by Keith Norbury

Canada’s freight forwarders are looking forward to the future — the year 2030 to be more specific. The Board of Directors of Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association at a meeting in September agreed upon three priority goals for the next decade, said Bruce Rodgers, CIFFA’s Executive Director. Those goals are membership value and engagement; education; and advocacy.

“Then from that there’s a list of working priorities that have been assigned to achieve those goals,” said Mr. Rodgers, who became Executive Director in November 2018.

Asked to gaze into his crystal ball at 2030, Mr. Rodgers predicted that “technology is a significant enabler to what’s going to happen in transportation and I think we’ve got to be very mindful of what changes are coming down and what the impacts will be overall on all sectors in transportation.” For instance, he pointed to the “Amazon factor,” a reference to the online retail behemoth that is altering the direction of traditional freight flows toward business-to-consumer and away from business-to-business.

“Ten years is a long time away, and I think a lot is going to happen in that period of time,” Mr. Rodgers said. “Our position is just to be aware and properly communicate to our members and just put them in the best position they can be in to be successful going forward.”

90 per cent retention rate

At present, CIFFA has about 260 member companies and another 160 associate members from outside of freight forwarding. Those numbers have remained fairly constant for several years. “Our retention rate is in excess of 90 per cent,” Mr. Rodgers said. That’s despite a shrinking number of companies because of mergers and acquisitions — such as the merger announced earlier this year of industry giants DSV and Panalpina. “As a result of that, our membership is getting squeezed to some degree,” Mr. Rodgers said.

He envisions expanding the association’s regular membership category to include other parties “that are contributing to the success of freight forwarding overall.” That’s where the goal of increasing membership value and engagement comes in. Troy Cowen, who succeeded Mr. Rodgers as CIFFA president, said a CIFFA committee is exploring whether to expand the organization’s membership “outside of the traditional freight forwarder.”

Industry experience “integral”

Mr. Rodgers brings to CIFFA a long background in the industry. That was also true of his predecessor, Ruth Snowden, who worked in the industry for about 25 years before becoming Executive Director about a decade ago. In Mr. Rodgers’s case, he worked most recently as Vice-President of Schenker Canada Limited, from January 2015 to October 2017. Before that, he held country manager positions with Vandegrift Canada ULC, and CEVA Logistics, following 11 years as President of Sameday Worldwide from October 1998 to September 2009. His career in the business dates back to 1986 when he was Managing Director for Purolator Courier for a decade.

“Having that freight forwarding background or the background in supply chain management is integral to be able to properly research, and properly respond to any of the questions or inquiries that come into this office,” Mr. Rodgers said. You definitely need that level of experience and knowledge in order to excel in this position.”

Most recently, Mr. Rodgers was serving as President of CIFFA when he stepped down to become Executive Director in October 2018. Before becoming President, he served on CIFFA’s Board for ten years, including four years as Treasurer and various roles as a Vice-President. During his time on CIFFA’s Board, he got to know Ms. Snowden well. She also stayed around for a six-month transition period as Mr. Rodgers learned his new job.

“As I stated to other people, I’m not trying to learn what Ruth knows. I’m trying to learn what Ruth has forgotten,” Mr. Rodgers said. “That is a key difference.” Mr. Cowen, who is Chief Operating Officer of Maltacourt (Canada) Ltd., acknowledged that new Executive Director “had some big shoes to fill.” Ms. Snowden had worked on building the CIFFA brand. “We’re recognized globally now,” Mr. Cowen said.

As for Mr. Rodgers’ performance to date, it is “absolutely excellent,” Mr. Cowen said. “Bruce has been in the industry a long time, and brings a wealth of knowledge.”

More general approach

Running a non-profit entity, though, is quite different from working for a multinational corporation, Mr. Rodgers admitted. At Schenker, he focused on one area, the customs group. At CIFFA, all of freight forwarding is his domain. “So within those large multinationals, they’re very siloed in how they manage their businesses. In this role, you become very much more of a generalist,” Mr. Rodgers said. “You’re answering questions from members every day.”

Often those inquiries involve challenges that those members cannot resolve quickly on their own, he said. “They escalate to us,” he said. “And so we take a far more detailed approach to the solution and try to give them the proper advice and proper guidance and assistance. Sometimes we will lobby on their behalf and we will represent their claims to other parties and try to get them resolved.”

One challenge the industry is facing is the growth of business-to-consumer transactions as opposed to the business-to-business sector that has been the mainstay of freight forwarders — the Amazon effect. Everybody wants to receive orders immediately. That’s creating challenges for traditional freight forwarders, he said. “What that means is people are not necessarily moving product and replenishing inventory anymore. They’re going directly to the consumer,” Mr. Rodgers said. “So the weight per shipment is decreasing to create that just-in-time or just-on-demand type of order replenishment or fulfillment directly to the consumer.”

To address that, freight forwarders are going to have become more nimble and flexible, he said. Mr. Cowen, though, noted that the Amazon effect won’t affect everyone in the transportation business. “You still have the manufacturing, raw materials, all that other stuff,” Mr. Cowen said. “Ecommerce isn’t going to affect that.” Nevertheless, he added, “I’m sure at every other forwarder’s Boardroom table these discussions are going on.” And he pointed out that freight forwarders’ tractor-trailers can be seen parked outside just about any Amazon fulfillment centre. “I think it’s going to change but I don’t think dramatically,” Mr. Cowen said. “The goods still need to move. It’s just how they move, I think, that will be a little bit different.”

Optimism for eManifest

A challenge that Ms. Snowden worked on for years appears close to being solved — the roll out of Canadian Border Services Agency’s electronic manifest system, or eManifest, for filing customs documents. The third phase of the CBSA’s Advanced Commercial Information program, eManifest missed so many deadlines over the years that Ms. Snowden laughed out when asked for an update last year. “We’re still waiting but we are very optimistic that this will be in the first half of 2020,” Mr. Rodgers said. He based his optimism on progress made during recent discussions and working group meetings with CBSA on the matter. In fact, he had a lot of praise for how responsive the agency has been of late through its work with various committees — such as B triple C (border, commercial, consultative committees), an electronic commerce committee, and the CARM program, which stands for the Customs Assessment and Revenue Management.

“I find CBSA very responsive and very engaging with the community overall,” Mr. Rodgers said. “Certain projects take a little bit longer to get into practice. But progress is being made.” In the past, that wasn’t necessarily the case, which resulted in bottlenecks and roadblocks to changes the agency wanted to implement, he said. The improvements didn’t have anything to do with politics, he said, although he indicated that personnel changes might have had some bearing. “I think a number of these projects have had great intentions but they just failed to deliver, failed to get off the ground,” he said. Over time, CBSA learned from those failures and has made strides to be more inclusive with its stakeholders, such as CIFFA, and develop a better understanding of each other’s processes. “And I think as a result of that, we’re getting far greater results,” Mr. Rodgers said.

Blockchain potential

An emerging area of interest for freight forwarders is blockchain and its potential to disrupt transportation industries. “We’re watching it,” Mr. Rodgers said, adding that the association’s secretariat has met with representatives of blockchain companies and has even been approached by a group that would like CIFFA to act as consultants on a project. CIFFA has also held workshops on blockchain for its members, such as a presentation at the association’s 70th anniversary conference in October 2018.

“At this point in time, there’s nothing imminent coming,” Mr. Rodgers said. “We’re hearing some rumours that it’s still several years out before it becomes widely adopted. But our role is to make sure that we are positioning the information correctly to our members and to make sure that they are properly informed and prepared for the changes that are coming.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Cowen was hesitant to comment about blockchain. “I don’t want to get hate mail,” he quipped. Nevertheless, he doubts blockchain will have much impact on smaller freight forwarders “because they’re going to be a lot of companies that are just not big enough to get involved with blockchain.” Nor are small customers likely to use the platform, even if multinationals have to. Then again, different variations might develop, such as a “blockchain light” that will appeal to smaller players, he said. What Mr. Cowen does expect to see within the next ten years, or even five, is more digitization, fewer keystrokes, and more data sharing. Smaller firms, which lack access to the platforms of the multinationals, have to double-enter data, he said. “We have to enter everything from scratch that we get from origin whereas the big multinationals, if they’re sharing the platform, it’s automatically uploaded into the system,” Mr. Cowen said. For that reason, small- to medium-sized companies are working on projects with agents on data sharing, he added.

More advocacy ahead

In general, Mr. Rodgers envisions CIFFA undertaking more advocacy with government agencies in the coming years. “We want to be the voice of the industry and be the go-to experts,” he said. In some areas, such as initiatives to improve the flow of goods across the border, he sees progress being made. In other areas, such as advocating for improvements to Canada’s infrastructure — which CIFFA outlined in a letter last year to Transportation Minister Marc Garneau — movement has been much slower. “There are significant projects that have been tabled for several years now that really require more focused attention,” Mr. Rodgers said. “There are a number of working groups that CIFFA is a part of right now, and we’re trying to position a united voice on what is required in the industry overall, and improve the infrastructure projects that are on the table.”