Who's No. 1?

A year ago in this space, I wrote about the unpredictability of the weather and compared this natural variable to the equally unpredictable nature of our business. Today, the weather is still unpredictable, but with the arrival of this year’s Top 100 Importers and Exporters issue, we find some constancy in our transportation world: The vast majority of companies on both lists are the same as they were last year. For many (even most) companies on both of the lists, they are the same as they’ve been for years.

With so much of this data remaining fundamentally the same, what’s behind the continuing fascination with these lists? For that matter, why are we so interested in Top 10, Top 100 or Top Whatever lists of any kind. Just Google “Top 100 lists” and see what comes up. OK, so the Top 100 Blogs or Top 100 Cell Phone Apps are relatively new additions to our Top 100 list universe. But Top 100 Movies, or Books, or Home Run Hitters, or NFL Rushing Leaders, or Albums have been with us for a long time. 

We just love the data, the unspoken competition among our favorite athletes, actors or books. So why shouldn’t there be the same level of interest with beneficial cargo owners? Although BCOs may only interest those of us in this industry, why wouldn’t we — shouldn’t we — have our own list that only we care about? So we do.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, and far, far way, the JOC-PIERS data appeared in a daily newspaper. Some of you will remember The Journal of Commerce newspaper. It arrived every day (or mostly every day, but sometimes two or three at a time); it sometimes turned your fingers black from the ink; and the newspapers inevitably piled up in some dusty corner of your office, where someone always complained about what is “allthisdamnpaperdoinghereinadustycorneroftheoffice?”

“But I need them for sales leads,” you replied, and promised to clean them up right after the next quarterly sales meeting. Maybe you did and maybe you didn’t. Some of you probably still have a few old issues stored somewhere with your old baseball cards or Barbie doll clothes. Maybe you have an issue with the announcement of a promotion or company change.

Back then, we often weren’t entirely sure about the reliability or accuracy of the data. There were many reasons for this and they were complicated, just as they are today, and are summarized in the JOC’s very clear description and full disclosure, “About the Top 100,” at the start of the data. 

For many years, many BCOs (they were just shippers in those long-ago days) tried to keep the data from us as if their annual cargo volumes were some precious corporate secret. Just as they fought (I was once one of them) for secret service contracts and rates, this volume data was part of the mystique of being a shipper. Let’s hope we’ve moved beyond this fantasy, helped in large measure by the vastly improved data-collection processes implemented by the JOC and its sister company PIERS.

So what do the Top 100 Importers and Exporters lists tell us? Actually, very little that we don’t already know; the largest exporter is America Chung Nam, a very large exporter of wastepaper, the largest (by number of containers) U.S. export commodity. The largest importer is Wal-Mart Stores, the world’s biggest retailer and importer of, well, pretty much anything and everything you can find in a retail store.

The rest of the names on the two lists don’t change much from year to year. They’re no longer of the same enormous value as sales leads as they were in days of yore, but they do provide some valuable information about the companies: the location of their U.S. and world headquarters; Web site address; who bought whom over the past year; and a short, but informative sentence about the companies’ business.

To be fair, the JOC also produces other very interesting “Top” lists, including the Top U.S. and global container ports, Top Logistics Providers and Top Ocean Carriers, among others. Depending on who you are and what you do, these lists may be of greater or lesser interest than the Top 100 Importers and Exporters, but all provide useful, relevant and interesting data about the changes in our industry throughout the years. All of the lists succeed in their purpose to inform and to provide fundamental, baseline information about the state of our industry.

They may or may not have much predictive value, but, like the weather, wondering what tomorrow will bring is part of the allure and mystery of our world.   

Barry Horowitz is principal of CMS Consulting Services. Contact him at 503-208-2232 or at barryh@cms-cs.com.

Read more about the JOC’s Top 100 U.S. exporters

Read more about the JOC’s Top 100 U.S. importers

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