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Crowley VP: Communication key to working with ocean carriers

by Tad Thompson | January 10, 2011
Close cooperation, starting with clear communication, between an ocean carrier and produce importers is critical, according to Michael Hopkins, vice president of operations for Crowley Holdings Inc. Mr. Hopkins works from the Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale, FL, facility of Crowley, which is headquartered in Jacksonville, FL.         Crowley's ships offer extensive refrigerated container cargo service to Port Everglades and Gulfport, MS, from Central America and other Caribbean ports. Reefer service, Mr. Hopkins noted, is more time-sensitive than any other ocean cargo business. It is critical for Crowley to provide produce importers with timely service. Those importers are given specific times to expect arrivals and, with most based within 90 minutes of Port Everglades, they are often present at delivery, awaiting the discharge of their fresh commodities. Mr. Hopkins said that such an interested clientele is of foremost importance to Crowley. "Importers are the first to notice if we are not precisely where we say we will be. They set their clocks" by Crowley’s announced arrival times. On Jan. 17 — the day The Produce News spoke with Mr. Hopkins — Crowley had discharged 150 reefer containers in Port Everglades. When the containers come off the ship, they must undergo inspections from Customs & Border Protection personnel, as well as U.S. Department of Agriculture phytosanitary inspectors.   Before heightened national security measures prompted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a port was able to work indefinitely to release its containers. Now, Mr. Hopkins said, national security radiation portals are in place to check arriving containers for dangerous materials. These portals are run by federal personnel and are not operational all night. This has affected the urgency of unloading ships immediately upon arrival, or importers with containers in the deep holds of a ship face waiting overnight for their fruit, while competitors’ containers may be well down the highway.   “We work very hard to have all the containers off in the first four hours. That is not always possible,” Mr. Hopkins said, noting that every importer wants to be the first off a ship.   Among the benefits of timely service for Crowley is that it allows the firm to rapidly turn its equipment. With south Florida clientele, Crowley is sometimes able to have its containers emptied and back for the return voyage aboard the ship that brought them. That maximizes Crowley’s equipment and is good business for the carrier. “Containers are the blood of a shipping line,” Mr. Hopkins said. Crowley has a competitive advantage in these Caribbean service routes because it calls on its ports with three or four ships a week. “Most other lines are weekly,” Mr. Hopkins said. The regular service is helpful to Crowley’s turn of container equipment. “We have real just-in-time service for reefer ships. We tell our customers they have to tell us about their needs, in as much detail as possible,” he said. To maximize communications, Crowley sales, service and customer care representatives call on produce importers to discuss anticipated transportation needs. Importers are invited to tour the port to get a clear understanding of Crowley’s operations. The better the understanding, the easier it is to provide good service, Mr. Hopkins said.

Crowley offers refrigerated container service in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico throughout the year. In the peak winter season, the firm carries close to 600 containers a week. In the off season, that drops to 250-300 containers a week.

Mr. Hopkins said that Crowley works with importers far in advance to schedule container needs and have equipment in the right positions. The carrier then adjusts to shipping schedule changes that routinely characterize the industry. He noted that produce shipments are more often later than expected. But his shipping line prepares for earlier-than-expected needs as well.

Because the reefer business is so important to the carrier, the firm has made a huge investment to have plenty of containers available to the produce trade. “We want to be number one in our trade lanes,” he said.

Last year Crowley ordered new 40-foot reefer containers from a Chinese manufacturer. Part of the planning on the shipping line’s part was to order delivery of those containers to be in Santo Tomas, Guatemala, just days before the beginning of the peak shipping season.

Mr. Hopkins said 50 percent of Crowley’s Caribbean and Latin American service comes from Santo Tomas or Puerto Cortes, Honduras. Exports from Nicaragua and El Salvador are trucked to those ports. Crowley also provides service for Costa Rican and Panamanian produce that is exported via Puerto Limon, Costa Rica.

Beginning seasonally in the spring, Crowley carries Haitian mangos to Port Everglades. Ninety percent of that trade is shipped in the containers directly to the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, NY. Between mid-March and early August 2010, Haiti exported 400 Crowley containers of mangos.

Mr. Hopkins summarized, “We talk to and go see our customers and try to listen and react to what they say so we can improve our service to do what they want.”