CEO of CFT Corporation, one of North America’s top shipping and logistics companies handling specialty grains.

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Just about anyone involved in the food trading business is familiar with the following scenario or one just like it: an order placed for ten containers of red lentils a month ago has been delayed at port due to a local railway strike, and meanwhile the price of the grain has dropped 15 percent. The buyer wants a discount but the seller claims he’s not at fault.

That’s where Steven Pocklington comes in. As CEO of CFT Corporation, he and his team handle shipping and logistics for all the major pulse and specialty crop markets across North America. Need to send a large order of pinto beans to Angola in a few weeks? CFT’s got you covered. With over 30 years in the business, Pocklington has witnessed just about any shipping issue you can think of which caused conflicts between buyer and seller.

“When things get a little testy we’re always in the middle trying to help out,” he says. Though it’s not always easy being the middleman, Pocklington says resolving issues has gotten a little easier with the advent of the Internet. The ability to get timely, crucial information—everything from railway or port strikes to weather events and equipment space issues—certainly helps.

IFT spoke to Pocklington recently to hear his insights on how the shipping and logistics industry has changed since he began and where it may be heading.

IFT: How did you get your start in the logistics and shipping industry?

Steven Pocklington: I started out during the infancy of the business when specialty grains first started moving in containers. It goes back to the early 80s. I worked for another logistics company, and learned the ropes there. That’s when they first started shipping lentils, canary seeds and peas through the port of Montreal. I worked in operations and eventually moved to Toronto, worked for a few other logistics companies and then started out on my own in ’87. Over the years I’ve always been involved with shipping specialty grains.

IFT: So you’ve seen the Canadian market develop from the get go?

Steven Pocklington: The Canadians started moving some product out of the farms, putting it in containers at the port, and then it pretty much developed from there. If I think back to the early 80s, there were only a few Canadian growers, but the Americans pretty much dominated the export markets. Some of the American trading companies helped set them up, shipping out of Canada while doing the same out of the U.S. so it kind of developed that way. Eventually over the years the Canadians took over their own exporting and started to dominate as a good supplier of peas and lentils. If I look at the last couple of years, the Canadians ran into some trouble with their crops—poor quality, high prices—and they lost some market share. But now we see a great quality crop with good prices so the Canadians are starting to reclaim some of that.

IFT: What are the main pulse markets you deal with?

Steven Pocklington: We ship from all the origins in North America, mostly Canada and the U.S. The odd time we’ll ship chickpeas out of Mexico but predominately it’s the U.S. and Canada. So if you focus in on the areas that these specialty grains and pulses are grown you can draw a ban across the continent where you have the Canadian prairies—Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta—and the U.S. prairies—North Dakota, Minnesota,Nebraska,Colorado, Montana. You also have the sunflower and millet seeds, which can be found in this region including Kansas. We also ship soybeans, corn and DDG’s from Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Ontario and Quebec. So like I said, you draw a ban across the continent and it’s pretty much shipping a variety of grains and seeds grown there. We export these commodities worldwide but predominately to countries in the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and then also North Asia (China) for peas and soybeans for Japan.

There is some north-south trade. Countries in the Caribbean and Venezuela will buy lentils and beans. The odd time we will ship to Brazil and Argentina. Sometimes there’s a narrow delivery window when they’re short on beans, which they have been a little bit this year because of Argentina. South Africa will also buy navy beans and peas from Canada and the U.S. The only business we see shipping to Australia is mostly navy beans and occasionally some colored beans. They certainly don’t buy many lentils because they produce their own.

IFT: How has the shipping and logistics industry changed over the years in relation to pulses and specialty crops?

Steven Pocklington: It’s become a lot more sophisticated and focused on details. I’m not sure how well entrenched and sophisticated the carriers are in understanding the global market of pulses. I know the regional offices working out of these respective countries seem to have their control over what their doing and that has a lot to do with the supply and demand of their equipment and space. You know these commodities generally move at the low revenue rates so carriers have to decide how much of this commodity they wish to load on their vessels at any given time.

IFT: When you say “more sophisticated” what have been some of the developments there?

Steven Pocklington: Well it’s the information. They’ve become much better informed and of course the Internet has a lot to do with that. The process of handling loading containers, getting the documentation, you know with all of the security that the carriers have imposed on everybody for filing manifests on time. It’s just tightened up tremendously. There are quicker transits and there’s less time to file your documents. It’s a much speedier process now with less room for error.

IFT: Do you feel there is still a long way to go or has it reached a pretty good level of efficiency?

Steven Pocklington: They will always continue to try to improve what they do. I think they do have to get better at planning what they can handle at any given time when it comes to accepting bookings and supplying equipment and space. That’s always been difficult for them to foresee and plan for. From the point that they want the cargo, then price into it, accept the booking then they actually have to execute, things could change. You’ll probably find similar issues in most of the countries specialty grains are shipped from. Late shipping is a common problem somewhat caused by railroads and carriers not supplying equipment on time. These are service issues that they still need to improve on.

IFT: What countries pose the biggest challenges for shipping and logistics?

Steven Pocklington: We’ve heard about difficulties shipping out of China. They have been unreliable in the past and you don’t always know what rate you’ll be paying. Also if anyone tries to ship out of the Ukraine or Russia—there’s been lots of problems there as well since they’re not as sophisticated and lack infrastructure. I haven’t heard too much about issues shipping from Argentina or Australia that are any different to North America.

IFT: What are some of the key variables that influence shipping and logistics in the pulses and specialty crop industry?

Steven Pocklington: There could be potential strikes with the railways or at the ports. These always have a negative impact on shipping and we have experienced them in Canada and the U.S. Otherwise weather can also be an issue. Certain times of the year you can experience storms and winter weather that could delay shipping. Typically every winter we have some sort of problem, especially in Canada. The main issue is the growers having a reliable means of transporting from the farms, which is typically in the interior of these countries, to the ports. So they’re very dependent on the railways, and we all know the railways can be unreliable. Since they influence everyone’s business you’ve got to somehow work around that and be realistic with the contract that you’re trying to fulfill. Hopefully the buyers understand that as well. You know it’s not a simple thing to just buy twenty full containers of lentils for immediate shipment, especially if it’s coming from the interior which I would expect is probably the case shipping from South America, Australia and other originating countries.

IFT: What happens if you find yourself in the middle of a conflict where a shipment is not arriving on time, for example? How do you deal with that as sort of the middleman?

Steven Pocklington: The common issue that comes up is, to use an example, you have a contract for shipment at the end of October on-board vessel and of course it gets delayed and it moves into November, and then depending on the price of the commodity the buyer may come in and want a discount of some sort or refuse to pick up the documents or not want the goods because it’s too late. What can happen is the shipper is stuck asking CFT to negotiate with the shipping line to obtain extra free time at destination while they try to find a new buyer. So when things get a little testy we’re always in the middle trying to work out a solution while minimizing the losses. So it’s mostly about dealing with the shipping lines and trying to get an extra grace period. That’s part of our service of minimizing risks by shipping with reliable carriers which helps avoid these unforeseen expenses when they become an issue.

IFT: Where do you see the future of shipping and logistics heading?

Steven Pocklington: Technology is certainly going to make a difference and help the industry because it’s all about information and working through the details. If you’ve got everything you need you can pretty much formulate a plan to get this to ship properly, and if all the players are on the same page then obviously it will become easier with fewer surprises. Information technology has certainly made a difference. When you think about how specialty grains are handled, you’ve got to remember that the larger the volume in containers the better organized you must be. Otherwise to minimize risk you’ll need to convert to shipping bulk conventional or break bulk as opposed to just containers. I think if you have a handle on both, you’re in pretty good shape to cover your customers shipping position at a competitive price.