more encompassing, know your counterpart. A company like Malca-Amit today is more like a bank - the legal implications of any missteps are enormous and therefore we are as strict as we are today."

What triggered the conceptual and structural changes Malca-Amit experienced and what part have you taken in implementing changes?

"The short answer to that two-part question consists of three parts: vision, synergies and differentiation. You see, for a niche company such as Malca-Amit to grow, you cannot only concentrate on a single product. The world around you is changing, and you need to adapt to it. I believe that, because of the continuous communication and exchanges within the company, we succeeded in identifying those fields and areas where we could offer new services and bring in new clients.
Take what we call low cost shipments for instance.  For a lot of - potential – clients, Malca-Amit's exclusive door-to-door service, designed for high value shipments, is neither affordable nor practical. But as these potential clients know us well since they are in the diamond trade, and supply the retail jewellery sector, they'd like to work with us. For them, we developed a new product, a door-to-door shipping service of relatively low-cost shipments, from $5,000 to $75,000. For that purpose, we have created synergies with a company like Federal Express. Basically, FedEx executes the service on behalf of Malca-Amit Express, following our specific rules of engagement and with additional security features installed. This cooperation - synergy! - has proven very successful, practical and affordable for our low-cost clients."

"As to differentiation, throughout the years we have worked very hard to gain that competitive edge that sets us apart. For example, we have succeeded in establishing exclusive arrangements at various – European – airports – that facilitate earlier delivery of imports to the Diamond Office and quicker export shipments, e.g. to Dubai , overnight, i.e. a day earlier  that others!"

What about services that were developed specifically for the Antwerp market?

"Antwerp is unique, due to its role as the world's exclusive hub for the rough and polished diamond trade. Throughout the years, we indeed have developed and provided customized products for the industry in Antwerp.
A service that was specifically custom-made for Antwerp is our GemTrade service. Antwerp, being the unique hub it is, draws a lot of business. But nor all foreign companies, many of them 'nichy' and small, can afford to open an Antwerp office.  Here, we become the conduit and agent that handles, executes and - not less important - guarantees the business deal. These business agent services have brought a lot of business to Antwerp. We're now offering similar services in China!
Speaking about China, Malca-Amit was instrumental in assuring the success of the Antwerp Diamond stand in Belgium's national pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai a number of years back. While run by the Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC), Malca-Amit handled not only all the logistics but also helped as it has an extensive network of business ties in the Chinese gem and jewellery market. This also enabled the AWDC to allow the selling of polished diamonds onsite to the Chinese public!
By means of GemTrade, Antwerp has become a very important port of entry for shipments coming from outside the EU which then are shipped to the end destination in the EU by GemTrade. Companies that work with GemTrade like to use Belgium as the port of entry as the country is the only EU member that does not require the payment of VAT on diamonds!"

I understand GemLab is also a unique service offered from Antwerp?

We decided to open Gemlab in Antwerp after we recognized the opportunity to create a win-win situation (service) for our customers. At a later point in time we also provided the service in Ramat Gan.
What is GemLab? Customers who wish to have their stones graded by a laboratory overseas, needed to ship their stones to that lab. As fast and comfortable as our Malca-Amit shipping services are, there are costs and time issues involved. With Gemlab, customers can submit their stones locally, as if the laboratory was on site, and Gemlab takes care of all the rest. It creates value all around and mostly, peace of mind. For our customers, it means time and cost efficiencies, also in the communication with the designated lab, and for the lab it means receiving consolidating shipments of stones, making customer management so much easier. It also has an impact on the quality of service that we offer to the market since the consolidation helps decrease the number of individual shipments and shipping parties, enabling our staff more leeway in taking care of customers' shipments.

What about the rough market? Auctions and tenders, for example?

"Of course, the changes in the rough market have also required companies - large and small – to access the palette of services that we offer. Let me give you a specific example. A medium-sized mining company wants to sell a run-of the-mine production by auction. While the auction itself will be held online, the potential buyers – the subscribers to the auction – need to view the goods. Since the company is large enough, with its own office in the diamond quarter, the logistics are relatively easy. But if it does not have an office, it needs representation. And that's where we come in. We can handle the entire process for them."

We mentioned that you are a 'fanatic boater.' What is it with sailing that enchants you?

"Sailing gives a man peace of mind. The sound of the sails, the boat cutting through the waves, the wind, its calming and soothing. At the same time, on a sizable boat, you need a team that know the drill, know what the preparations are and how to execute each his or hers designated task. It's teamwork under the best and most pleasant of circumstances. And of course, you're all literally in the same boat, which enables good conversations and exchanges with people of different cultures and backgrounds who share the same passion as they all speak the same language of sailing. Of course, it is easy to see how these principles have allowed me to sail so many years with Malca-Amit as well!"