Moving goods with data
The increased pace of digitalisation is having a far-reaching impact, forcing long-established businesses to engage with customers in new ways and rethink the fundamentals on which their success has been built.
“Basically we move goods, we do storage and transportation, but just being effective at that is not enough any more,” says Edoardo Podesta, Dachser Far East’s managing director for air and sea logistics in the Asia-Pacific region. “Equally important today is to move the data that comes with the goods. Digitalisation is what customers are asking for; it is taking the industry by storm.”
There are two key elements, he notes, to meeting those demands. Firstly, the industry as a whole has been reviewing its internal processes for issuing bills of lading, airway bills and other documentation, which has long seen a heavy reliance on paperwork. New tech-driven methods are changing the relationships between all the stakeholders involved, from shippers and airlines to customs, truckers and end-users.
“All the paperwork is being swept away,” says Podesta, who oversees around 1,800 staff in close to 50 locations. “Every manager and every company is talking about innovation and how to move that data in a different way. Technology has allowed this to happen.”
And it has led inevitably to the second major development reshaping the sector: opportunities to use the vast stores of information now available to help clients plan their patterns of sourcing, shipment and distribution that much more effectively.
“Customers want data to forecast orders and inventory, as well as for more complex commercial decisions like where to locate factories,” Podesta says. “We have to listen to their demands and, sometimes, act as a consultant on things like what to expect from a trade war. Executing a shipment is not what makes the difference any more; that is taken for granted. Instead, we must be ready to innovate from different points of view, and that includes looking at sustainability and whatever else we need to do to prosper.”
Regarding the current trade environment, he notes there are always cycles in business. However, the ongoing Sino-US frictions mean production of certain lower-cost items looks sure to switch from China to countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
“Trade wars have accelerated this process, turbo-charging something that was already happening,” he says. “In the last 10 years, it has been all China, but more people are now looking elsewhere, so we need to adapt accordingly.”
Podesta hails originally from Chiavari, a small town outside Genoa, where the family had long ties with shipping, having carried the South American grain trade into northern Italy up until the Second World War. Subsequently, a relative founded Contship, to operate in the container trade and, after deciding to cut short a degree in economics and commerce, that’s where Podesta took his first steps in the business.
“I didn’t want to waste time,” he says. “I was a bit of a hothead and was trying to find my direction. I can’t say it was planned, but I ended up in the right job.”
He began in 1987 as a junior in the firm’s Valencia office, having picked up Spanish during family holidays, and two years on was offered the chance to join a management trainee scheme, which was intended to take him first to the UK and then to New York. However, a decline in the transatlantic trade scotched those plans and, with Asian business booming, he was offered the alternative of a posting in Sydney or Singapore instead.
“I didn’t know anything about either place, but Singapore sounded more exciting, and the office there was covering Indonesia and Malaysia as well,” he says. “It turned out that I came to Asia at the right time and was lucky because Singapore was the right first stop. I had good colleagues and never went back to Europe.”
After one year, he was sent me to Port Klang to look after direct ship calls. Then came a couple of years in Indonesia, at a time when trade was really taking off, though that barely prepared him for the comparative frenzy of activity that followed his next move in 1994.
“Coming from Jakarta to Hong Kong was like going from 50 to 300 kilometres an hour,” he says. “I had to adapt from the slow-moving Southeast Asian lifestyle and was catapulted into everything that was happening in China. That was a new kind of experience.”
Though offered the chance to return to Italy, he opted instead to switch to the forwarding side of the business by opening an office in Malaysia for Zust Ambrosetti Far East. And, having learned the ropes, he took over from the retiring managing director of the firm’s Hong Kong office in 1998 — just as the Asian financial crisis struck.
“It was tough; there were two very interesting and intense years where we had to sink or swim,” Podesta says. “I had 150 people to manage and, for a while, my head was below water level, but I learned and survived. Now, I don’t mind putting people in tough positions. I support them and normally find they can do what’s required.”
Another big test, after Sars, coincided with a change of ownership when Dachser took over in 2003, but by then Podesta knew how to ride out difficulties and prepare for the opportunities ahead.
“In general, that period worked out very well for us; we expanded a lot. Of course, there will be ups and downs in the market, but overall business has continued to be good and, as a company, we are here to stay.”
When off duty, Podesta, who married relatively late, ensures activities are family centred and enjoys the typical Sai Kung lifestyle.
“I’m Mediterranean, I feel good when I see the sea,” he says. “But I also love history, philosophy and politics and, one day, might go back to school.”