TPM’s Passion Play

While I haven’t seen the results from surveys taken at this month’s Trans-Pacific Maritime Conference, I think it’s safe to say most of the 1,400-some attendees not only enjoyed the event but also had pretty positive comments about the content of the panels and presentations.

For those unable to attend, The Journal of Commerce 10th annual TPM meeting on March 1-2 covered most of the hot-button issues of today’s trans-Pacific container trade. Highlights included panels and presentations on the environment, exports, social media, harbor trucking at Southern California ports, security and an unusual panel on shipper-carrier relationships, moderated by yours truly.

Don’t misunderstand me — there is nothing unusual about a shipper-carrier relations panel. TPM and many other industry conferences have had this discussion many times. I have had the pleasure over the years to participate on such panels, at different times representing one side or the other. The subject matter was what could be predicted: Carriers bemoan the sorry state of their business and the high capital costs of being a carrier, debate why they’re not a commodity, and detail the many reasons for asking (demanding! begging?) their customers for higher rates.

The shippers complain about how the scales are tipped in the carriers’ favor, about how service quality has slipped below acceptable standards or why it was impossible to accurately forecast the coming year’s volume, about how the carriers are their own worst enemies. You all know the drill by now.

It was unusual, from where I was sitting, because for the first time in my memory (which is probably fading badly), the presentations and questions from the floor, followed by the buzz after the panel, demonstrated real passion. People really cared about this — a lot — which to me was, and is, a big deal.

Several days after the event, I was still getting e-mails about the panel and the subject matter — also unprecedented. I don’t mean to suggest that people in the business of shipping goods don’t have passion about their work or about the business, but it is not typical for them to display their emotions at conferences.

The fact is, the shipping industry’s large, open-forum-type events are typically marked by a general unwillingness among our colleagues to express themselves publicly, often because their companies restrict them from speaking. And, if allowed to speak, shipper and carrier representatives rarely address controversial issues head-on.

The explanation is simple: If I’m a carrier and I forcefully express an idea that strongly counters my customers’ interests, my business may be hurt. Similarly, if I’m a shipper and I speak negatively about my carriers, my ability to conduct business with them might be influenced. There are subjects, such as labor, that neither shippers nor carriers are willing to discuss in a frank, straightforward fashion.

So it was quite a surprise when Mediterranean Shipping Co.’s Caroline Becquart came to the microphone and criticized comments made by the TPM panel’s shippers. Even more surprising was that, with the exception of APL’s Bob Sappio, who is one of the few people in our industry willing to publicly display the genuine strength of his convictions, Ms. Becquart was the only person from the carrier side who had the courage to speak her mind.

I understand this reluctance and I know its source, but I do not believe either Becquart or MSC will “suffer” from her comments, so perhaps we have begun to turn a corner. She was angry and said so. She strongly disagreed with the opinions expressed and said this, too. I know the panelists were surprised, as was I, and, based on the reaction, so were the attendees. But it was an honest expression of disagreement, spoken clearly, in the moment and for all to hear, even if it was a bit over the top.

We can all use more of this kind of open expression. Eliminating the anger would be better and more productive, but we must start somewhere. We have some big problems in our industry, problems that open-forum meetings such as TPM can have a role in addressing, especially when we aren’t afraid to speak our minds. I’d like to meet Ms. Becquart and, even more so, would like to be on a panel with her.

Barry Horowitz is the principal at CMS Consulting Services. He can be contacted at 503-208-2232, or at barryh@cms-cs.com.
 

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