By Peter Gabany

Now that the Cleveland-Europe scheduled service is up and running, why did a Dutch shipowner (Spliethoff Group) and Port of Cleveland take the financial and other risks inherent in offering this new service?

The answer was simple. John Sveistrup, (Director, North America, Spliethoff) spoke of how Will Freidman, President and CEO of Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority watched with interest and frustration as miles of unit trains plied their way east, past the Port. How could the Port get some of this cargo moving east? Might there be opportunity? Sveistrup, Jamie Tolis (Spliethoff Chartering Manager), Captain Leon van Amerongen (Director, Spliethoff) and Frank Dunn, President of Valport, discussed establishing a scheduled breakbulk shipping service from the Great Lakes to Europe.

“The timing could not be better,” Sveistrup said. “We have seen tremendous change in our industry, all industry, but the fact remains, people have got to move their goods to market efficiently and the demand for safe, fast, cost-effective modes is at an all-time high.”

Tolis was excited to explain the new markets she was exploring, while Van Amerongen and Sveistrup spoke of highway and railway congestion, driver shortages, and carrier price wars. Eastern seaboard ports are choked with import and export cargo and a debate ensued about what’s easier to handle – breakbulk and machinery parts or a container? It was concluded that rail infrastructure can only take so much, and therein lies the opportunity for a new shipping service.

Not everything is shipped by unit train or container ship. In fact, the industrial heartland of America – the Midwest and resource driven Canada – are home to ’big, odd, and don’t always fit in a box’ cargo. Large earth moving equipment like the machinery built by Caterpillar, how do you move that efficiently? To get one of these machines to a mine site in Africa is a real challenge. These units, built in Peoria, Illinois, are built, then disassembled into manageable parts, placed on trucks, trucked to the rail yard, loaded on a train and mainlined to an east coast port where they are shipped to Europe and transshipped to destination.

Tolis explained why Cleveland’s Port Authority preferred Spliethoff over others, and went on to explain that her company’s clients love the fact that Spliethoff will ship just about any size cargo, from several tonnes to hundreds of tonnes. “We offer a parcelling service,” she says. “Small quantities of bulk and breakbulk, steel, machinery, projects and even containers. They could all originate from the one customer, or from many”. Leon says, “No one else wants to touch it. It’s a bother.” As a former captain, Leon should know. “But we have refined one of our business sectors that manages this sort of work very effectively,” Sveistrup adds.

Frank Dunn weighed in, remarking that “Spliethoff learned its trade in the Caribbean. All those little places have things to move to destinations abroad. This carrier is most flexible and understands that type of customer, and that model will work wonders in the Great Lakes. Spliethoff has the right vessels for this type of work.”

“There are a lot of challenges,” cautioned Dunn, “We have five generations of brokers and forwarders to educate that there is a better and more cost-effective way.” It is so ingrained that customers in the Midwest know the “put it on a truck, put the truck on a train, move it to the east (or west) coast, put it in a shipping yard, then onto a boat. We would have to make them aware that there are ships at a Great Lakes port waiting for their goods on a regular and scheduled basis. That we can get their cargo to destination with less handling, at lower cost and in many cases in less time.”

Following the introduction of scheduled service from Cleveland to Europe early in 2014, Spliethoff has learned many things. “As excited as we are to be working with Port of Cleveland, we must continuously respond to the changing needs of our customers,” Sveistrup says, “accordingly, we are adding reefer service and heavy lift, but the largest improvement will be an increased frequency of service – in short, we’re adding another ship each month.”

Sveistrup added, “Our customers also like our throughput bill of lading to final destination practice. Not everyone understands it because of what they are used to in North America. They have been comparing our shipping rates with other carriers, but have not included the ‘truck to train to shipping yard handling and shipping’. We are doing it all – all inclusive. Once the customer’s goods are loaded on our ship in Cleveland, we will move it into Central Europe or Central Africa – one throughput bill of lading, one cost to the customer – no additional handling or shipping charge. This makes it very convenient to cost a job for their customer.”

Dunn says, “There hasn’t been a more exciting opportunity to utilize our Great Lakes resource to come along in years. I love it because Spliethoff passes our port in Valleyfield both up the Seaway and down the Seaway. Not only have we hatched a liner business but a short-sea business as well. There is a lot of work for many markets surrounding the Lakes, and it not only benefits the other ports but makes for a sustainable system. I think this is exciting.” In a final comment that reflects a depth of understanding that separates Spliethoff from other carriers, Sveistrup adds, “When customers understand how this is a tremendous benefit to their end user customer, those companies will discover new market opportunities – worldwide – to grow their own business.”