Gillespie-Munro uses platform for a decade, seeks new frontiers in ocean freight processing.
By Eric Johnson
Ten years ago, the Montreal-based freight forwarder Gillespie-Munro signed on to the then relatively new ocean freight booking portal INTTRA, hoping to ease a booking process that had been traditionally cumbersome.
In the years since, Gillespie-Munro has witnessed, from the inside, a gradual acceptance of automation in the ocean freight industry, realizing a decade’s worth of benefits at the same time that INTTRA and other booking portals have grown well beyond their initial charters.
Somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of the forwarder’s containers are now booked through the INTTRA platform, and its joint relationship with INTTRA and the logistics solutions provider Descartes Systems Group has yielded tangible results in efficiency.
It’s been an aid to Gillespie-Munro, in particular, from the standpoint of providing a seamless process of booking to track and trace of containers for a company that wouldn’t otherwise have the wherewithal to invest in those technologies.
For Chris Gillespie, the forwarder’s president and chief executive officer, the early benefits of the INTTRA platform were time savings.
“Initially, the time to make a booking was around three hours,” he said in an interview with American Shipper
. “Trying to reach people at the carriers is difficult. The initial time of two to three hours seemed horrific. That has improved dramatically. And we believe we’ve helped to refine this whole process.”
The other area in which aligning with a portal helped was in managing bookings with a large number of carriers.
“It was a difficult task for our system to book 100 containers, but a lot of our commodity business is large volume container business,” he said. “INTTRA said we can accommodate this on our site. So we took it back to Descartes and they made quick changes.”
INTTRA and Descartes forged an alliance in September 2010 to improve ocean shipping processes. Both are among the most eager-to-partner technology vendors in the industry, seeing value in building communities that are tied in to a common network.
As his company’s relationship with INTTRA has advanced, Gillespie said he’s not shy about bringing to INTTRA’s attention areas where they can make the process smoother.
“We also bring things to our IT department’s attention,” he said. “We’re asking them, ‘can we have this make more sense to the layman.’ They have made an effort to do just that, even if it’s a message to Descartes that they can send to us. It’s an ongoing thing with INTTRA, but I’ve never felt embarrassed to go to them. And I realize it should also benefit them as a whole. It doesn’t make sense for them to do something only for Gillespie-Munro.”
And in reality, it’s a message that INTTRA receives often from its customers, said Sandra Moran, vice president of industry and product marketing at INTTRA. Each shipper and forwarder has its set of intrinsic challenges that often can’t be tackled with a standard solution set.
“When INTTRA started, it was all about standardization,” she said. “The next move is, how do we support customized standards? There really are contractual terms between carriers and shippers driving some need to step outside of standards. Years ago, we added rules exceptions in our engine, so you could accept these exceptions and still drive these bookings through the INTTRA platform.
“For instance, if dangerous goods require four more fields, both sides have to absorb those changes. Where carriers are not ready to modify their mapping to pull those data fields, we modify it so they can get their booking. Or maybe make the booking and append via email the info in those four fields. Ultimately, to get to the next level, this has to be automated. We have to be in the business of eliminating the touch. Technologies exist; they just haven’t been embedded yet. Carriers sometimes just can’t get it in their development cycle at the same pace as the shippers can.”
Indeed, INTTRA has been on an increasingly expansive mission to automate processes and measure performance in an industry that has been overly reliant on paper documents, rekeying information, phone calls and fax, and anecdotal analysis.
Its software-as-a-service network boasts links to 40 ocean carriers, with 525,000 weekly bookings, representing 18 percent of global ocean container trade.
For instance, INTTRA has been pushing for greater acceptance of e-invoicing in ocean freight transactions, developed its OceanMetrics product to allow shippers and carriers to measure service parameters, and then partnered with SeaIntel Maritime Analysis to provide more intricate detail on cargo delivery performance. (For more details, download the June 5 webinar, The Paper Chase — E-Invoicing’s Impact on Ocean Freight Billing, from the American Shipper Website
It has also assembled a group of container shipping-related chief information officers to push new ideas around automation and standardization.
“The biggest problem INTTRA has is they’re in the middle,” Gillespie said. “They have the shippers, and they have the carriers. When I go to complain to INTTRA about something, it must be challenging. They have to take a diplomatic approach. They have a fine line they have to walk.”
But Moran said INTTRA’s placement gives it a chance to advance discussion in critical areas.
“Our plight in the middle is an interesting position to be in,” she said. “We’re sometimes able to use multiple shippers’ requests to move the carriers into a position we want to go. It’s more powerful for a customer to be part of a large group of 20 to 30 major shippers. And we have an insight into such a big part of the market. Carriers are our customers, but we are helping them serve their customers.”
One area Gillespie said his company still struggles with is bill of lading instructions
“This can be a valuable tool for us,” he said. “Our staff is accurate with (bill of lading instructions), but whatever format we send it to them, it’s rekeyed into the system by the carrier, and then when it comes back to us, we have to check it, even though we’ve already inputted it to them, because there will be errors.”
It’s a problem area INTTRA is seeking to ameliorate through a mapping tool it announced in June — one that allows shippers to send bookings generated in their enterprise resource planning or transportation management systems to carriers without carriers needing to rekey that information. The idea, as Moran mentioned, is to eliminate touch points in the process, because the more time information is keyed, the more errors are produced.
And an error can be something as innocuous as Hong Kong being keyed as HKG in a field instead of HK.
Gillespie said INTTRA provides track-and-trace capabilities — the basic where’s my freight element — in a way that his company is not set up to do.
“We can facilitate track and trace of a shipment because we’re hooked into INTTRA’s system. All that data gets generated. The downside of this is if you have 100 containers, you’re getting a preponderance of messages. We get those and our customer can go in and see accurately what took place, even on a transshipment. If I book it with INTTRA, I get this data. If I can’t, you won’t see this data.”
That’s where INTTRA has been, but where it’s going, and where it plans to take customers like Gillespie-Munro, is to a place where carriers can differentiate themselves by data, and where the process on the shipper end is more automated and error-free.
“We want to get to the point where we can systematically improve the process, where you’re turning on features and functions that are beneficial to you,” Moran said.