By Brian Dunn

They say every cloud has a silver lining. For Michael Belmer, outgoing CEO of Montreal-based Montship Inc., that silver lining occurred early in his career when he was working as an accountant at Weir, Duncan & Co. “When I graduated (from McGill University’s Chartered Accountant Program in 1964), I was good at math so my parents (who immigrated to Canada from the U.K. in 1946 when Michael was three) directed me towards a career as a C.A. I went to work for Weir, Duncan, but I knew the company was closing. So I looked around and noticed that the shipping industry was paying well. I applied for a job at Montreal Shipping, was hired, and saw my pay rise from $175 a month at Weir, Duncan to $350 a month at Montreal Shipping.”

After a 48-year career at Montship, (“If I stayed an­other two years, I would get an extra week’s vacation,” he joked) Mr. Belmer will officially step down on June 30, but will be feted June 12 at Montreal’s St. James Club at a retirement party hosted by his replacement, Brian McDonald, 52, the company’s President. Mr. McDonald is based in Montship’s Toronto office and will divide his time between Toronto and Montreal.

Montship is the largest liner agency in Canada representing a large number of shipowners and liner services. The company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Trealmont Transport whose sister companies include Trealmont Trade Lane and Trealship Services. Trealmont Logistics was established in 1994 and merged in 2009 with Trade Lane Solutions of Vancouver. This division represents various shipper interests and offers logistic solutions and chartering back shop services. Trealmont Logistics (U.S.A) was established in New Orleans in 2000 and supports the Canadian operation.

Trealship Services was established in 1998 in Halifax as a reefer container repair company and has since expanded to Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg. It is supported by a trucking subsidiary, Prairie International, based in Winnipeg.

When Mr. Belmer started working at Montship, there were approximately 60 people employed in offices in Montreal and Toronto. Today there are 175 employees in Stephenville, Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver and New Orleans. The Vancouver office is now the largest, with 50 employees, mainly due to the growing importance of the Pacific Rim.

Mr. Belmer joined Montship as a shipping accountant and progressed to various senior positions in Treasury. “The Seaway opened in 1959 and the business was growing. But to get ahead, I realized I had to learn about sales, so I decided to get an MBA at Concordia University. In 1981, I was offered a position teaching night courses in transportation marketing at both the Concordia and Loyola campuses. When the Vice-President of Traffic (Sales) left the company in 1984, I was appointed to the position and gave up teaching.”

In 1991, Mr. Belmer and a group of other executives bought the company from the management who were retiring. He took over as President and CEO in 1996 after the death of then President Guy Bouchat. Under the new management team, the company quickly expanded Trealmont Logistics to Vancouver and changed the corporate name from Montreal Shipping to Montship to reflect the expanding diversity of the organization.

While Mr. Belmer acknowledges the opening of the Seaway was an important milestone for the shipping industry, he said the biggest change was the advent of containerization in the mid-1970s. “Cargo was our biggest business and even though the Seaway opened, we did not book cargo at the time, we were loading it. Handling the ship portion was not big business. It’s booking the cargo on the ships that was important. Containerization forced computerization and today we are the largest shipping agent in Canada. The next largest is probably 20 per cent our size.”

Some 60 per cent of revenue is generated by Montship as a liner agency booking cargo, 20 per cent is derived from Trealmont and another 20 per cent from Trade Line. “When I took over in 1996, the previous President didn’t want too much change and wanted to concentrate on Montship. However, I felt we needed to diversify. That’s why we got into Trealmont and Trealship as a way to lower our vulnerability. We considered going into freight forwarding, but that would mean competing with its own customers. We tried airfreight, but that’s a different culture. We’ll continue to look for opportunities within the field of international shipping, always being very careful to keep within our area of expertise and ensuring to not dilute management time allocated to customers.”

The expansion of the Panama Canal will change the dynamics of the industry in North America, predicts Mr. Belmer. “A major portion of Far East cargo coming into Chicago and the U.S. Midwest is now railed from the various West Coast ports including Prince Rupert. The larger vessels which will transit the Panama will have significantly higher container capacity and it will be cheaper to discharge cargo at East Coast ports such as Jacksonville or Norfolk and then truck or rail it to destination. This will also help with the capacity issues which have occurred on the West Coast, and will give importers and exporters a viable alternative.

“While the dynamics for Canada will likely not change as dramatically, U.S. rail services from the East Coast will have to improve and will likely offer better services to the Midwest which could impact the ports of Montreal and Halifax. These ports depend on cargo to and from Europe which presently rely on the excellent services of our two Canadian railways to the U.S. Midwest. In addition, Halifax has benefited in the past from the draft restrictions on the U.S. East Coast, but this benefit has diminished due to extensive dredging. The Port of Halifax and the rail service provider to Central Canada must continue to compete aggressively with this growing competition.”

In terms of overall business, Montship has been successful as an agent, representing quality liner services such as MOL (for over 50 years) and Hamburg Sud. “Of course, we must perform, and understand the significance of market share and cargo mix. The bottom line for each piece of cargo must make sense for the line we represent. We have also supported our principals during the increasing frequency of downturns. The success of all liner services depends on U.S. cargo and in a U.S. recession, all lines are negatively impacted and more vessel space for Canadian cargo is available. We realized this and have significantly reduced our cost structure during these times to recognize this anomaly and share in the pain.” Although the shipping industry is still struggling, rates are starting to increase, because shipowners as a group lost $16 billion worldwide last year and they can’t afford to continue doing that, Mr. Belmer pointed out.

The outgoing CEO will still have an office at Montship for a few months after he retires where he will continue his work on the Boards of The Trafalgar School for Girls (where his three daughters attended), the Atwater Library and Mariner’s House. While he’ll miss the day-to-day challenges of working in the shipping industry, Mr. Belmer will not miss the travel. “In the early days, I travelled a lot. One year I was away for 200 days and never saw much of my daughters. I won’t miss that at all.” And as a member of three golf clubs in Montreal, the Eastern Townships and Florida, it’s a safe bet he’ll be spending a lot more time on the links.