Interview of the Managing Director of Comet Shipping Agencies Nigeria Ltd
No serious operator in West Africa can forget about Lagos. - Carrodano.
Mr Carrodano is at home with shipping and its related enterprises. In his stint at Comet Group, he has shown even extraordinary flair in managing the diverse businesses of the group, as he recounted eloquently here. But that is hardly surprising because before his appointment for the Comet job, he had garnered several years of hands-on practice in Nigeria and overseas. Mr Carrodano worked as a ship-owner’s representative for a successful shipping company and was president of its General Agency based in New York City from 1981 till May 1984. In that capacity, he visited main American Ports, constantly interacting with local agents. He had also worked in his native Italy in the maritime sector, where, as he put it, “the customer is king”. Of his years in the USA, he recalls that many exporters were appreciative of the type of ‘personal-touch’ service he was able to render; saying that he was contacted several times by managers of big companies for advice on how to solve their problems in shipping to Nigeria – a request he said he could handle due to previous experience he acquired while working in Nigeria from 1973 till 1977. In this interview, he gives some good insight into the rudiments of running such a versatile commercial conglomerate like the Comet Group of Companies:
DDH: The Comet Group of Companies has experienced many developments since the last time you granted us an interview. The Group now includes a terminal operating company. How would you say the Comet Group has fared in recent years under your watch?
Carrodano: I can say Comet Shipping Group has experienced quite a lot of developments since the last interview one and half years ago. One of the main happenings is the concession of the former Ro-Ro port which Comet is now managing in the name of Five Star Logistics Ltd. BPE (Bureau of Public Enterprises) had wanted successful bidders to set up an “ad-hoc” Company to manage the concession. That is the reason why Five Star Logistics Ltd. was founded. We took over the port on the 10 th of May 2006. So, it is less that two years and we are very excited because we were able to make much overall progress. I can mention achievements in two fields.
One is the development of the existing infrastructure and acquisition of modern handling equipment. Some 20000 square meters of stacking area were carved out of the existing perimeter and two warehouses have been constructed, many other improvements have been applied.
The other achievement is the present ability to serve shipping lines and ship’s operators to their satisfaction. We were able to enter into agreement with big players in the shipping industry, both in containers and in vehicles/general cargo carriage. I can say our terminal is very much diversified because we handle vehicles; we handle containers and general cargo. I believe it is the only terminal which handles the three type of cargo on regular basis. Then, the Comet Group, I would say is a rare and nice exception in Nigeria and internationally because from 1984 when we started with a few managers, we were able to diversify not only into shipping but we entered into different activities namely in the electrical, electronics, diving and underwater engineering, in mechanical and maintenance fields, fishing, food importation and distribution. So, thanks to Comet activities, we set up different companies in diversified fields and serving a variety of clients, including oil and construction companies in the Port Harcourt area. So, these I would say are the activities of the Comet Group. Comet was set up in December 1984 and after only one year of intense activities in shipping, we were able to promote two new ventures: a fishing company “Tarabaroz Fisheries Limited” and the electrical engineering company “Danelec Ltd “. Thereafter Tethys-Pplantgeria Ltd. was set up and so on, including Best Trade Ltd. while Plantgeria Company Limited, already in existence, was revitalized in the way of endowing the company with good management and useful equipment.
DDH: As the managing director of the group, what do you attribute this productivity to, this capacity to generate so much ideas and visions?
Carrodano: All this was possible thanks to the vision, guidance and patronage of an exceptional man, the founder of Comet Group, Gen. T.Y. Danjuma. He has been guiding us right from the initial steps. Because of his experience and support he made it possible for us to enjoy an environment which is conducive to the expansion of activities. This ideal atmosphere, coupled with our desire to venture in new fields created a fertile ground leading to successful diversification. Without General Danjuma all this would not have been possible and I am grateful for the opportunity given to me and I am very happy to be part of the organization as Managing Director. Another important fact contributing to the success of the group is due to the role played by our Chairman, Barrister Musa Danjuma, who is very vigilant over the activities of the group and is able to instill love for the business. His presence guarantees unity and harmony in the organization. I would say that all of us working in Comet Group are very lucky to be in this situation.
DDH: What new management strategies and positions have been created to see that customers continue to be served better and better?
Carrodano: I must say that for me personally, it was a gradual development. When we started afresh as a new company, we were a smaller organization. And for me personally, at that time I was the General Manager, it was much easier to exercise a kind of control, to follow up all details and contribute to the several aspects of operations, despite that I was relatively new in Nigeria. It was possible for me to look into any single request of our customers and act in order to satisfy them. Now that the volume of operations is much larger and spans into different fields, the answer is to delegate and enable able managers in the various fields to perform well so that the continuous satisfaction of our clients is guaranteed. It takes much ability to first motivate other managers and then delegate responsibilities. For me it was a gradual process to learn how to delegate, at the beginning it was not easy, I believe now it is a natural process due to the continuous growing of our activities. Due to this process, our managers have been exposed to higher duty and responsibilities and have acquired a lot of experience. I am very happy for the result of this exercise because Comet can list very capable managers and ensure continuity of growth. When I say Comet, I mean the Comet Group….you see in Port Harcourt, each company has a general manager who is fully involved in all activities and the companies over there can operate almost independently from Lagos. This is the result of increased activities: the three companies in Port Harcourt ought to be self-sufficient in operations, without recurring to the Lagos headquarter, unless for important or sensitive matters. And let me tell you, another key of success is the ability to keep the good managers with us. I can give you an example that the founding Nigerian managers are still with us after almost 25 years. And I always say if I could take with me ten managers of my choice in Comet and take them with me in Europe, we could form a formidable company which can compete worldwide.
DDH: So you were able to choose employees competently and they are doing well?
Carrodano: Yes, because those managers, including myself, grew up with the company. So we knew all the aspects of the company operation since the very beginning and it was easy to decide which role each manager was to cover. They are doing very well.
DDH: It’s good to say they have spent so many years but when you relate to them, are they happy or do they seem to like what they are doing?
Carrodano: Well, they have not gone! (General laughter). But I can assure you they are very happy because we interrelate so much and after 25 or so years, the enthusiasm is still there. And I can say so because there is strong unity in the Comet Group; during the normal course of operations, you may not feel it but if a big problem arises, then all our managers become closer to each other, and all together put the best efforts to solve that problem. That’s why I can say they are happy, there is unity and cohesion.
DDH: I also notice that during occasions like birthday parties and social occasions there is always a large turnout of most of your expatriate staff with their wives and family members…
Carrodano: (Laughter) Yes, there is a large turnout of expatriate staff and Nigerian staff. This situation is a proof of the harmony and unity Comet is endowed. It is also a confirmation of what I said earlier about our Chairman that he his able to ensure harmony in our group. In fact in occasions like birthday parties etc., he personally organizes and invites us to celebrate! It is obvious that our wives and other family members also attend since those are very enjoyable occasions. My wife in particular is very happy to join such parties, to make up for past times when, due to the business pressure we could not spend in social gathering as much time as she would have liked. When she complains because not enough time is reserved for social affairs, I remind her that I have to take care of a lover, beside a wife. The lover is COMET which demands attention. So, she now accepts this situation.
DDH: Also, we gather that there are new services the Comet Group is adding to its portfolio for catering to the various needs of the maritime and oil and gas sectors. What are these?
Carrodano: Well, regarding new services in the Comet Group, we have to distinguish between services within or outside the shipping sphere. Yes, there are new services: in shipping we are trying to give added value to our customers. We perform door-to-door service, not only by the way of cargo clearance, we add to that the transportation and sometimes we assist importers to comply with the various formalities. And whenever possible, we connect importers with exporters overseas so they have a better opportunity to choose the commodity or goods they want to import. This I think is also very much appreciated by some companies. Outside the shipping field, we were able to extend services to the oil companies: Tethys-Plantgeria Ltd, has acquired sophisticated equipment like R.O.V. (Remote Operated Vehicle), a unit which we are able to tele-guide to perform light jobs and surveys underwater. The company also acquired a supply boat which is in operation for an oil company and a sophisticated Hyperbaric Chamber needed for operations in deep sea. Likewise Plantgeria Company Ltd. has ventured into services demanding more sophisticated technology, in maintenance and repairs of oil wells, cold rooms, etc. Also Danelec Ltd. is more present in electrification projects and automation. So Comet Group through different companies is now able to extend up-to-date services to the oil industry.
DDH: Talking about the maritime sector, how would you say the seaport reforms have fared to address issues that should lead to improved maritime services in Nigeria speaking from your considerable management experience in the country for over 20 years?
Carrodano: In the maritime sector, if we refer to the seaport reforms which have to do with port operations, definitely it is well-known that a private company normally can perform better than larger institutions, which are affected by more bureaucracy. This applies everywhere. The process of privatization is also going on in my original country, Italy. Especially in the service sector, a private company can be more flexible, can take decisions faster and can quickly decide how and how much to invest. Private companies are more customer-related or customer-friendly. Same scenario is valid for Nigeria. In fact, because of the reform of the ports where private companies now run the activities, we do not see congestion again like before when ships were waiting for two, three weeks. I don’t think the volume of cargo has decreased to justify this improved situation. The reason why there is no waiting time is because ships enjoy a faster turnaround. So this will also bring about a reduction in costs.
DDH: Also, the maritime regulatory agencies, especially the NPA and NIMASA, must be encouraged by all stakeholders to rise up to the challenges of shipping in the new millennium. What things would you advice the agencies to fast-track so as to take delivery of shipping services and maritime regulation to the next level in Nigeria and even to begin to dominate West African shipping?
Carrodano: I would say that thanks to privatization, the regulatory agencies are in a position to do a better job because they will concentrate in their own area of responsibility. Take NPA, if they don’t have to worry about delivering of the goods or handling of the cargo, they can focus their attention as a landlord to keep the infrastructure, the quay edge, in good order, to dredge the channel properly, and to supervise us because they have to supervise the terminal operators because we are private companies. They will make sure that we comply with all the existing regulations. Same for NIMASA: they can really focus their attention now on the new or rather the emerging cabotage law, to implement it in the proper way. So this is what I really hope that now the regulatory authorities will achieve: to implement the regulations in a proper way, which will be a very positive thing.
DDH: On the NIMASA handling of cabotage, do you have any suggestions, do you have any experience of this in other countries?
Carrodano: Yes, I had been exposed to the effects of Cabotage Law in other countries before joining Nigeria. I can tell you that this law is strictly enforced in other countries. I can mention US where I worked for a few years and also Italy. The Cabotage Law is so strictly implemented to the extent that it is absolutely not possible to load cabotage cargo on foreign flag vessels, unless there is no vessel flying national flag: When (in very rare occasions) national flag vessels are not available, the authorities themselves will embark on extensive search and only after having received confirmation from all national ship-owners of their inability to position a vessel for loading, only at that point a waiver will be issued, to allow foreign vessels to come into play. Now what I may say is within Nigeria I do not see much volume of goods to be shipped by vessels from one port to another (maybe more in future).
But for Cabotage Law, I see a greater scope in the offshore business where so many tug boats or supply vessels are working within the Nigerian territorial waters and there is a huge volume of activities. This ought to be all under Nigerian flag. So Cabotage Law, if properly implemented, will enhance the possibilities of the Nigerian companies to invest in the sector. Once the law is well applied, then there is an encouragement for the Nigerian entrepreneurs to really go into the sector, and there is a great scope in this.
DDH: Talking of dominating regional shipping, are there any things you think Nigeria can do to take over more of West African shipping?
Carrodano: First of all, Nigeria already attracts a big portion of the cargo compared with the overall West African cargo. I can equally estimate it to be roughly up to 65% or 70%? If we take West Africa as considered from Dakar ( Senegal) to Luanda ( Angola), Nigeria is the bigger importer by far; we are talking of dry cargo, not to mention export of crude oil. Because of this situation, it is quite normal that Nigeria should be able to attract and handle cargo with final destination to nearby countries. For example, it may happen countries like Togo, Guinea Conakry, Equatorial Guinea, sometimes do not attract enough cargo to justify the call of a vessel at their ports, any ship owner or shipping line could still accept cargo for those minor destinations and transship cargo through Lagos, because in any case their ships are calling Lagos. No serious operator in West Africa can forget about Lagos. But this is only possible where there is recognition of transit status. Transit status is recognized internationally everywhere, also in Nigeria. But here there are so many formalities to comply before cargo is allowed to be reshipped that transit through Nigerian Ports is discouraged. If Nigeria aligns with other countries and apply smoother formalities, it would be possible to attract large volume of transit cargo, to the benefit of our economy. Instead we see ports like Abidjan, Lome or Douala (despite these ports’ shallow draught) attracting quite a lot of transshipment cargo when Nigerian ports should be the chosen ones. So the appeal is to the authorities: Like now, that Customs is trying to achieve the 48-hour clearing process, they should also look at the angle of transit cargo.
DDH: That is removing the long bureaucracy….?
Carrodano: Because transit cargo means foreign cargo, dropped temporarily in a place to be re-shipped somewhere outside the country. So, it should not attract any duty or any tax. Especially, there should not be too many formalities to discourage this exercise.
DDH: Concerning operational links with Fivestar Logistics Ltd, what is the fluidity of communication and readiness of your staff at the waterfront to liaise with the head office to speed up decision-making, etc?
Carrodano: There is a structure, first of all, which defines the range of responsibility of the operations at the waterside and elsewhere. At waterside, close to the vessels, cargo movement is monitored up to the place of resting. Nowadays with the ease of communication, there is no barrier like before when the head office was hardly in contact with the people on the ground. Nowadays between walkie-talkie, cellular (phones) and internet, communication has become a very fluid operation. First of all, talking of Five Star Logistics, the Admin offices are at the port entrance while the operational offices are inside the port where interaction with the importers, exporters or clearing and forwarding agents is immediate. But to keep close contacts from the head office here, even from my desk I can call the terminal manager on intercom, not talking of other ways of communication like walkie-talkie, cellular phone or internet. So, nowadays, it is much easier to accomplish fast decision making. If you are on top of the situation you can take decision very fast.
DDH: From your assessment, is Nigerian shipping progressing better than other West African countries and if not what can be done to improve the situation?
Carrodano: Yes, Nigerian shipping is progressing, especially in the area of shipping services; the answer is because of privatization. Nigeria has recovered much position. Because of the congestion affecting our ports due to slow port operations, shipping lines, in order to avoid heavy demurrages on large vessels, were making use of other West African ports to dump Nigerian cargo and reload at a later stage with smaller vessels. They were making use of the ports of Abidjan, Douala (even though these ports are affected by shallow draught), and Lome. Because at present the congestion has eased, practice of dumping the cargo in other ports which penalizes Nigerian importers, has decreased very much. Importers now receive their cargo much faster. Shipping lines were motivated to utilize those ports because over there operations are carried out by private companies, able to be flexible and attract ship-owners. Now finally, Nigeria is in the same position! And privatization has attracted heavy investments in equipment and infrastructures to the extent that Nigerian Ports are now better equipped than other West African Ports. Nigeria has advanced very much.