The specialist in India-US trade lane

Harish Pandeya, Managing Director, Swift Cargo: Be it high value pharma or food stuff, granite or engineering products, entrust your cargo to a specialist offering end-to-end services from warehousing to trucking, and brokerage into the US

There are many service providers who cater to the international logistics. So, how do you define services of your company?
Well, I would define us as both specialists and generalists. I would say the first part, specialists, because the market knows us as a specialist in the India-US trade lane. This could be more so because of our presence of over 20 years having our own offices in the United States, covering both the East Coast and the West Coast. But it’s also because of the trust reposed in us over the last 28 years of shippers who have large volumes into the USA. Having said that, we are generalists simply because in our overall volume of over 75,000teus, a significant volume is non-North America. So, obviously we are generalists with a fair degree of prowesses whereby customers trust their cargo to us not only to North America but increasingly to the rest of the world.

Let’s talk a little bit about the India-US specialisation. So, what is unique about it when you deal with India-US bound cargo? What is the exit cargo that you deal with between these two countries and volumes, and what is your value addition to the customer?
So, I will start with the last part first Ram, which is the value addition. What does the customer seek in terms of shipment to, let’s say United States of America? Now, if it is a port to port shipment, it is commoditised.

But if it is shipment which involves commodities that we carry, which is food stuff, pharmaceuticals, there are a lot of auto parts, so, some of these do require specialists in the USA who are able to guide customers, like shippers over here as and when the need arises. So, we have as part of our infrastructure in the US, we have our own warehousing, we have our own trucking, and our brokerage department – we are licensed brokers in the US. We have as many as three licensed brokers on roads, including those who are specialists in the commodities that we carry like food stuff.

So, if a customer requires an input, we are there to provide it to them and this is a deeply informed input that we can provide. There is also a specialisation in other areas of handling special cargo. So, if there is cargo that comes in which is very high value pharmaceutical products, they may come by air or they may come by ocean. But the critical part is to be able to handle the last mile for the customer and to be able to deliver that high value cargo with full safety and without excursion, which is, a fluctuation beyond the permitted temperature variance that the customer provides.

It is being able to deliver this cargo as defined in our SOP. And that’s what we are able to do. So, these are illustrations which I am giving you in terms of how we can add value to the customer.

The good part for us is that we carry food and pharma which, to a large degree, is insulated by circumstances. But there is a lot of stone that we carry. India exports a lot of granite and marble into the United States. We carry auto parts. And there are also other engineering goods which, I don’t know how many people know that there is equipment that goes for tractor manufacture in the US. We carry that.

And lot of it not only goes from Western South India. A lot of it goes from Calcutta and areas surrounding Calcutta which again we carry.

A while ago, you mentioned that you handle roughly about 70,000 to 80,000 teus. But last few months, globally businesses have been impacted and certainly the volumes have also come down. So, how is the scenario with you and what are you looking forward to?
You know Ram, I have been part of discussions with friends, with fellow forwarders and NVOCC, and I remember the initial discussions also that we had where my refrain was keep the faith. You know, we are hoping that there is going to be a rebound. While the rebound may take a while, I must tell you what transpired with us.

The month of March is a very important month because most shippers try to achieve the year-end targets and therefore, it is a very high volume month. So, though the lockdown was in the last week of March, we still ended up doing well in the last week of March. We would have done exceedingly well had March not being curtailed. May, understandably, and April was low. April being about 60% and May being about 80%.

But the good part is that, we kept the faith, we made sure that our vendors and most important, our employees were safeguarded with full timely pay outs and as a result, in the month of June and July and now August, we are on target. We are on level which we hoped to achieve before the arrival of COVID-19.

Out of the key cargo segments that you operate, you mentioned pharma and food stuff, because of the current scenarios, they are doing well. I understand. But how about others? Textile was down. Any signs of picking up?
If I were to describe my government and textile customers from South India and from North India. For us, the Coimbatore, Cochin, Tuticorin belt is pretty rich in terms of export of the commodities that you are talking about. Similarly, there are some hot spots in the North. I believe that those are impacted beyond doubt and I am seeing some green shoots happen in that particular segment.

Luckily for us, while many of our peers and my competitors carry a very large quantity of garments and textiles, again, there is good fortune that it forms a relatively smaller percentage of our volume.

So, in the LCL, the consolidated cargo, where do you see the potential in India? Where is the cargo coming from? What do you see is the future scenario?
So, if I were to first describe LCL consolidation, I think it depends on your expertise, because there are some very large networks worldwide which end up capturing cargo which is generated by the buyers overseas. As far as Swift is concerned, we have capitalised on our repute and our experience in specialisation into North America, into the US. We have five cities in India where we close our own boxes into the United States East and West Coast.

Starting from Calcutta to Ahmedabad to Nhava Sheva, Mumbai to Cochin and to Chennai. So, these places we have our customers who have been supportive. So, I believe that the future holds only promise for those who can do specialisations and volumes and not those who are going to attempt. So, the barriers are going to be greater in the LCL side of the business.

On your website, I was reading a feature — Swift Supreme Program. Can you elaborate on that and what kind of benefits customers get out of it?
Thank you for asking that Ram. We are very proud of the initiative that came out of our marketing team and senior management that how do we give back to our customers? I am not being a socialist in this at all. What I mean is that if a customer is important, how do we also let him know that other than lip service and talking.

So, we had a programme which is designed to a) Recognise and b) Reward the customer for their loyalty and volume to Swift Cargo. So, if a customer is on the Swift Supreme Program and across India, out of our 3500 live customers, there are close 200 customers who are Swift Supreme Customers. Now, for these customers, of course, there has always been an escalation matrix and a dedicated service person, but by virtue of being a Swift Supreme Customer, now he/she has an avenue to a specialist cell which goes beyond the normal sales and service executive.

It is this cell which is geared to respond. For example, the US office at odd hours – odd to us, is fully geared to respond directly to the shipper should the consignee not be able to interact and the shipper wants to interact. The top customers have been aligned with our agents where we don’t have our own offices for an equally quick response. And there is also a give back to the customer which I mentioned earlier that based on his volumes, at the end of the month, not only does he get a report card, but he actually gets back something that he can discount. He gets back a credit note for what is the volume he has given us.

Wonderful. So, what are your future plans – from here to where?
Well, that’s a good but difficult question to answer. The industry, as you know, more than anyone, by virtue of being in it for so long and having talked to people across the plinth for us, ours is the most M&A prone industry in the world. And by virtue of being the most fragmented, it therefore is one where entry barriers are low, new people can come in and people keep coming in and exiting as companies, not as individuals.

Our dream has been that if we have been in business for almost three decades now, we have so far grown the business in an organic and orderly manner. We have survived few crises like the 2008 global financial crisis. Luckily for us, despite our presence in the US, we came out strong. We are currently experiencing another great crisis of the world. But, I believe that the route ahead for us what I told my peers in the early days of Covid; that I think after this slump, there will be a rise. Luckily, we are riding the current slump pretty ok. I think that we will be open to combine with people to create a bigger enterprise.