Maersk Does It Again

You have to hand it to Soren Skou and the company he leads: They know how to command a stage. Before this month’s three-day TPM Conference was an hour old, the CEO of Maersk Line had dropped at least three noteworthy bits of information that, if they didn’t turn the industry on its heels, certainly raised eyebrows at the least and, more importantly, raised the bar for those in its wake.

In the process, TPM’s keynote speaker raised the stakes in what is shaping up as a pivotal year for container shipping, on par with the turnaround year of 2010.

First, before TPM even opened, Skou revealed in an interview with JOC editors plans of the world’s largest container carrier to deploy five — not two as previously believed — of its 18,000-TEU Triple E ships, the largest vessels to grace the world’s seas, this year.

And, while quickly noting those vessels wouldn’t on their own increase capacity — Maersk will pull a like amount of tonnage from the Asia-Europe trade where they will be deployed — Skou said the carrier expects global supply to increase 10 to 11 percent, significantly higher than the 8 percent that analysts who track global shipping markets have postulated.

For ocean carriers looking to build on the improved rates that helped bring many back to profitability in 2012, such a forecast makes it all the more important that demand increase at commensurate levels of growth. Don’t count on it. Shippers, analysts and Maersk itself expect a supply-demand gap of about 6 percent this year, on par with 2012, raising the specter that rates won’t sustain last year’s levels, at best, and that, at worst, could touch off a pricing war that would be good for neither carriers nor the market they serve; indeed, recent weakness in the SCFI suggest things may be headed in this direction.

But this isn’t your father’s container shipping industry. Carriers are intent on managing their businesses in a way not seen since the heyday profits of a decade ago.

At the same time, they’re quickly making the extreme customer discontent that reared its head in 2010 a distant memory, evidenced by Skou’s third, and biggest, TPM revelation: putting eight key aspects of customer service to metrics and pledging to hit numerical milestones for each of them in 2013, from accurate documentation and invoicing improvements to more efficient cargo booking.

It’s not the first time Maersk has unveiled buzz-worthy plans on a global stage. Its customer-driven charter evokes memories of Eivind Kolding, Skou’s predecessor, releasing the company’s controversial container shipping manifesto at an Antwerp conference in the summer of 2010 calling for an industrywide overhaul in rates, technology and environmental stewardship.

Unlike that initiative — customer-focused, yes, but certainly with an undertone of how carriers would benefit — Maersk’s latest puts customers front and center, and it resonated with TPM attendees. As @danielmangan tweeted during the conference, “ML customer charter much better and real than the Manifesto from a couple years back.”

Leave it to Maersk to raise the bar and lead the industry into the future — again.

Contact Chris Brooks at cbrooks@joc.com and follow him at twitter.com/cbrooks_joc

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