4th Senior Management Course - Antwerp September 2011
Lloyds List - 26 September 2011
There is, in case you have not noticed it, something of a gulf emerging between the sea carriers, who are slowing down their sea passages to save fuel, and the shippers who have to wait rather longer for their goods. The former, of course, are stressing their environmental credentials in this deceleration, loudly pointing out that they are saving the planet, while the latter are forced to seethe quietly, noting that it is impolitic to suggest publicly that this green agenda is a lot of tosh, benefiting only the shipowners.
The carriers’ reluctance to open their throttles and the consignees increasing impatience points inexorably to the link in the logistics chain which is occupied by the cargo handlers in port – the stevedores. Everyone’s beady eye thus swivels towards the port and terminal operator, who might be “persuaded” to take up some of the slack and restore some of the efficiencies which disappeared as the speed dropped. They probably don’t have a lot of choice.
Stevedores are pretty switched on about these matters. I spent a couple of days last week on the 4th Senior Management Course organised by the General Stevedoring Council along with sixteen experts in handling all sorts of different cargoes from South Africa, Northern Ireland, US, Dubai, Sweden, Chile, Argentina, Hong Kong the UK and Australia. Based in Antwerp the week-long course was a mixture of “field visits” to cargo handling operations in Antwerp, Zeebrugge and Rotterdam, mixed with presentations by a variety of expert speakers.
What is both good and interesting about these courses, which are organised by the GSC on a regular basis, is that they mix people from all systems and cultures, with a lot of experience in handling all sorts of different cargoes. They take them out of their familiar working environment and the daily worries about manpower and equipment, commercial pressures and whether the dock labour is all going to go on strike, and give them the time to see how other people manage in other parts of the world.
They spark ideas off each other, they will see or hear of things that they might be able to use in their own operations, while bringing their own thoughts to the reviewing of best (and worst) practice with which they are familiar. And at times like the present, when the squeeze is on in so many different ways, this sort of education is brilliant. It is fascinating to see the “students” weighing up what they see and hear about with their own experiences and to hear how the same concerns about training, efficiency, the increasingly mobile customers, haulage contractors, ship problems, and the like mostly have a common thread.
The courses try and work around a theme, in this case “Ports in their Communities”, and that itself is so very important at a time when we have people and governments trying to chase ports away from the cities they started, inhabitants shouting about the noise, dirt, dust and traffic produced by a lot of cargo handling, the green agenda and the increasing difficulties of developing and growing ports and terminals.
The Belgian and Dutch port scenes are good places to study these sorts of pressures, and the sixteen saw something of the port developments and the prices that must be paid for them in the three big ports they visited. They saw, for instance, something of the way a car terminal can add an extraordinary amount of value, effectively doing the sort of work that it might be thought were the responsibilities of the vehicle manufacturers and the dealers, in delivering “customised” cars ready for the customer to drive away in. They saw something of the efforts being made in a specialised terminal to diversify cargo handling operations, to reduce the vulnerability to lost contracts and build resilience. They saw the latest thinking in a newly built container terminal, constructed in anticipation of the “megaships” that are emerging from far eastern shipyards.
They saw that the same peaks in road haulage that drive them mad in their own countries and terminals were pretty well universal, and learned of some clever attempts to deal with this perennial problem. They heard of the price that environment and habitats interest groups now demand of people who operate ports, with huge docks restored to wildlife to fit our 21st century priorities.
The stevedores work in small groups, on specific projects, and they are required to produce results. They also spend a lot of time talking to each other, and to the various presenters about their own challenges that they face. It is a melting pot of ideas which are discussed with great frankness and freedom. They may be competitors, working for some of the great global cargo handling operations, but they are also professionals with a deep interest in being better in their profession. Out of these training courses come the seeds of practical ideas that will help to tighten up that logistics chain and maintain the flow of goods we all depend upon, even if the ships aren’t getting any faster.
13th General Management course - September 2010
It used to be said of Concorde, perhaps the most beautiful aeroplane that ever flew commercially, that it was all a bit of a waste of money. Not for the most obvious reason, that it had cost a king’s ransom to develop and nobody would buy the thing, but that it was a supersonic sledgehammer to crack a nut. Sure, you could roar across the Atlantic in about three and a half hours, deafening the populations anywhere near your flight path and drinking your own weight in fuel, but you could achieve much the same if you lumbered across in a Jumbo and just smartened up the process of getting to Heathrow from the centre of town, and from JFK to central Manhattan. It cheered me up no end somebody telling me this, as the only Concorde I ever set foot in was in a museum.
I was reminded of this just recently attending the 13th General Management Course of the General Stevedoring Council, which had brought 24 stevedores from all around the world to Hull. Every continent was represented, which was great, because half the fun and much of the benefit of these courses is derived from talking to people whose profession might be the same as yours, but practicing it in an entirely different industrial landscape.
Through the hospitality of Associated British Ports and DFDS the group was able to see something of the cargo handling experience in Hull and Immingham terminals, and over a 12 day period they would similarly see terminals in Rotterdam, Copenhagen/Malmo and Stockholm. And if previous courses were anything to go by, they would return to their home countries better professionals and through the GSC, having experienced, through this wandering “Staff College” very different port and cargo handling environments.
But back to Concorde, or rather the maritime equivalent in the large number of high speed ships built to whizz their cargoes of containers around the world in speeds which were supposed to impress the shippers. Two years ago the brakes were slammed on and it is more than likely that slow (or rather slower) steaming will become established as a permanent fixture, with machinery derated and other measures designed to save fuel and emissions.
And as a result of this the shipping lines, who probably have a shrewd idea that longer voyages will not wear too well with their customers, once their environmental zeal wears a bit thin, will be looking around to see where else the logistic chain can be tightened up to speed the box from shipper to consignee. And not surprisingly, it is the ports and terminals where their eagle eyes will alight. So the screws will be tightening on terminal operators who will be earnestly enjoined, (with the accompaniment of threats of taking their custom elsewhere) to smarten up their respective stevedoring acts and ensure that the box stays in the terminal the very shortest amount of time.
It will not just be containers, but every cargo, if you consider the pressure to slow and conserve and reduce environmental footprints is all-encompassing. Worth remembering too that there is no loyalty in the modern world, and if the current terminal cannot deliver the goods, the line will be off like a shot to somebody who promises something better. Precisely how these recession-busting strategies could be adopted occupied our stevedores for much our working day in Hull.
We were given something of a demonstration of what is possible on a breezy evening during the departure of three ferries from the Immingham ro-ro terminal. Container terminals are fine, but sort of remote. With a ro-ro operation you get down there and dirty, and can appreciate the sheer drama of trailers and vehicles roaring up and down ramps, with people rather more in evidence. But the DFDS ro-ro terminal in Immingham had, with efficiency in mind, seized the opportunity of the trade downturn to reconfigure itself. Here, for the delectation of the “students”, was a perfect working example of efficiency increases, the changes cutting by half the average “drive time” in and out of the ships, and enabling something like 150 more trailers to be accommodated.
At a time when we are all being asked to do more with less, there is clearly an imperative to analyse the way every cargo handling operation is organised. Of course, you might say, it shouldn’t take bad times to provoke a bit of introspection, but human nature is universal, and when everyone is flat out making money, we can think of reasons to put off thinking of things to do when the next dip in our volatile industry comes along.
And it is not just physical things that cargo handlers can do to keep the wolf from the door. Administration, we were told, needs to be crisp, financial literacy evident, processes and systems sharp. Strategies need to be in place for when that fickle customer bales out, ideas need to be circulating about more “value added” within the port walls, realism on development plans. And while modern stevedoring might be capital intensive (think of the price of a container crane) it is ultimately the people who drive it all who count. Indeed, they are the most important of all.
12th General Management Course - June 2008, Loyds List
Should you care? I suggest you should, after a couple of days recently spent on one of the excellent General Stevedoring Council management courses in Hull. There were some two dozen people from stevedoring companies all around the globe present, and it is always interesting to see them comparing notes on their respective situations. They trade statistics on containers shifted per hour, marvel at the influence (or the lack) of union labour, or the cost of equipment or the frightfulness of the local planning laws.
One of the exercises they were undertaking during my visit was, divided into three groups, to look at the challenges with which they were confronted. People who operate ships, and who like to have them worked smoothly in port, need to be aware of these concerns.
There are a lot of people challenges on the waterfront, not least because of a growing lack of available skills and experience. Key people, such as foremen, are retiring, and replacing them is a major problem.
Infrastructural deficiencies, where, for instance, the accesses have not kept up with the ports and terminal capacity, are also a problem. One, moreover, that is often made worse by the growing focus upon the environment, and over-rigorous planning constraints.
Changing industry structures were keeping people awake at night. Globalised stevedoring companies may be insensitive to local problems, superships were requiring vast additional investments, while 'super-shippers' were exerting what some might consider excessive powers on operational matters.
Does anyone on the other side of the dock wall understand what it is that stevedores do? Evidently not, as their complaints come flooding in. Cargo handling, it seems, is a sector in a bubble all of its own, with little external awareness. Communication and promotion, to engage with the surrounding community and tell what stevedores did and the job opportunities that might be available, were clearly indicated. Perhaps, shipping people might reflect, stevedores are not so different, after all.
"Thank you all for a fantastic time during the 12 days we spent together. I certainly learnt a lot about stevedoring, about everybody's ports and work and, especially, about you all personally. I look forward to going back to my notes and the course material when I'm back at the office"
Trust that most of you have reached your destinations safely and are back at work .
Just a short note to say thank you for your friendship , co-operation ans support during the past 2 weeks. I enjoyed every moment being with all of you.
Hi and thanks for a great 12 days!
I am very thankful for my new friendship during the course and I really hope this friendship will never finish.
My thanks to all of you, especially Robert and Martin, for your contributions and perspective on what it appears are global challenges with slightly different geographic factors.† I look forward to networking with everyone on future challenges and to meeting again at future GSC events.
Still a life and kick in. Back to the office with a lot of interesting stories and memories of good friendship.