Pictures of Past Dredging Summits
Working with the General: How Pier Luigi Carrodano’s stint at Nalcomet Group paid off – Part 2.
“I had the confirmation that China needs Africa”
Mr. Carrodano: The reason why I came to Nigeria. First, I was attracted to Africa. I didn’t know Africa very well, still I felt attraction: sometimes you aspire to do new things and live in different environments when you become tired with something you have been doing for long time. What happened was that as a young ship agent, I was also trying to become an exporter. So, I was putting extra hours of work to correspond with Nigerian companies. I noticed that in Nigeria, in Lagos, there was so much demand for many different items like fountain pens, sunglasses etc. So, what I did, I engaged in correspondence with Companies in need of those items. And indeed there was so much response from many Companies, and that is how I started to export. And I was very lucky because I didn’t know those companies and I always got paid…. except once…(general laughter), but I was able, helped by my knowledge in shipping, to control the goods also when in transit and stop the delivery of those goods which they were unpaid for.. I must say that at that time in Nigeria there was much more honesty, I was selling with the clause “payment against documents”. Nowadays you can hardly get paid unless a confirmed L/C is in place. This was between 1971 and 1973. In 1973 the Nigerian Pound was converted into Naira. At that time Nigerian Currency was solid, I remember in July 1973 when I landed in Lagos 1 Naira could buy 1 dollar and 86 cents. The many business possibilities in a growing economy are what attracted me to Nigeria. So one day I saw… in fact it was my wife-to-be, with whom I was working in the same company, she showed me a ship broker’s advert where it featured Panalpina having a strong presence in Nigeria, in many towns, Lagos, Warri, Port Harcourt, Calabar, everywhere. So, I applied for a managerial position. They replied me immediately saying that my Cv indicated I could be very useful but eventual employment was subject to expatriate quota which was not available at that time. Then I forgot about it and was still working as agent and exporting to Nigeria when one day I received a telex from Panalpina Nigeria. At that time correspondence with most African Countries, including Nigeria was done by telex. This telex was received one year after my application, and stated that now a position was available, and I have to decide whether I can join them without delay. It happened that my wife (at that time my fiancée) had a car accident and was hospitalized. I went to the Clinic with the telex, asking her what do you think?. She said, ‘you don’t have to ask me, I know you want to go’. (General laughter). So this was how I decided to come to Nigeria.
DDH: She was happy for you to go?
Mr. Carrodano: Yes because the plan was to marry and go to Nigeria together. Look, in Italy at that time, may be not any longer nowadays, it was natural for the wife to follow the husband anywhere and to try and second him in his wishes. So, it was natural for her to say: ‘I know that you want to go. Fine, let’s go’. Then, it was difficult to tell my parents of our decision, I was comfortably living in my parents’ house, they would not understand my wish to go into new places. It was very difficult to tell them that I want to leave everything behind and go. And my co-workers, my partners….they would have tried to stop me. So, I had to invent something and say that I will go there for a few months to explore possibility of some new activities and then…. But they imagined it was for good! And I am very happy that I made this choice. Then the Nigerian experience was very useful to me. Why? Because of many reasons, for instance, besides being exposed to many new things in a different environment, at that time here, communication was rather poor. When my son was born I came to know nine days after his birth! Because I was in Port Harcourt (PH), my wife was in Italy for delivery and somehow communication didn’t go. In such an environment, I am talking about PH, where we were communicating with Lagos through short wave radio and it was even difficult to clearly understand, because of the poor reception, I was forced to take decisions in business without the advice of the head office, so you learn to take responsibility. You have to put in practice all your knowledge and inventive to solve problems. So I developed experience in solving problems in difficult situations, to the extent that when I moved to New York, after the Nigerian experience, it was easier for me when things were not always on course to find a remedy. So my experience in Nigeria was a very good and useful one.
DDH: Still do you feel the weight of running the companies or have begun a load-shedding process to distribute tasks among the lower management cadre in the group of companies?
Mr. Carrodano: The weight in exercising my duty is not caused by the many hours I put in the work but by the awareness of responsibility; I feel sometimes apprehensive when something is not going the way I want. But we are now a larger organization and since one man alone cannot supervise all aspects of operations, the process of distributing the job become necessary and natural. I was not good at delegating tasks, I had to learn how to delegate, I must say. When we started we were much smaller therefore I was involved in most aspects of the Company activities. Nowadays we are organized in a structure. It is the chairman who reminded me sometimes when there was need for me to travel that the company is well organized, that I can afford to stay sometime out of the office. And the best test, I must say, it is a sad fact but very instructive, was when I fell sick, in 2008. It was a shock for me. My sickness compelled me to stay out of duty for long time. And this was the best test because the company functioned very well without me but the Chairman, of course, was there, together with all other Managers and Staff. And not only the Company functioned very well, they kept on reassuring me that things were ok. This enabled me to participate somehow to the company activities so that even on my sick bed I could reply emails, and this helped me so much in overcoming those difficult times and getting better. So that is the proof that our organization is well structured. If l leave tomorrow the company will continue to run efficiently.
DDH: So as chief executive you had to learn the ropes of transforming from a micro manager to delegating duties?
Mr. Carrodano: Yes, as I said, I was forced to delegate duties, there was no other way. I had to delegate. I acquired experience in distributing workload and delegate duty, which is the essence of the organization in a company. And Nal-Comet is not just one company but a group of companies. I have been exposed to a real a vast experience. For instance, the three Companies based in Port Harcourt are structured in a way that the General Manager of each Company is running the operations and responsible for the day-to-day activity of the company. I interact with them very often but it is them who run the operations.
DDH: Especially for your maritime companies, what changes would become noticeable as they add ISO management methods?
Mr. Carrodano: Yes we have implemented some changes to the existing methods and adopted new ones. For instance, with the ISO procedure we are applying a Customer satisfaction test by sending out a questionnaire where the client will comment about our services. By receiving feedback on our performance we are able to improve on our services.
DDH: Aside from this ISO awards, have there were other occasions which gave you similar feelings of job or actualization etc.
Mr. Carodanno: This ISO award which is very important was widely publicized, so it is known by many people. But there are many other instances when I felt satisfied and accomplished and I can give you some examples. When our company Nigeria America Line (NAL) was finally admitted to some Maritime Conferences.
DDH: What year was this and how did it happen for NAL to be admitted?
Mr. Carrodano: This was in 1979. First of all NAL was one of the few Nigerian Shipping Companies to offer regular liner service. So we exercised our weight on the conference as also Nigeria ought to present in the trade. I am talking of AWAFC, America - West Africa Conference. And it was a big task to win membership: some other Conference members in trying to delay our admission were asking us to comply with strict prerequisites to be considered for membership. We were able to show past performances and finally NAL was admitted to the Conference. Not only that, we have also been a founding member of the Brazil-Nigeria Freight Conference. Because this was a conference between Nigeria and Brazil, it was obvious that Nigerian Shipping Companies must be part of the association. NAL also gained admission to MEWAC, Mediterranean-West Africa Conference. It was a tough job to succeed in winning the membership. And this was quite an accomplishment because being a member of the Conference you are sharing experience with major shipping lines. Other times we derived much satisfaction was when we were appointed agents from prominent shipping lines.
DDH: When you talked of the Brazil-Nigeria Freight Conference and the AWAFC, was this the days of counter trade?
Mr. Carrodano: The Counter Trade had been in force between Brazil and Nigeria, therefore it did not affect the AWAFC as this conference was covering the range from North America to West Africa. The counter trade had a big impact in the Brazil-Nigeria Freight Conference. In fact the volume of business between Nigeria and Brazil became very big. We derived so much experience with counter trade because NAL was trading between Brazil and Nigeria and we had the chance to book large parcels of general cargo, commodities like sugar, papers and also containerized cargo.
DDH: Were these facilitations made possible due to the UNCTAD Code of 40:40:20 principles?
Mr. Carrodano: This was the main principle of cargo repartition within the Conferences at that time. But then the trend towards the so called liberalization of the trade started to appear. During the 90’s Conferences were under criticism as in the eye of some Governments and EU (European Union) were regarded as a cartel aiming to monopolize the trade.
DDH: And that they excluded the newly developing countries?
Mr. Carrodano: Exactly, with the disbanding of Conferences newly developing countries could not derive any benefit as the cargo sharing formula of 40:40:20 was abandoned.
DDH: Those were the heydays of NAL and you chartered a lot of ships to do all that haulage?
Mr. Carrodano: Yes. It was necessary to charter because we didn’t own ship.
DDH: But it was still profitable despite chartering?
Mr. Carrodano: Shipping follows a cycle, like some other industries. So, there are times when you are better off not owning a ship. Because when there is scarcity of cargo to carry and there are plenty ships, idle, then you can bargain with the ship owner and charter at reasonable rates. Normally freight rates tend to remain stable for some time, do not always follow the charter market quickly. But when, all of a sudden, there is more cargo to carry like it happened 4 or 5 years ago, Ship-owners were better off and able to employ their vessels advantageously. But in shipping there is no easy money because of the many variables in the business and inherent risks. There are times when it is profitable and times when you incur heavy losses. And yes, even by chartering at that time it was possible to run profitably. Why? Let me tell you the key of success was because we had a local organization here where we could attend to the vessels and ensure fast and economical turnaround.
DDH: So, it takes real acumen to operate profitably without running aground?
Mr. Carrodano: Yes, as you know, it is
said that shipping is a business for gentlemen but you have to be a
shark to survive.
DDH: What can you say we should learn from the prosperity of China either in maritime or in port development or other things?
Mr. Carrodano: I believe one reason of China’s successful growth and development is due to the ability of its Central Government to plan and more importantly to implement their plans. During my stay in China somebody told me that once a decision is taken at Government level, there is no way back. Only a strong Government can ensure that! The other important reason of successful development is due the dedication and hard work of the Chinese people.
DDH: But in terms of adding more port space to their industry?
Mr. Carrodano: It is clear enough port capacity is necessary to keep pace with their growing industries; therefore China prioritized the development of infrastructures. This is what Nigeria should try and do, Nigeria is already an economic power in Africa and could become even stronger by developing the much needed infrastructures. In fact I hear that there are plans of constructing a sea port in Akwa Ibom state where a draft of 16 meters or more can be attained, suitable for the container vessels. But presently there is not enough infrastructure in terms of roads for the transportation and distribution of the cargo. The construction of a seaport in Lekki which has been in the news for the last seven years seems now to be close to a start. Let’s hope so.
DDH: That brings me to the issue of Mv Izmir, a big container vessel, which called at Apapa port recently and NPA is beating its chest that she was able to come in without grounding. Is that a good record for NPA’s dredging capacity?
Mr. Carrodano: It is, but still there is a limitation because this vessel that you mentioned, I don’t know her capacity in terms of number of Teus, but economy of scale dictates the utilization of bigger ships, that is why Shipping Companies have placed orders for new bigger vessels. NPA is doing a good job by ensuring dredging but still no matter how much you dredge; there is a limitation by the natural structure of the port. I do not think it is possible to go deeper than 13 meters, even dredging at maximum capacity. But it’s already an accomplishment if we can bring ships up to 13 meters draught because even one meter draught can make an appreciable difference in the number of containers that can be carried which in turn helps to reduce the freight rate and still cover costs.
DDH: Do the concessionaires feel happy with the state of dredging their terminals?
Mr. Carrodano: Yes, we do. For instance, as far as Five Star Logistics is concerned, I can see that strong efforts have been put in dredging. NPA is dredging right now Berth No. 10. The problem is the nature of the terrain because there is silting, sediments are coming back where dredging took place. I noticed that a few months after dredging, there is the tendency for the sediment to come back and this will reduce the draught again. So, this situation calls for regular dredging.
DDH: Are there any other emergent issues the terminal operators are concerned about?
Mr. Carrodano: Perhaps it’s in the area of maintenance of the quay edge, where some of the concessionaires would like to see more speedy action from NPA. There is need to refurbish or reinforce some of the infrastructure already in existence because they are decaying but as far dredging is concerned in my opinion there is progress.
DDH: How is the Comet group of companies utilizing the ISO certification so far?
Mr. Carrodano: Yes, just yesterday and
the day before, we were being audited by SONCAP, the organization regulating
the ISO. So, more and more I can see the benefits in the long range
if we strictly follow the ISO directives in discipline, orderly keeping
of documents, and exchange of information among managers through regular
meetings, also through minutes of meetings, establishing new targets
and ensuring accomplishment of such targets. We do not want to neglect
these aspects which are important. So all in all, we are very much determined
to continue in keeping up with ISO procedures because it is a continuous
process and it enables us to operate in a better way and therefore be
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