There were lots of critics when Consolidated Freightways bought Emery Air Freight a few years ago, merging it with its own air cargo service to operate as Emery Worldwide.

True, the combination would generate more than $1.35 billion in revenues and be a major player in the movement of goods by air, but the critics said it was a questionable fit in a highly competitive business and was likely to fail.So far, the critics have looked pretty good. Emery Worldwide is expected to report losses in the range of $100 million for 1991.

But hold on. According to David J. Beatson, Emery's vice president for sales and marketing, a major turnaround is under way.

Ocean freight carriers will recognize Emery's strategy. It's called ''rationalization." Emery is into leasing space on planes rather than leasing whole planes. It's also rationalizing its European hub by moving to Brussels, where it will share facilities with DHL Worldwide, the privately held international air freight carrier. It has cut people and shut down unneeded terminals.

"Why should we fly our own planes to Europe when we can get space on commercial airlines?" Mr. Beatson asked. "Our job is moving goods by air, not flying airplanes. We want to move those goods in the most economical way possible."

Of course, Emery still operates a fleet of about 50 McDonnell Douglas DC-8s, 20 of which are on lease for U.S. Postal Service work.

Mr. Beatson declined to say just how much the rationalization and other efficiencies will save the company, but he said profitability was likely by 1993. (Value Line Investment Survey has predicted Emery's 1992 losses will be about 50 percent below 1991's and that 1993 should show a small profit).

"We are in business to make a profit, not just generate revenues," Mr. Beatson said. "That's the message we are carrying to all of our people, and it is sticking."

Mr. Beatson, by the way, is an impressive guy. I suspect he could sell diamonds to Mr. Kimberley. . .in a very polished way.

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Jack Farrell, 62, former president of International Terminal Operating Inc. (1976 to 1990), has got to be the most popular "semi-retiree" in the stevedoring business.

About 100 of his pals turned out to honor him over dinner last week at Chateau Ruggero on Manhattan's lower west side.

Michael Maher, principal owner of Maher Terminals, said it was the 15th event he'd attended honoring the respected and self-effacing Mr. Farrell, a onetime president of the Downtown Athletic Club.

Jim Costello, former owner of Universal Terminals, and Bob Nolan, former senior vice president at ITO, organized the party.

Of course, there were lots of laughs and good fellowship among the decidedly veteran crowd. Conrad Everhard, chairman of Cho Yang Line (USA), got one of the bigger laughs when he said:

"Collectively, we all have a great future behind us. There is no one here who can get anyone a job."

Mr. Farrell was given a set of golf clubs, and plans to resume the game. He said he also expects to do some consulting work on the side.

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Everyone is selling these days. It's that kind of world.

Jim Scott, executive director of the North Carolina State Ports Authority, and Robert Jacobi, its director of business development, dropped by our World Trade Center offices the other day to discuss the virtues of their great state.

Competition among ports has got to be fiercer than ever. Mr. Scott, another of those former Sea-Land executives, said his agency is probably the only one with a major campaign to use shippers to persuade carriers to call on its ports.

An example, he said, was the fact North Carolina's tobacco industry aided in the successful effort to get D.B. Turkish Cargo Lines to begin calling on Wilmington, N.C., with a twice-monthly Middle Eastern service (forgoing Norfolk, Va., in the process).

Mr. Jacobi, a hard-driving, intense sort who provides an effective contrast to Mr. Scott's good old southern boy persona, says he expects North Carolina to attract more niche carriers in the future.

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Another recent visitor with a big selling job on his plate was Peter Feldbrugge, chairman of the ninth annual International Intermodal Expo, which will be held in Atlanta April 28-30.

Last year, under the leadership of the now retired Nat Welch, the conference attracted 4,100 registrants and another 1,700 booth workers. Most people credit the charismatic and flamboyant Mr. Welch with making Intermodal Expo far and away the biggest and best conference in the transportation industry.

"I'm working day and night, Saturdays and Sundays," Mr. Feldbrugge told me last week.

Mr. Feldbrugge, a methodical Dutchman who was born in Indonesia, already has lined up 110 different speakers from 13 countries, including 30 shippers. John Snow, chairman of CSX Corp., will be the keynoter, and luncheon speakers are Joseph Antonini, chairman of K mart Corp., and Hans-Jakob Kruse, chairman of Hapag-Lloyd AG, the giant German carrier.

"We put a lot of emphasis on having shippers involved in the program," Mr. Feldbrugge said. "If you have the shippers, you have the carriers."

More than 300 exhibitors already have signed up to participate in Expo '92, Mr. Feldbrugge said. The conference has also attracted 16 major sponsors.

Jim Devine, this newspaper's vice president for advertising, says the conference is far and away the best place to meet lots of people in the transportation industry, including shippers.

It also sounds like a bargain.

For an advance registration fee of $200, attendees get one breakfast, two lunches, two dinners, five receptions, a daily beer garden open from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and this year for the first time, dancing.

"We'll have 'Eddie and the Sting Rays' on Wednesday night enthused Mr. Feldbrugge, adding: "I've heard them; they are fabulous and never stop playing.'

"Another new wrinkle this year will be a motivational aspect," Mr. Feldbrugge said. He said one presentation is entitled, "It Ought to Be Fun to Go to Work."

"The guy who gives it is phenomenal," Mr. Feldbrugge said.

I've never been able to attend one of the Intermodal Expo conferences

because of a timing conflict with another meeting. There's no conflict this year, so I'm looking forward to going. Mr. Feldbrugge is a pretty good salesman.