By Keith Norbury

A contingent from Canada will make its presence felt at the upcoming Breakbulk Europe conference in Belgium in mid May. At least two Canadian companies as well as an umbrella organization promoting shipping on the St. Lawrence Seaway will again have booths at the conference, which takes place in Antwerp from May 12 to 14. Highway H2O, which represents 46 member companies, will have about ten people staffing its booth, said Bruce Hodgson, Director of Market Development for The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC). Canadian-based SLSMC is a co-sponsor of Highway H2O along with its U.S. counterpart, the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, or SLSDC. Highway H2O, which began as a marketing campaign in 2004, has had a booth at Breakbulk Europe for about the last eight years, Mr. Hodgson said.

Port of Halifax will also be sending a team to the conference “to highlight our enhanced terminal capabilities in both Halifax and at the nearby Port of Sheet Harbour,” said Patrick Bohan, the Port Authority’s Manager of Business Development. Work on a $73 million expansion of Richmond Terminal, the port’s general cargo terminal, is expected to be ready for operations this summer. The Port Authority took over management of the port of Sheet Harbour, 115 kilometres northeast of Halifax, in 2012.

Carrier and stevedoring firm among exhibitors

Montreal-based carrier Fednav International Ltd. and Quebec City-headquartered Quebec Stevedoring Company Ltd., which are both members of Highway H2O, will have smaller booths at the show. Having a presence at Breakbulk Europe is a good way for Highway H2O and its member companies, about half of which are ports, to increase visibility and awareness in the European market, Mr. Hodgson said. Many carriers that call on Seaway ports attend the conference, he said. So do other customers involved in the movement of project cargo through the Seaway system. “It’s an opportunity to meet with a number of people in a very compressed period of time,” Mr. Hodgson said.

More than 5,500 participants attended Breakbulk Europe 2013, according to the conference website. The event attracts more than 200 exhibitors and sponsors.

Fednav’s booth will be staffed by employees of the company’s Federal Atlantic Lakes Line, or FALLine, which is based in Antwerp, said Suzanne Bleau-Myrand, Fednav’s Marketing Director. FALLine has a regular breakbulk service from northern European ports into the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes. The service, which is celebrating its 55th anniversary this year, accounts for about 7.5 per cent of Fednav’s overall business, she said.

“It’s mostly attended by Europeans,” Ms. Bleau-Myrand said of the conference. “So it’s a good opportunity to touch base with the shippers, the forwarders, and see what the competition is doing.” Fednav also takes advantage of the occasion to holds its annual commercial agents meeting for FALLine. “So representatives of every European country meet at that time,” Ms. Bleau-Myrand said.

Quebec Stevedoring Company Ltd., or QSL, has also been exhibiting at Breakbulk Europe for the last five or six years, said Philip O’Brien, the company’s Vice-President of Marketing for breakbulk. “It’s a good way for us to pay homage to our customers,” Mr. O’Brien said, noting that QSL has a small 10-foot by 10-foot both staffed by two people. “You go and see the individuals that are there that we deal with on a weekly basis. We go on their turf and we have exchanges with them to see what can be done.”

Trade show presence leads to business

Highway H2O’s presence at the exhibition produces tangible results. On one occasion a carrier, which Mr. Hodgson declined to identify for confidentiality reasons, required special clearances to move a piece of heavy cargo from Germany to Thunder Bay. A representative of the carrier approached the Highway H2O booth with his problem. “By working with our operations people we were able to make arrangements for that ship to come through,” Mr. Hodgson said.

About four years ago, a broker from Turkey also stopped by the booth. She said she didn’t even quote on Seaway business because it was too complicated. “And we said, ‘Wait a minute. Let’s see what we can do about that,’“ Mr. Hodgson recalled. That initial contact led to Turkey being the origin of much of the rebar that now arrives at the port of Oshawa.

Mr. O’Brien of QSL, however, said that very little new business develops directly out of the conference. For QSL, which has a presence in 25 Canadian ports as well as in Chicago, the conference is about maintaining the continuity of relationships with existing clients. So it’s a chance for him to meet face-to-face with people he already knows, rather than just having to connect by emails and text messages. “The personal touch we find has huge benefits,” said Mr. O’Brien who attends the conference each year and has been crossing the Atlantic for about 14 years to meet with clients. “It pays tribute to the quality of relationship you want to have with your customers.”

While he declined to be specific about those clients, he did say that in Europe they are predominantly shipowners of fleets that “we’ll end up doing breakbulk with.” That’s unlike at the Breakbulk Americas conference later this year in Houston, where freight forwarders interested in services on the St. Lawrence will have a larger presence.

H2O booth involves member companies

Highway H2O’s involvement in Breakbulk Europe is managed out of Mr. Hodgson’s office in Saint Catharines, Ont., home of the Welland Canal. That is the location of one of three SLSMC offices, the others being near Montreal at St. Lambert, Que., and its head office in Cornwall, Ont.

Highway H2O began with 18 port partners and has grown to 46 members, about half of them ports. But members also include carriers, like Fednav and McKeil Marine, and stevedoring companies, such as QSL. Members can utilize the H2O brand in their day-to-day marketing, Mr. Hodgson said. They can also take part in the H2O booth at Antwerp, “which represents big savings” compared with those companies having to pay for booths of their own.

Breakbulk Europe gives those Highway H2O members a chance to meet with carriers to discuss operational issues, upcoming cargoes, and even data on upcoming voyages, Mr. Hodgson said. “We also find that it’s a good barometer in terms of getting sales leads for cargo because a number of shippers do attend,” Mr. Hodgson said. “It’s not unusual that we’ll have a shipper come to our booth and say, ‘I’m looking to move this piece from Germany, for example, to Thunder Bay. Are there any issues? This is the carrier I’m looking to use.’ Or ‘Could you recommend a carrier?’ That sometimes happens too.”

Aside from SLSMC and SLSDC staff, representatives from the Ports of Ogdensburg and Thunder Bay as well as from the Port of Belledune, which is an associate member of Highway H2O, are expected at the booth. Alan Taylor, Highway H2O ’s representative in London, England, is also slated to attend. A logistics consultant, Mr. Taylor has been with Highway H2O for about eight years. “He’s done work for pretty well all of the U.S. ports,” Mr. Hodgson said, noting that Mr. Taylor worked with Port of Toledo to transport steel through the Great Lakes that had previously moved via the Mississippi River. His work also involves helping ports to chase down sales leads or develop trade data, Mr. Hodgson said.

Exhibitor earns bragging rights

Fednav goes to the conference after having recently won the inaugural Lloyd’s List North American Maritime Environment Award. The award had to do with “everything that we do, from the policies that we have in place to the ships that we run,” Ms. Bleau-Myrand said. A news release announcing the award in February noted that Fednav will take delivery of twelve new highly efficient Handysize vessels in 2015 and 2016. These ships will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28 per cent compared with the already low emissions of vessels that Fednav added to its fleet 10 years ago.

Half of the new ships will be 34,000-tonne box-hold vessels from Japan’s Sumitomo Corporation and Oshima Shipyard. These rectangular holds are ideal for stowing breakbulk cargoes such as steel coils, rods, beams and pipes. “We design all of our Handysize vessels for the business of transporting basically grains out of the Great Lakes and steel back in,” Ms. Bleau-Myrand said. “So these box-hold ships will be equipped with four 35-tonne cranes, which allows us to go into ports that might not have quite the (right) equipment.”

In addition to the 15 new vessels that Fednav is purchasing, it will acquire another seven Handysize lakers through long-term charters. Those vessels are being built for another company. “So the fleet will be even younger,” Ms. Bleau-Myrand said. “We already have a very modern, very young fleet. Between now and May 2017 the average will have dropped by a few years.”

At present Fednav has about 85 vessels. About 60 of those make up its core fleet. And of those 60, Fednav owns 40 and has another 20 on bareboat or long-term charters. “And then we take more on short-term charters or voyage charters to supplement the fleet to meet our contracts of affreightment,” Ms. Bleau-Myrand said.