Shipping office services, helpline, consultancy and supply chain security

Friday, 27 September 2013


Back in the late 1990’s I attended a series of Export Club Breakfasts hosted by East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce (great bacon butties!), whose offices were conveniently located opposite where I worked. A key northwest freight forwarder attended almost every event, and I had used their freight forwarding services in a previous life shipping machines to North America. Although this time around their business profile did not match what I was then looking for, I remember thinking that some logistics companies are good at some things, experienced in shipping to specific regions of the world, but none of them can do everything. And so it set in motion a train of thought and action to find the right companies to ship our floorcovering products across the length and breadth of Europe. And I have since recommended that particular forwarder to a number of my clients.

During the process, I contacted nearly 50 freight forwarders, all of whom offered a range of services into Ireland and mainland Europe, which was my key focus. I was very clear about what I wanted to achieve: competitive rates both DDP and FCA, based on an up to date weights and dimensions chart and quantity breaks; genuine quick service, both in terms of collection and delivery times and in response times to our frequent needs; minimal transhipment between the forwarders and their overseas partners; and a list of where they offered direct services and where they relied on partner companies. I received 23 replies, and shortlisted 12 to go and visit so that I could fully understand the services they could provide for us.

It was an enlightening and productive exercise that resulted in the selection of five freight forwarders: a prime forwarder to carry product throughout Germanic Europe, to transport goods to Turkey via Trieste, and specifically to ship  to the growing number of EU outlets of a global car rental company; a second to handle all shipments to France; a third for Spain; a fourth to service the market in the Republic of Ireland; and finally a specialist forwarder based in the east of Germany whose experience was critical to for shipping goods efficiently into Russia. In learning about the strengths and weaknesses of each company, we were able to achieve almost all of our objectives, and to be sure of the cost of the transport element to each shipment. Our forwarders became longstanding partners, and everybody won from the arrangement.

The company that we worked with to ship goods to Turkey partnered a Turkish freight forwarder who owned a share in the Trieste to Istanbul ferry. This mean that our goods were shipped straight to Italy to meet the sailings to Istanbul, which at the time cut the journey time by three days from the standard ten day overland journey time via Romania. Both parties were very active in trying to ensure that they handled our shipments efficiently and two of their key Manchester staff had long experience in dealing with shipments to and from Turkey. We met in Manchester and Istanbul for annual reviews, and we rarely had any issues in shipping goods to what was then our most important export market.

The arrangement between us, and the price points that we agreed, enabled us to provide to the global car hire company with an annually reviewed fixed euro price for the supply and shipment of our products to their multiple sites across Germany, into France, and Switzerland, and also provided a platform on which we could help them to expand their business around Europe.

The company in eastern Germany had deep experience of the various border issues, and at that time this was vital in ensuring the swift and safe shipment of goods into Russia, and they also had a regular presence here in the UK. The delays that could occur at the Russian border for companies whose documents were not up to standard, with the correct certifications, and in the right format could be quite lengthy, so it was important to work with a ‘known’ forwarder who would cut through all that. The French, Spanish, and Irish forwarders were by comparison a breeze!

Looking back now, I realise that the whole selection process was probably too laborious and long-winded. However it was worth it and had a number of positive knock-on effects: our warehouse staff got to know schedules of the truck drivers, and orders were invariably ready for immediate loading; the documentary process was seamless, even when we were dealing with orders against Letters of Credit; transit times were as good as we could hope to achieve; information on local delivery conditions was advised to the drivers so that the right size of truck was used when access was difficult or restricted; we got a good deal, our shippers got a good deal and regular business, and our prices remained sharply competitive. 

So why not include as part of your market entry plan an appraisal of the costs and efficiencies of freight forwarders who service your selected markets?  

Friday, 20 September 2013


As an exporter there is only so much that you can do to try and ensure that your goods and services are being distributed by your overseas selling partners in a correct way. We British are mainly very good at following the rules, where we know they exist! We are fortunate to have long-established procedures, with English law being the bedrock on which most countries’ laws are built, with London still regarded as one of the world’s key financial centres, and with UK Customs being one of the most efficient customs authorities. We have a good understanding of procedure and documentation, and the importance of doing things “the right way”. In the time I have been running my own business, and for sixteen years before that when I worked in export roles in different market sectors, my worst payers and most troublesome projects have not been in distant or difficult overseas markets, they have been here in the UK! I believe that is mainly because our regulatory framework and our attitude to compliance is generally good when it comes to trading outside of our own country.

I recall a container load of second hand and reconditioned woodworking machinery being prepared for shipment to Ghana back in the mid-1990s. As the consignment was being inspected in the works yard by SGS, the Ghanaian customer’s British based friend arrived with a Ford Transit engine and four double mattresses that he had been instructed to load into the container. No paperwork, no goods value. Just stuff to add to the load. Well tough! Our documents had already been prepared and it would have frankly been a pain to alter them all at such short notice for this ‘afterthought’, so we declined to load, and it was left for me to explain to the customer’s representative why.

That might seem a bit harsh, but as an exporter it is vital to maintain the integrity of any shipment. It is the exporter’s responsibility to ensure that what is shipped complies absolutely with the documents it is shipped against. Our inspections services, HM Customs, and overseas Customs offices are going to spot significant discrepancy between the two. Then you are likely to experience delays to your consignment, possible demurrage charges or fines. It is probably simpler to comply than to default. And be in no doubt that it is not possible to pass on the responsibility to a third party, such as your freight forwarders, because the responsibility is yours.

There was another instance where a competitive European company shipped a large machine to the USA, where its value had been under-declared on the invoice. It probably would have passed through the system un-noticed but for the fact that the container in which the machine was carried was dropped as it was unloaded from the arriving vessel. And that led to a scrutiny of the load, delays to its onward shipment, and eventually significant fines being levied against the manufacturer that pretty well finished their business.

I recall two other examples where goods had arrived at their ports of destination in Saudi Arabia where the load was found to be discrepant with the documents. The first is funny, largely because it happened to a competitor of mine in the carpet industry who I didn’t especially like! They supplied a container load of bitumen backed carpet tiles for collection by their distributor in the Kingdom. The container was on the high seas for nearly three weeks, and then at the port for a couple of days before it was inspected…in the height of summer! If it was 40+ degrees outside the container, it boggles the mind to wonder what the internal temperature must have reached. And when the doors were finally opened, the top layers were a mash of melted bitumen and carpet fibres. Try checkcing that against documents!

The second example could have happened to me, so I will recount it less flippantly. I was due to ship six pallets of carpet tiles to Saudi Arabia for a one-off project – we rarely had any significant business there. Our distributor was a very tall German guy called Manfred, who I collected from the airport early in the morning after a late night out with our somewhat suspect Irish distributors. Manfred explained exactly how he wanted the pallets and boxes labelled to ensure that any delays due to inspection at the port in Saudi Arabia were kept to a minimum. I followed his advice to the letter, and the consignment smoothed its way through to its final destination. And what it taught me is that clarity both in your documents, and in whatever identifies your physical goods on the outside of the boxes or pallets, will minimise delays and maintain the profitability of your international orders.

Since then, we have had both Lockerbie, 9/11, and a range of other terrorist-based scares and incidents, resulting in increasing and largely necessary pressures on businesses to secure their supply chains. The EU’s Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) and the equivalent CTPAT in the USA have been introduced to create an international trading community of ‘trusted operators’, where every link in an AEO’s supply chain is examined and regularly reviewed to ensure that they merit their trusted operator accreditation. That is the way the world is going, with most Customs authorities already complying to the principles of AEO even if they do not yet have a formal system in operation. If you would like to know more about AEO and how it might benefit your business, either as an exporter or an importer, please do not hesitate to call Strong & Herd LLP. Meanwhile, taking just a little care to get your documents right for every shipment will ensure that you don’t incur unnecessary delays and charges. 

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Around the world in...219 days pt 2 - A different Turkey than seen in recent news

 My first reaction to the international news headlines about the unrest in Turkey is one of shock. I think back to the very start of my journey in September where I traveled through the south and west of a country that is occupied by some of the nicest and most hospitable people in the world.

Arriving at Antalya airport, I met a school friend with whom I would travel for the next month, and attempted to negotiate the route to our first hostel in the old town area. The first thing that struck me on leaving the surprisingly ornate airport was the heat. It was already dark but the air was hot and humid as we got on our bus. With little English spoken, it was difficult to find the old town and our own vague directions didn't help. Fortunately, everyone we met genuinely wanted to help and pointed in a vague direction if they weren't sure, and with the old town streets resembling a maze and the main point of reference being a broken minaret, it was hardly surprising when they didn't know!

First look at a new world: Old Town Antalya

It was my first time in Asia and also the first time that I have visited a predominantly Muslim country, so it was initially strange to hear the calls to prayer from minarets across the city. I quickly felt it was a pleasant sound and nothing else would seem fitting here. We traveled on a bus trip around various sights in the area and saw rich and perfectly preserved heritage left behind by the Romans but also possibly the worst town in the world. Side was built by slavers with a reputation for extreme cruelty and described as 'the worst people in the world'... maybe not much has changed! From the lack of anything uniquely Turkish to the hordes of European tourists, it was an overpriced, generic coastal town that could have been anywhere in the world.
Travelling north on one of the many excellent public buses, I realised we were the only foreigners, and definitely the only English speakers, on the bus. This was surprising to me as it was such a good service and remarkably cheap, especially considering that petrol prices are the highest in Europe. As the only foreigners, the conductor made special efforts to make sure we had everything that we needed and generally made us feel very welcome, which seems to be the Turkish way.

I was amazed at how laid back the country is. Everyone is relaxed and helpful even in the absence of a common language, nobody rushes and I was quite content to sit by the street in the old town with tea and a shisha! It was nice to get away from the tourist coast and see some of real Turkey, and I found it difficult to get excited about going to the other places on my trip because I really just want to continue exploring the less known parts of Turkey. The only real issue that we was due to a delayed dolmus (minibus) that was to take us to the bus station, although after some fairly robust driving we made our connection with about 30 seconds to spare!

We finally made it to Istanbul after a 9 hour bus ride from Izmir and an encounter with the only unhelpful person in Turkey (another dolmus driver). Istanbul is utterly amazing. I knew it was a big city but it is difficult not to be in awe at how massive it really is. We were there for 3 days and I think we would have needed months to fully explore and understand it. It seems fitting that a city so vital throughout history remains so important now, and as the only city that spans two continents it seems to go on forever. It is easy to think of Istanbul as the capital of Turkey as it is the city we hear the most about in the media and it is far more accessible to Europe. However, the much revered Ataturk moved the capital to Ankara in 1923 where the headquarters of his resistance movement was based.

I found the city to be as lively as I had read. Everything seemed to be on sale in the bustling bazaars which were alive with the sound of haggling, a skill that as an Englishman I had to develop rapidly! I also found that the only way to walk on Turkish streets is to just keep walking and someone else will probably get out of your way. This is what the locals do so no matter how hair raising, I felt it was worth a try. The system of traffic and pedestrians seems to work although I have absolutely no idea how.

The Turks are a lively and emotional people, most clearly evident when it comes to football! During my stay in Istanbul, it happened that Galatasaray were playing my team, Manchester United, and despite this being an away match the streets around the Galata tower were packed full of fans singing and shouting as if they were at the game. Any event in the game was greeted with excited cheers or howls of derision, especially when it came to refereeing decisions, and as United scored I decided that I definitely would not admit to being English.

So I have been particularly saddened by the recent unrest in the country as I found the Turkish people to be so welcoming, laid back and friendly. A walk through Taksim square, which has been the centre of the problems in Istanbul was a peaceful, pleasant experience only 6 months ago and I hope that the problems can be resolved as soon as possible.

Friday, 13 September 2013


I got all the good jobs. When I was selling carpet tiles internationally my focus was occasionally taken away to help out some of my UK colleagues whose product specialisms occasionally took them into foreign lands. And at times I had a great time doing it as a distraction from square things and office interiors. But sorting out problems that others had either not wanted, or not been able to resolve, soon became a large part of the distraction!

Our sister company manufactured sports surfaces, and one of their main product lines was fibre-bonded textile surfaces for indoor bowls, with their main customers being bowls clubs in the Netherlands who we sold to via a very capable distributor. Our Special Products Manager, a good friend and first class sales person took me to meet the distributor and some of the bowls surface customers, and on that visit it became evident that there was a possible technical problem with one of the recently delivered ‘mats’ (a ‘mat’ being about 4 metres wide and the length of a sports hall!). It was ‘pilling’, meaning that some of the fibres were coming away from the backing, so we agreed that we would look into the production for that batch and if necessary replace the affected mat.

To cut a long and boring story necessarily short, a replacement mat was despatched some weeks later after the Technical Manager and his team had investigated the problem in-house and checked previous production parameters. Shortly after that there were a number of calls from different Dutch bowling clubs to report both a similar, and a different problem with the new surfaces. As ‘Muggins’ here travelled regularly through the Netherlands, I was sent to assess their complaints. There were three main complaints: pilling, dimensional instability, and the deposit of a glue-like substance on the bowling woods and shoes of the club members. And I don’t know if you have ever been confronted with a squad of septuagenarian and octogenarian bowling club members whose days and weeks are completely dedicated to bowling perfection, cups of tea, and little else, but I can tell you it is neither a pretty, nor a quick experience!

My first ‘solo’ return visit seemed to go quite well. It was obvious to me (and to everyone apart from our Technical Manager) that there was too much latex holding the fibres into the backing, hence the glue-like deposit (“…and are you going to replace my shoes Mr. Reed?”said one lady in a hat brandishing a stick), and that the latex was not of sufficient consistency to hold all of the fibres in place on the mat. However, I had no explanation to offer for the dimensional instability. Surrounded by then by a group of increasingly happy if intimidating amateur sports boffins, I was pleased and relieved to be offered a cup of tea and a tour of the trophy room. Bizarrely, above the exit door to the club room was an autographed cricket bat, signed by the Nottinghamshire cricket team. They didn’t play cricket at the bowling club and none of them had ever seen a game, but they were nevertheless very proud of their bat!

Following my visit two further batches of bowls mats were despatched, both with similar and different problems! And as someone who likes to live up to my promises I took it upon myself to stand at the end of the production line when the further replacements were being manufactured, checking the job sheets and weighing and measuring the rolls after they had been off the machines for a period of time. But even that sterling effort failed to prevent a recurrence, and the bowlers were rightly beginning to demand their money back.

I was due a further sales visit into France and Belgium so I asked the Technical Manager to fly into Schiphol Airport where I would collect him and take him to some of the complaint sites. Time for him to take some flak for a change. He finally admitted that with the old production machinery we used it was impossible to achieve the level of consistency that was required by the bowling clubs, and eventually the product ceased to be. I left it for him to resolve outstanding matters with the Dutch bowling community. So on a Friday in the middle of a hot, late Spring afternoon, we started our journey (or escape) towards the Channel Tunnel, only then to find that every route we tried out of the Netherlands was gridlocked. It turned out that the following day was Queens Day and that the good people of Holland were all aiming for the places where they normally celebrate this public holiday.

Even though Queen Beatrix was born in January, the official Queen’s birthday had remained on 30th April which her Mother Juliana had established even though her birthday is in September. And now that Queen Beatrix has abdicated in favour of her son Willem-Alexander, it may be the Queens Day has had its day or maybe needs to be renamed! That aside, it took us four and a half hours to find our way out of the country en route to the Channel Tunnel and a long drive back to Accrington. So as well as learning that putting right a complaint from an international customer can be a time consuming and costly process, I also learned that travelling on public holidays can be both frustrating and unproductive.  

Friday, 6 September 2013


One of the defining moments of my international selling career came during a five day woodworking machinery exhibition in Hannover in May 1995. I remember the month, the hotel we stayed in, the Chinese restaurant we went to, and a whole lot of other irrelevant detail that has frequently reminded me of the importance of those few days. It wasn’t my first LIGNA Show, nor would it be my last, and I went on to exhibit in the city many more times for different companies over the years.

The company I worked for at that time was a distributor and/or occasional re-seller for a number of woodworking machinery manufacturers, with our main business being in the reconditioning of machinery rather than selling new, and this Tale focuses on two of the manufacturers whose products we frequently sold, Wadkin from the UK and Weinig from Germany. It is a story of a different manufacturing approach that fostered a different sales outlook both for their direct staff and for their selling partnerships. It also goes some way to support my long held belief that the British are first class innovators and engineers, excellent marketeers, but not such great sales people - I love sweeping generalisations!

Wadkin carried many of the hallmarks of British manufacturing excellence, producing superbly engineered, rock-solid, durable, and stable machinery, and had built its international reputation for machines that rarely failed and always performed. Founded in 1887, they became the biggest name in British woodworking machinery and certainly held that position into the 1990’s. Their main product range was moulders, for making door and window frames, skirting boards, picture and dado rails etc, but they also manufactured table saws, drills, finger-jointers, and a wide range of workshop machinery. While they made a number of products for stock, many of their main moulding machines were tailor made to their customers’ specific requirements. So in the main, they sold a machine and then made it.

Weinig was founded in 1905, and in the 1990s performed more like an automotive manufacturer, and it is fair to say that by then they had long overtaken Wadkin in terms of the international popularity of their machines and service. They made similar machines of a similar quality to Wadkin, engineered to German precision standards, but as they rolled off their production lines it was the responsibility of their sales representatives and global selling partners to just sell what they had made. So in the main, they made a machine and then sold it!

Throughout the LIGNA ‘95 exhibition, our stand was populated by a mix of our own sales staff, representatives from our principal suppliers, our customers, and a couple of crates of the taste of Manchester – Boddingtons draught beer in a can (to quote one of our Australian customers “Jeez! They even have instructions here on how to open the can!”). We were joined by a group of Weinig’s US sales team  , who were warm, outgoing, and fun, but highly professional, and occasional representatives from Wadkin, who were no less professional but reticent to join in the camaraderie of the stand, and much less confident in the presence of their competitors. The Weinig people were happy to share a drink with us where the Wadkin people barely touched a drop and drifted on an off stand during the show. There was not enough beer to get drunk on, just a gesture and an alternative to orange juice. There was a confidence and warmth about the US Weinig team that was lacking from Wadkin, and that is what influenced me the most. Weinig’s confidence was not over-confidence bordering on arrogance. It was confidence borne out of excellent training, product knowledge, and the freedom of their sales people to make decisions. The Wadkin people were equally knowledgeable and well-trained, and it struck me then that the best sales people are those who are empowered to make those decisions and just get on with the job of selling.

Back at the Queen’s Hotel on an evening where Wales versus South Africa was televised in the Rugby World Cup, we were surrounded by Welsh people, South Africans, the Australian still effusing the virtues of a can of beer with the opening instructions on the can, and the Weinig US sales team who were there to socialise with their international customers and selling partners. Only one of Wadkin’s direct sales team had joined in the fun, and he left early. The Weinig guys were continuing to get on with the job, getting to know the people who both used and sold their machinery, building long standing international business relationships, putting themselves forward as good people to do business with, and engendering trust. The contrast in approach between the two companies could not have been greater, yet their products were very similar, and their customers pretty much the same.

So what did the experience teach me? Mainly that the process of selling has essential operational and emotional ingredients. Our customers need two things: the right product at the right price, and trust in the person and company selling to them. So if your customer relationship is not right, you may still achieve occasional sales when the product is right, but you will struggle to sell to them on a regular basis.

It is interesting to note that since 1995, Weinig has continued to expand globally, growing both through the acquisition of other European and US woodworking machinery brands, and by establishing overseas offices in Australia , China and Japan, and by setting up a manufacturing operation in  China. Conversely, after twenty years of struggle Wadkin finally went into liquidation in 2010 and their intellectual property rights were purchased by a long established UK distributor A.L.Dalton Ltd. of Nottingham. Which camp would you rather be in?