Lessons from the Ever Given for an Increasingly Turbulent Global Supply Chain
The Ever Given’s blockage of the Suez Canal, which accommodates 30% of the word’s daily container freight shipments, has been yet another reminder of how unforeseeable and remote events can dramatically disrupt one’s business. Although the canal’s blockage lasted only a few days, its effect on supply chains was global. The traffic jam it caused worsened Asia’s shipping container shortage, further delaying the export of consumer goods; spoiled countless goods sitting in transit; and temporarily exacerbated a global semiconductor shortage affecting countless manufacturing industries. Unsurprisingly, because the Suez Canal is a critical route between Europe and Asia, the hardest-hit businesses were those whose supply chains terminate in or pass through Europe.
Coming off the heels of a global pandemic, this latest disruption has many wondering how to shore up their supply chains to protect against the next unexpected event. Doing so, however, is an exhausting prospect—particularly as industries globalize, supply chains become more far-flung, and markets become more interconnected. Counterintuitively, the best way to bolster against unforeseen exterior events is not to plan for every event, but instead to take stock of what your business needs to survive. In the end, those plans that reflect and harmonize with a business’s needs are those most likely to offer protection during uncertain times.
I. Spend energy creating stability rather than predicting catastrophe.
Globalization-induced regional production specialization (for example, raw materials for semiconductors coming from Japan and Mexico and chips being made in the US and China) has increased the number of links in businesses’ supply chains, thereby increasing the likelihood of a weak link. It is easy to imagine any number of events that may cripple one’s supply chain, and recent history is filled with novel examples: a low yield potato crop creates a potato shortage, a clothing strike decreases the availability of certain clotheslines, a power grid failure halts the production of semiconductors, and a culinary demand for a local grain makes the grain unsuitable for livestock feed, just to name a few.
In one sense, recognizing the risk of the unforeseeable has had its benefits. For example, businesses have begun to hold the ostensibly pro forma provisions found in their contracts—like force majeure provisions in sales contracts and virus exclusions in insurance policies—in greater regard. Unfortunately, however, as we have become more fearful of novel risks, these risks tend to dominate risk management deliberations more than they perhaps should. As the Suez Canal incident, COVID-19, and any number of freak incidents have taught us, the events that cause the most disruptions are ultimately those that are hardest to predict (and therefore prepare for). Thus, while companies must always prepare for the worst, management should not overly focus on what might go wrong at the expense of ensuring what must occur to survive.
II. Know yourself; know your tools.
An “I’ll have what she’s having” approach to protecting your supply chain is a recipe for failure. It ignores differences that create competitive advantages and it offers little protection in times of industry-wide disruption, in which industry norms are per se insufficient. The best risk management programs are born from a profound understanding of one’s business, including the central pillars of its operations and its competitive success. When it comes to supply chains, profiling risk requires more than merely asking where your widgets come from, although it certainly includes that. A prudent risk profile should conceive of all critical ingredients necessary to ensure your business’s continued success. For example, in the context of a dine-in restaurant chain, one should consider all that is needed to provide the desired customer experience, like air conditioning for those restaurants in warm climates.
There are any number of tools available to protect one’s business against risk. Staples include prophylactic due diligence, contract terms and conditions, insurance, and, where necessary, litigation. These tools are quite versatile, but it is important to avoid putting the cart in front of the horse. They are a means to an end and should be evaluated in light of your business’s specific and tangible needs rather than as a blanket of hypothetical protection.
A. Due diligence
As Ben Franklin famously observed, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In that regard, due diligence is the keystone of any risk management plan. Due diligence is not so much a solution to risk, but rather a diagnostic tool to help determine the best risk mitigation strategy. For example, due diligence gives one the insight needed to restructure one’s supply lines to avoid chokepoints, tailor one’s insurance coverage to target serious risks or decide whether a risk is best left unmitigated (which it sometimes is). When performing due diligence analysis, not only should a business’s specific needs direct the investigation, they should also dictate the solution.
Take, for example, a car manufacturer’s need for airbags. One could attempt to mitigate the risk of a supply shortage by keeping a stash of extra airbags on hand. But as increasingly common “just-in-time” auto manufacturing practices suggest, doing so brings with it increased overhead costs from procuring and managing excess inventory. One may instead consider insuring one’s airbag supply (a practice discussed below) but at the cost of a premium. Likewise, one may consider diversifying suppliers to ensure any one supplier’s failure will not stop production, understanding that this would do nothing to protect against an industry-wide shortage. The correct solution for any given auto manufacturer depends upon countless variables, some of which are common among manufacturers, and some of which are unique to each specific manufacture’s needs and goals. All variables, however, flow from a first principle—one needs airbags to make cars. In that sense, due diligence can be described as the final step in understanding how your business works.
B. Insurance—Contingent business interruption
Among the armamentarium of insurance products available to protect one’s business, in the supply chain context, contingent business interruption insurance (CBII) is king. Whereas traditional business interruption coverage only covers interruptions due to physical losses occurring on the insured’s premises, CBII policies protect supply chains, often covering disruptions caused by distant natural disasters, industrial accidents, labor disputes, public health emergencies, damage to infrastructure, and sometimes even disruptions cases by upstream production errors or supplier insolvency.
When disruptions occur, CBII policies typically provide coverage for lost income, extra expenses (costs to end the interruption), and additional funds expended to mitigate the risk of further losses. CBII policies, however, are not a silver bullet against supply chain losses. CBII policies frequently limit the extent and duration of coverage—for example, only covering losses incurred after 72 hours of interruption, only covering 6 months of losses, or limiting coverage for losses in any given month to 25% of the policy’s aggregate limits. They also often require an exhaustive list of those suppliers to which the insurance will apply—the composition of which the insured should give the utmost thought.
When securing coverage for your business, it is important to have done the homework required to ensure your policy’s terms accurately reflect the type, source, and duration of the disruptions your business may endure. Carriers frequently dispute whether interruptions in fact took place. For example, a burger chain that could not make French fries due to a potato shortage would reasonably argue that without its quintessential side item, it is essentially unable to conduct business. A carrier, on the other hand, would argue that the loss of one menu item does not constitute a business interruption. Therefore, it would behoove the burger chain to obtain CBII coverage that specifically covers the loss of key menu items. Carriers also frequently argue over the propriety of replacement products (or cover) obtained to resume operations. Businesses should therefore consider the availability of certain types of cover when procuring CBII coverage to ensure whatever replacement the business is forced to buy falls under extra expense coverage.
Despite the comfort of having an insurance product specifically designed to prevent supply chain disruptions, it is also important not to think of insurance as easy money. Securing insurance and making claims are ordeals unto themselves. The first hurdle to securing coverage following a loss is to properly document one’s loss. In anticipation of filing a proof of claim, it is imperative that insureds document any delays in the arrival or departure of goods, fluctuations in the purchase price or availability of essential goods, and/or fluctuations in sales prices and volume. Keeping such records is important due to the aforementioned time limits common within CBII coverage. Should coverage litigation arise, these contemporaneous records will also prove to be invaluable evidence at trial. In particularly complex cases, or where coverage is not entirely clear, it may also be worthwhile for insureds with sizeable losses to retain coverage counsel to assess the scope of available coverage and pursue their claim.
C. Contact terms—The specific and the general
Regardless of what provisions the parties may ordain to include, given the intricacies of modern supply chains, all supply contracts should carefully contemplate responsibility for distant supply chain disruptions. There are two ways to achieve this: drafting specific provisions in hopes of better elucidating the contract’s purposes and including general provisions to serve as a safety net.
Drafting targeted provisions to address disruptions ultimately benefits all parties by making the implicit explicit. For example, there has been significant litigation in the past year regarding whether the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes a “force majeure” under supply contracts. For the uninitiated, force majeure provisions are meaningless boilerplate. But too frequently they are invoked during unforeseen events in an attempt to excuse performance. The solution to their misuse is simple: don’t assume the strength of your covenants. If you desire an unqualified promise to deliver goods, your contract should say just that. Doing so ensures the parties are on the same page from the beginning. It also has the added benefit of encouraging greater due diligence, decreasing the likelihood of disruption.
In addition to including targeted provisions that make the obligations under your contracts clear, one should consider safety net provisions to increase your contract’s resiliency. One of the most common safety nets found in contracts are indemnities protecting against losses stemming from breaches. Indemnities, however, are far from infallible. For example, they do nothing to protect against an indemnitor’s insolvency. For that reason, it may be wise also to include a covenant to procure and maintain specific levels of insurance coverage—including contractual liability coverage—under policies expressly designating your company as an “insured” and likewise identifying specific contracts subject to the policies’ coverage.
If the Suez Canal incident has taught us anything, it is that anything can happen to disrupt a supply chain. The greatest source of strength for a business is its understanding of its unique requirements. As a business owner or risk manager, the responsibility falls on you to learn your business’s needs and to take nothing for granted. Only once you have attained a nuanced understanding of what your business needs to succeed can you make the best decisions about how to bolster your supply chains against risks, foreseeable and otherwise, using the tools available to you.
Andrew Van Osselaer, associate in the Austin office of Haynes and Boone, LLP, focuses his practice on the resolution of complex commercial disputes and regulatory investigations arising from clients’ commercial and industrial operations.
Wes Dutton is an associate in the Litigation Practice Group in the Dallas office of Haynes and Boone, LLP.