By Brian Dunn

After a couple of harrowing experiences at sea at an early age, you would think the last thing Elias Hage would want to do is choose a career in shipping. At the age of five, he was thrown into his mother’s arms in a lifeboat after one of his father’s ships began to sink. At age 12, he was playing billiards aboard another of his father’s ships docked in Beirut when gunfire erupted and the family was escorted to safety with the help of army tanks. “Despite these experiences, I love the sea,” said Mr. Hage, Director of Nirint Canada. “We’re like the Phoenicians (an ancient Greek civilization) who sailed the seas for centuries.”

The Hage family immigrated to Canada in 1999 where his father continued in the shipping business and Elias followed in his father’s footsteps, armed with an administration degree in marine management from the Maine Maritime Academy. After two years at sea and working for a Montreal shipping company, Mr. Hage saw an opportunity to open a permanent Nirint office in Canada.

“Nirint Shipping (of Rotterdam) had been servicing the Canadian market since 2003, seeing Canada as an important market and part of a natural rotation of ships between Europe and the Caribbean. It’s also an exporting country of commodities, and not as much of an up and down market like the Caribbean, and we’ve been profitable since day one.”

The Canadian operation opened in 2009 with offices in Halifax, Montreal, Sept-Îles and Schefferville, and a representative in Vancouver, offering mostly conventional breakbulk (85 per cent of its business) and container service (15 per cent.) In 2011, Nirint opened an office in Beijing to service the China-Canada market with a stop in Central America. It’s a semi-regular service, unlike its regular service to Europe.

Nirint Shipping began operations in 1992 in Rotterdam to fill a void in shipping services between Europe and the Caribbean. These services were scarce and far from reliable, which created an urgent need for additional shipping capacity. Nirint initially filled that gap by chartering monthly conventional tonnage to Europe and gradually expanded to a current fleet of seven modern multi-purpose vessels with substantial container capacity and up to 150 tonnes lifting-gear. The company has worldwide operations with offices in Holland, Spain, Canada, China and Venezuela, as well as representation in 58 countries.

All seven of Nirint’s modern, ice-class vessels, ranging from 10,000 to 17,000 deadweight tonnes, call on Canada every 14 days to offload minerals and project cargo and to pick up project cargo, steel products and pulp and paper.

“Breakbulk is losing ground to container service, but there is still a demand for it,” Mr. Hage offered. “Some of the biggest imports are transformers, generators, cranes and wind turbine blades and nacelles. Most of our exports go to Holland, France, Belgium and Spain and periodically to Germany and the U.K.” Nirint offers regular service from Halifax and the St. Lawrence ports, including Matane to Europe, Caribbean and Central America with 300 tonnes of lifting capacity. The company discontinued its regular service to and from Montreal every 10 days in 2008-09 due to the economy. However, Nirint does offer a Montreal-Caribbean service on a project basis for construction equipment and containers from its inventory of some 6,000 containers.

How does Nirint market itself? “We advertise, do proactive sales calls and attend conferences and conventions. We’re known as an experienced company specializing in maritime transportation with a proven track record on many projects of millions of tonnes,” said Mr. Hage. “We’re flexible, we establish personal relationships and offer personal service; our customers are not talking to an answering machine. Our major clients are in the industrial sector such as mining and steel companies, pulp and paper along with freight forwarders, brokers and traders. “We carry more outbound cargo than inbound, but there’s an imbalance in all trade, suggested Mr. Hage. “One leg of a trip has to subsidize the other leg of the trip.”

The company’s fortunes depend on several countries which are mostly “stagnant,” said Mr. Hage. Nirint’s peak years were in the recent past, which are not comparable to today’s numbers. “But I’m an optimistic person. If we all work hard, something good will happen.” Quebec’s ambitious Plan Nord to develop the Northern part of the province is a great opportunity for everybody, according to Mr. Hage who is working with different industries to supply materials for utilities and the mining industry.

Mr. Hage is also on a mission to change the way transportation is conducted in this country. “In Europe, 80 per cent of cargo is shipped by water compared to Canada where 80 per cent is shipped by rail and truck. Today, thousands of containers are railed or trucked between the Montreal to Toronto corridor on a weekly basis. In 2009, we shipped 200 containers on a Canadian-flagged vessel between Toronto and Halifax on a trial basis, to prove it can be done. Of course, the main constraint is the closure of the Seaway in winter. ”

Nirint operates feeder vessels in Europe and one in the Caribbean, and is always looking for feeder opportunities in the Great Lakes-Seaway corridor. The company has a strong philanthropic philosophy and supports athletes, cultural events and underprivileged children, including the Sun Youth organization that helps underprivileged kids in Montreal where one of Elias’ brothers played football.