Data keeps port agency on even keel

Holmes Maritime Inc., a Halifax port agency, makes its money by ensuring timely ocean-going shipments. But a new government reporting requirement could have scuttled the business had Holmes Maritime not found a high-tech method of meeting the feds’ needs.

In April 2004 the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) enacted new reporting rules for port agents. This arm of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada (an overarching security department) enacted the Advanced Commercial Information (ACI) initiative. ACI requires firms like Holmes Maritime to send packaged cargo info to the CBSA 24 hours before the shipment is loaded onto a sea vessel, much as the U.S. Automated Manifest System does south of the border.

According to Lou Holmes, Holmes Maritime’s president, the CBSA requires many cargo details: the full name and address of the shipper, the phone number, the full name and address of the receiving party; that entity’s phone number; what terminal it’s loading at; what time the cargo’s going onto the vessel; what date it’s loading on; how much it weighs — all before the cargo goes aboard the ship.

The CBSA is particular, to boot. “The description of the cargo has to be precise,” Holmes said. “If it’s vague, it will be rejected.”

Holmes said if his firm didn’t develop a way of getting info to the CBSA in a timely manner, Holmes Maritime might have found itself on the rocks.

“I’d probably lose an awful lot of business,” he said. “The agents in Canada have to input on behalf of the (ship) owners. If we’re incapable of doing it, we would have had to tell the owner, and he would have gone to another agent.”

Holmes Maritime could have built its own digital tunnel into the CBSA data collection system, but that would have put too great a burden on its staff, who have enough to deal with. Instead, the company got together with other port agents and put out a request for information (RFI). The group sought an IT service provider for an outsourced solution.

A handful of companies responded to the RFI. Holmes Maritime and other agents settled on CrimsonLogic Pte Ltd., a global IT service provider with Canadian offices in Richmond Hill, Ont. Now Holmes Maritime uses CrimsonLogic’s Freight Forwarder platform to get cargo data to the CBSA on time.

Freight Forwarder is part of CrimsonLogic’s TradePalette suite, which includes software for managing freight documentation, connections to financial institutions (banks, insurance companies, etc.) and for dealing with B2B systems. Holmes said Freight Forwarder presents an online link to the CBSA. Holmes Maritime staffers merely collect the requisite information from shippers and plug it into the Web-served app.

According to Peter Owsiany, CrimsonLogic’s vice-president and general manager in Richmond Hill, his company’s wares are easy to manage, but “there is a bit of work up front, when you’re trying to do the first set-up. What’s involved is basically mapping. Once that’s done, the system flows very nicely.” The apps rely on the Secure File Transfer Protocol to ensure data makes it safely to its destination.

The process that led Holmes Maritime to CrimsonLogic’s wares had its advantages, said Holmes.

“We used to get in conference calls with [CrimsonLogic] and other agents. Everybody participated, including some of my clients overseas. Some of them had high volumes coming in, and we needed to give them a good feel for what we faced. Everybody asked questions….What we didn’t think of, other agents thought of.” He added that Holmes Maritime and the other agents got together for these conference calls twice a week over six weeks before giving CrimsonLogic the order for full speed ahead.

Holmes said he thought the ACI might hurt his business, but in some ways the government mandate has actually helped. The CBSA’s rules introduced “a discipline where everyone knows in the chain that they have a deadline to meet in order to avoid the possibility of a massive bill coming their way, because the government said, ‘Hold the cargo.’”

The Freight Forwarder system streamlined Holmes Maritime’s data management processes. Now the company and other port agents that choose the CrimsonLogic platform can handle more clients than they could before. “It has increased business for us, and it has for our competition,” Holmes said. “We’re all on the same page now.”

Holmes said his company aims to keep customers in the loop when it comes to high-tech initiatives. Holmes Maritime even invites certain shippers to contact CrimsonLogic directly if they have questions. “We want our clients to know who we’re dealing with.”

One of the most important aspects of finding the right solution for what could have been a government-pushed, data management shipwreck was the speed at which RFI respondents could answer questions. Holmes suggested companies should pay close attention to this critical part of vendor support before deciding which technology to buy.

“The first question you should ask and get evidence of is support, any given day, verbal, via e-mail, or by fax, and that you get an answer within four hours, not three or four days. You could lose business…and create such a financial nightmare that you may as well go and hide in the jungles of Surinam for the rest of your life.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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