Good luck struck me in 1997, when I started my journey in Shipping as a Customer Service Executive, later moving into Sales, and subsequently, moved into Freight Forwarding, Procurement and Product Management for US and Canada, eventually landing the role of a General Manager with a leading global logistics company
I have witnessed, first hand, the digital evolution of the industry.
For those of you who are not aware of vintage shipping and the way it was done, there were dot matrix printers, churning out continuous sheets of bills of ladings and they were individually signed.
Slowly, there was a shift to laser printers (which were much easier to manage) and today, the entire process is online.
I remember colleagues who had joined earlier than me, engaged in telex releases and spending long hours on faxing of documents. As a customer service personnel, I had to attend calls and manually acquire and provide information on sailing schedules, ocean rates, onboard confirmations, etc. – many of these details later moved to websites and then, to IVRS.
Customs documents gradually progressed from full manual processes (manual filling of forms) to electronic application and submission of custom documents – thus reducing the time and effort related to arranging of such documents at designated sites.
Introduction of DPD has eased the congestion at CFS along with facilitating the consignee with immediate receipt of the goods.
I have seen Desktops give way to Laptops and today, we see Tablets and Smartphones which I consider to be one of the biggest and most visible technology developments.
1997 was the year that I was introduced to mobile phones – the big bulky handsets in those days replaced the VHF we used, to communicate from the office to the port or to the Captain on the ship.
From websites for information to smartphone apps for realtime information, communication channels in shipping have seen tremendous changes – more so in the last decade.
Global trade is the backbone of any country’s economy – we can say that the GDP growth of any country is directly proportional to its EXIM and shipping is one of the major contributors to this trade. This industry is never on holiday or emergency leave.
The word “global” says it all and people associated with Logistics/Shipping work according to the Timezone of their Trade.
The APL name (my previous company), is synonymous with the Transpacific Trade, was the biggest carrier to and from the USA, and USA Trade is governed by the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC).
In order to ensure a shipment was within the guidelines of FMC, given the time difference between our countries, it meant sleepless nights so that you are not delaying shipments the next day.
With the devastating 9/11 situation and increasing threats, trade to the US was to be governed by further vigilance and so, they mandated the AMS or ACD filings (that meant that all containers prior to loading from the final port of call to the USA, have to be approved by US customs to load on vessels). This approach was later adopted by Europe and then, China and recently, India.
Execution of global trade is not only about maintaining the integrity of schedule but also needs a lot of discipline. As stated above, strict adherence to the regulatory framework of the country to where the shipment belongs – as well as (this is more recent) on sustainable practices is now the norm. Climate change has forced many bodies to impose regulations for reducing the carbon-print over the oceans.
The changing landscape is also more due to changing geopolitical equations.
Traditionally, global trade was seen as exports into America with China always leading the charge. However, in 2019, the USA imposed trade restrictions on imports from China. This compelled US retailers to shift their sourcing dependency from China to newer markets in Asia. Trade benefits of this were seen by the increase in exports from Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and India.
As global trade becomes competitive, with customers demanding details about every aspect of their shipment, shipping lines, forwarders and all related teams need to constantly innovate and come up with new tools and techniques to streamline and smoothen the supply chain.
There are many common platforms like which give the customer access to schedules and a booking platform for multiple carriers. We also see freight platforms which are making it convenient for customers to do a comparison on rates and product offerings across a plethora of service providers.
The dynamism of the shipping industry is very obvious with technological advances as well as the forward and backward integration that have been adopted over the years.
We see global shipping lines entering into financing of shipments and during COVID-19 pandemic, expanding their offerings to even road logistics in India. For example in India, Maersk has joined hands with Jindal Stainless Ltd, to optimise the flow of containerised imports and exports between JSL Jaipur and Vizag Container Terminal.
As things stand today, a lot of manual intervention in activities is getting eliminated. The new catchphrase today is Robotics Process Automation (RPA). RPA is a powerful tool that can help to link data from various sources, reducing manual intervention, giving greater accuracy and accelerating tasks in Supply Chain, Demand Planning, Invoicing and Billing.
Presently, disruptive technologies – IoT, Blockchain transactions, the Digitalisation of the 21st century, have completely changed the way global trade was earlier done, creating the need for an up-skilled workforce.
The Make in India initiative is another attraction for global manufacturers to relocate their facilities into India. We have seen the Foxconn initiative to manufacture Apple phones in India, and it is predicted that many of the automotive giants will follow through.
As Honorable Prime Minister of India, Mr Modi said, “We have got the skills, talent and determination to do something. we want to give the world a favourable opportunity.” The 2020 initiative of “Atmanirbhar” or self-sufficiency and self-reliance is also a step forward to what India plans for the future. It is not alienation or isolation but working towards starting with self-sufficiency, moving to economies of scale and then exports.
Another recent development is the ONE Country ONE Tax structure, the implementation of GST (Goods and Services Tax) in 2017 and the inking of new trade deals with Japan including in fields such as civil aviation, trade, science and technology, and skill development, strengthening of the service and logistics sector, India is definitely making strides to enhance its global presence and the message is clear – there is a marked effort to shift from any external dependency.
India has the right mix of ecological balances to produce the right spices and seeds, technicians and engineers to get into manufacturing, artisans from generations to cater to the handicraft industry, designers for the apparel industry and an improving inland roadways and waterways infrastructure to ensure smooth sailings and global trade.
The only concern on Self Sustainability is it could upset the way global business and trade was earlier operating with factory-nations of exporting countries, having relocated factories at importing countries and thereby, contracting global trade volumes.
A recent example is that of India imposing restrictions on imports from China due to the current geopolitical tensions between the countries. The curb on imports of tyres from China is getting the German car-makers worried. At the same time, from the shipping lines perspective, there could be serious inventory (container) constraints in the coming months.
The past few years have also seen a major contraction in the number of carriers (Shipping Lines) – there were once 16 main shipping lines to today, due to the mergers and acquisitions, the number has been reduced to a “Big 6“ who control 80% of the Ocean Trade.
Lately, we are also witnessing a downsizing in the number of global forwarders through mergers and acquisitions. New players are entering the mercantile marine ventures like global e-commerce giants (Amazon), that are setting Global Terminal Operators (DP World / APLMT) into backward integration from core business digitalisation, rendering traditional business houses redundant if they are not upgradable.
If you ask for my opinion on working in Shipping, I will say that it is for those who love to work at all times to match the global time arrangements – it is for those who empathise with the customers, who consider the latter’s business as their own – to me, this only enhances your spectrum.
Visiting your customer’s factory can give you greater insights into the importance of the timeliness of deliveries and the impact on the production lines.
One also gets an understanding of the shipping workforce – the seafarers, who face all odds at sea, including piracy, weather changes and the recent pandemic-related challenges; the pandemic has also given us insights into the efforts of the port workers, who also faced all odds to keep trade moving.
Shipping provides you with a multi-national character, due to the fact that you have to deal with a “global community”. It grooms you into an individual who will have empathy towards the customer requirements at both ends – India and the Trading Partner.
It gives you many opportunities to provide out-of-the-box solutions as there are many facets to shipping and logistics than just moving cargo from one end to another (remember the impact this industry had and still has during the pandemic). It helps you develop an eye for detail in every aspect related to shipment and global trade. Empathy towards colleagues working out of the office or the mariners out at sea.
Even after over 20 years here, I can still say that I am learning.
The skill sets one attains in this dynamic industry are numerous and continuous. As I continue into forwarding even today, the learning curve does not stop. Each project makes you strive to excel and evolve, resorting to more learning.
Shipping is an industry, which is as vast and deep as the ocean, you can never proclaim yourself as having all the knowledge of this industry, as it is continuously changing and thereby, you are continuously learning.
Kuljit Anand is a highly experienced and versatile Shipping & Supply Chain Professional based in Mumbai, India with 20+ years of experience in the industry.