What have been the most significant developments at Hutchison Ports BEST in the last year?
We cannot escape the consequences of COVID-19, though Hutchison Ports BEST has been able to keep to its business plan. Our strategy is to continue to differentiate ourselves through our service level as well as to keep delivering some of the best berth productivity in the world (over 40 moves per hour) with rapid and efficient rail and gate operations on the land side. At the same time, we are also increasing our rail market share through our strategy of expanding our hinterland and reaching new destinations in Spain and the South of France through our rail operator named Synergy. Our main goal is to bring cargo from northern Spain to Barcelona with better transit times and a more efficient supply chain solution, adding value for shippers and shipping lines. During 2020, we focused our investment on increasing our reefer capacity more than 70% and today BEST is able to connect more than 2,000 reefer containers at the same time, one of the highest capacities for a maritime terminal in the Med area. We are also investing in technology to speed up the digitalization process launching a new app and going through a standardization of processes to improve our efficiency and the use of our resources. At the same time, we have reinforced our focus in investment on Cybersecurity actions to increase the resilience of our terminal. In summary, during 2020, we continued with our current investment plans, fine-tuning our operations to improve performance, and launching new products to the market thus ensuring that shipping lines and shippers operate more efficiently when using our facilities.
An important milestone in 2020 was welcoming MSC Sixin, the first 23,000-plus TEU containership to call at Barcelona. What does this mean for the company and BEST?
MSC Sixin calling at BEST was another milestone in our short history. BEST continues to exceed all standards. In terms of crane productivity, when we designed the Terminal, our goal was to achieve 35 moves per hour, and we now have sustained performance at over 40 moves per hour. To improve our capability on these vessels, we increased the height of some of our cranes. BEST is the only terminal in the Med with eleven cranes all of them able to operate these vessels. When MSC Sixin called at BEST, not only were we prepared for the challenge, but we also managed to improve productivity levels.
How is your strategy to expand Barcelona's refrigerated container services progressing?
Over the last few years, we have focused on refrigerated containers; as I mentioned before, BEST has not only improved reefer capacity by 70% but has also introduced new services within the terminal such as PTI (Pre-Trip Inspection), cleaning, and repair of reefers containers. All these services aim to reduce the shipping lines transportation costs and also minimize the environmental impact by reducing transportation in and out of the terminal. Both COVID-19 and growing food exports, especially to China, have proven us right in our strategy and vision. Stricter regulations now also require all perishables to be shipped in reefer containers. This is a business segment with an upward trend potential in the next few years.
COVID-19 has affected all kind of sectors of the economy, one of which is port traffic. Port of Barcelona's container traffic recorded a 19.6% fall between January and August. How would you assess the impact of this on BEST's operations?
We were not immune to the volume loss experienced by the Port of Barcelona, but as I always say, “one should never waste a crisis" and we have taken advantage of this situation by improving operations and fine-tuning our processes. However, despite all that, we still have peaks in operations, and we need to have the resources ready to be able to perform with the largest vessels and the related impact on berth, land and gate facilities. The 23,000-plus TEU vessels calling at BEST are the consequence of shipping lines having restructured their services and managing their capacity by concentrating their cargo in fewer vessels.
There have been incentives to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. How has this helped your operations?
COVID-19 has changed many things; for example, we had to establish new procedures for general cleaning and disinfecting machinery to protect our workers and keep the supply chain alive. This is an important new cost for terminal operators which also causes delays between shift changeovers. The authorities need to realize that operators and the economy need some help, and this is the issue that the authorities have aimed to address with their incentives. It is important to mention that the Port of Barcelona was and is very close to the situation working in parallel to guarantee that the supply chain keeps moving. At BEST, we were able to avoid implementing any furlough scheme on our personnel and as such did not require those incentives provided by the Government.
What are BEST's main priorities and goals for 2021?
Our plan is to keep expanding our hinterland. In times like these, companies usually reassess their status quo, and it is a good time to review the current paradigm and put new value propositions on the table. BEST will focus on the south of France and expand some of its services, such as reefer-related ones within the terminal. We are also focusing on our rail terminal operation and services, along with further digitalization and standardization. Given the European Custom regulations, maritime terminal operators will have to face new responsibilities that bring us new and complex risks but, at the same time, new opportunities to create value and services as an AEO (Authorized Economic Operator). Last but not least, as previously mentioned, our productivity is one of the best in the world, however this is not enough, we need to continue working diligently and in a humble manner in order to be closer to the customer, faster in operation and greener to create a competitive advantage for our customers.