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  February 9th, 2016 | Written by

Do It Yourself Ports

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If you are an exporter new to international trade, establishing relationships with one or more ocean ports might not be the highest priority on your to-do list. Since you’re not going to be shipping much cargo at first, you’re going to be making arrangements through a freight forwarder or some other intermediary—and even they will be contracting with a shipping line, not a port. Where the cargo gets loaded will depend upon where the carrier goes.

There are a few reasons to reexamine this line of thinking. For one, ports are interested in pursuing relationships with individual shippers—that’s you, the cargo owner—and those relationships can be highly beneficial to exporters. While smaller shippers might not merit an individualized briefing from port representatives, ports do allocate resources, especially information resources, toward smaller exporters. Contacting a port could be an intelligent first step in figuring out how you’re going to do your exporting.

Even if at first you don’t have a direct working relationship with a port, it’s important for you to understand how your global supply chain is going to work. If you’re shipping by ocean, a port is going to be involved. It’s not a bad idea to get to know the ports, and the people who work for them, for the sake of understanding your own business.

“A new exporter may be savvy enough to create a relationship with a freight forwarder or broker without contacting a port,” says Tom Hannan, manager of Strategic Analysis and Industry Relations at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “But for those who don’t know where to start, we can let them know what brokers and other intermediaries are out there who can help them.”

“In my experience, especially in the niches we interface with, it is important to shippers to know how their cargo moves,” says Kristin Decas, director of the Port of Hueneme. “It’s important for shippers to understand their supply chain in its entirety if they want to have the most productive flow of freight.”

The Port of Hueneme and the Port of New York are studies in contrasts: the former is a small, niche port on the West Coast; the latter is a huge full-service port on the East Coast.

Aside from geographic location, the volume and nature of cargo being shipped can dictate what kinds of shipping services will be used and, consequently, which ports will be involved.

The Port of Hueneme, in Ventura County, California, specializes in handling automobiles, high and heavy cargo, fresh produce, fertilizer and domestic commodities. Cargo moving over the docks in New York and New Jersey covers the waterfront, so to speak.

“We have the facilities and the skilled labor to handle perishable commodities,” says Decas. “The type of cargo that is moving is one element that will dictate which port is a natural fit.”

The economics associated with cargo volumes is another factor that influences shipper-port relationships. “If you’re moving one container a month you’ll probably want to get on a large ship at a large port to take advantage of economies of scale,” says Decas. “If you’re moving 400 containers a week you may want to put them on a smaller vessel and go to a less-congested port where you get better service times. That’s especially important for the perishable commodities that we handle.”

Port authority representatives spend a lot of their time traveling and meeting with shippers. “We may not have the resources to meet with very small shippers,” says Hannan, “but we can get small shippers tied into one of our port industry meetings.”

Larger shippers have the benefit of individualized briefings with port representatives during which the port explains latest developments and elicits feedback from the shippers. “We meet with shippers to understand their needs and how we can serve those needs,” says Decas. One of Hueneme’s biggest shippers, Chiquita, switched from shipping fruit on pallets to containers. The port invested in the necessary infrastructure to accommodate that change.

“We want cargo owners to understand what is going on in the port, its challenges and opportunities, and to answer their questions” says Hannan. “We’re out to help shippers, whether old or new, to navigate the system. A very good starting point would be to go to our website, where we have a terrific amount of information and that can be helpful to the new shipper.”

Connecting with a port also opens invaluable networking opportunities for smaller shippers. “When shippers get on our mailing list,” says Hannan, “they will be invited to our industry briefings around the country and if they attend one of those they will come in contact with many other individuals in the industry worth knowing.”

The Port of Hueneme conducts industry workshops and also leads trade missions to far-flung markets around the world. A recent trip to Chile and Peru attracted its share of shippers. “It’s important to interact with other players in the supply chain,” says Decas, “to make sure we create a gateway for the seamless flow of cargo.”

Having a relationship with port authority personnel can also help shippers resolve problems with terminal operators. In the case of landlord ports such as New York and New Jersey, the port authority does not operate terminals but leases acreage to operators. “We can act as intermediaries between shippers and terminal operators,” says Hannan.

Port authorities such as New York and New Jersey’s, play a huge role in attracting shippers’ business to their facilities and many of their informational, educational and travel activities can be viewed through the lens of port marketing efforts. But cargo owners can gain valuable information and contacts from these interactions as well as help improve port services for themselves and others by providing feedback.

It’s true that ports allocate the lion’s share of their resources toward interacting with larger shippers. But let’s face it: You don’t want to be a small shipper for very long. Contact a port or two and get a conversation going. They’re not going to turn you away.