The online shopping boom has almost doubled activity in the shipping and distribution sector over the last five years. After the temporary shock of COVID-19, e-commerce grew further where shipping proved to be one of the most resilient industries to operate during the pandemic. Chris Green, a man with 35 years’ experience in the sector and Managing Director of global shipping firm Supreme Freight, speaks to Real Business about this unique time in the industry and why there’s more innovation to come.
Freight before digitisation
Growing up in Southampton, one of Britain’s busiest ports, Green’s passion for maritime history and international trade drew him to the industry at a young age, initially delivering mail to port officials by bicycle. Within ten years, he had gained enough industry experience to launch his own company and Supreme Freight was established in 1986.
In these early days, digital technology and the emergence of Southeast Asia as a manufacturing base were only just emerging, and the ambitious 25-year-old faced challenges gaining the right clients and establishing a reliable reputation, “It was pure perseverance chasing clients through phone calls and meetings,” says Green.
“People may chuckle at this now, but we promoted the fact we had a fax machine because they were so new and much more efficient than letters. We were marketing by fax and sending messages and adverts through telephone numbers.”
Providing an unbeatable service for modern businesses
Supreme Freight was and continues to be a very asset light company. They invested in networking with the right suppliers and focused on working on behalf of their clients to import or export their products and manage and organise the collection, loading, transportation, and customs documents for clients to have their products, typically manufactured in China, delivered to their distribution centres or sites.
The service is all-encompassing, but the company cleverly don’t own the infrastructure they work with, instead outsourcing to reliable suppliers, shipping, and courier companies from their extensive network and connections.
They also provide a store and distribution service, highly popular with online-only companies who have their products delivered to the Supreme Freight warehouses for them to distribute orders and purchases, allowing the client to sell large amounts of stock without having to invest in expensive storage facilities and distribution systems.
While Supreme Freight were able to continue trading during the pandemic, the virus wasn’t the only barrier industry players were facing. The blockage of the Suez Canal for six days in March 2021 caused delays, congestion, and a shortage of empty containers for transport, and in the last 14 months, the ocean freight rates have increased in costs eight-fold, causing businesses to struggle balancing the cost of transport against their potential profits. “The cost of moving freight is more expensive than the cost of the product,” says Green. “So, a lot of importers are really suffering at the moment because of these increased rates.”
Brexit has also brought difficult challenges to the customs regulations for freight. In the early days of Green’s career, the European Common market had not yet been agreed and enacted, and all freight to and from Europe required customs clearance.
Decades later, these necessary documents have been reintroduced to the transport process, and as Supreme Freight ships cargo all around the world including from Asia to the USA and Europe, they had the infrastructure and systems in place to easily apply the new customs clearance documents to European shipments. Being prepared for the change and incredibly experienced in dealing with international customs rules, Supreme Freight saw their business double as the team smoothly transitioned to the law change, while others in the industry were blindsided by the new EU regulations.
A greener industry
One of the main criticisms of freight transport is their contribution to pollution, and in some cases, environmental disasters. As new innovations in fully electric boats and vehicles continue to expand the possibility of greener ocean travel, freight travel may soon be called a sustainable industry. Green believes that as technology continues to advance, there will be an adjustment to the distribution process to cut down on how much travel a freight ship does to deliver containers. “I think a lot of the big containers will go to one port in the UK or Europe to discharge all of the containers there and then smaller feeder vessels will distribute the containers across the country or continent to their final destination.”
“This would potentially lessen the journey’s carbon footprint and stop the larger diesel-powered ships travelling to a dozen different ports around Europe,” he adds. “With the development of electric vehicles, I think the future of international shipping will have less of an impact by making fewer stops or smaller journeys by freight.”
Now that Supreme Freight has beaten the impact of COVID-19 and is doing better than ever, Green and his team are looking forward to future global expansion. They are currently excited about their new Supreme Freight office in Los Angeles, USA, and look forward to meeting their future targets of having sites in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou, China.
With such extensive experience in leading a business through decades of change and even a global pandemic, Green’s advice for new entrepreneurs is simple, that there’s no such thing as “get rich quick”.
“I think a lot of people get into business as an easy way to make money, but that’s just not true in most cases. I would say that everyone should listen, learn, and concentrate on doing what you enjoy. Employ people who are smarter than you or have the skills and knowledge that you might not. You can’t do everything, so surround yourself with trustworthy and intelligent people and give them the freedom to develop the business on your behalf.”