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International trade: The show must always go on

Anton Gunter is managing director of Global Freight Services, the international freight forwarder with its headquarters in Telford. Here he discusses for freight forwarding companies continue to find a way to overcome global challenges.

As a freight forwarder and someone who has spent a lot of time doing international logistics, nothing surprises me anymore. From general non-hazardous freight, to the sublime moving of someone’s ashes, moving a combine harvester to Japan, or importing tequila from Mexico, there is not a lot that I have not moved.

Currently, the world is engulfed in conflict. Ukraine continues to defy Russia and Israel is continuing its offensive on Palestine. Both conflicts are having profound effects on the world of international trade. But one thing can never be disputed – no matter what is happening, the world of international trade goes on.

The conflict in Ukraine has brought higher fuel and utility prices. Our agent in Ukraine is operating out of the Netherlands and continuing to move product from Ukraine and around the world, and gaining new business.

For the Middle East, we are seeing a change in routes due to the now infamous Houthi rebels who are intent on stopping international vessels transiting through the Suez Canal. Vessels are now sailing via the Cape of Good Hope so transits are now longer, but freight continues to move.

Freight has always continued moving despite what the adults in charge have done or indeed not done.

In 2016, Britain narrowly decided to leave the EU. The world was astounded. It was all doom and gloom, but in an office in Telford, guess what? The world continued to rotate. Freight had to continue moving and plans had to be put in place.

What plans? It did not matter, because the process of importing and exporting is the same despite any trade deals, both good or bad. Freight forwarders knew what was coming and despite reports, were putting plans into place.

For me, the overwhelming image is of February 1 2020, when drivers from all over Europe descended on Halesfield to get their customs entries done. I don’t speak Eastern European, but after vehicle 15 it was becoming clear that although we in the UK had prepared, the EU hadn’t.

That same year we had Covid 19 and again, the show had to go on. Freight forwarders around the world stepped up and continued to move freight despite having to work remotely, short-handed and at times, within restricting conditions.

We were loading and unloading containers sometimes with one person, a mask and gloves to make sure freight was still moving.  Pressure on Chinese ports, pressure on shipping lines, all-round uncertainty during Covid and the new process for Brexit brought price changes.

Shipping rates went through the roof and while shipping lines did their best to continue making profits, a lot of freight forwarders helped customers by making sure their own margins were low until it all settled down.

In the UK, the logistics industry has gone through a lot and continues to work under exceptional circumstances. For those who think it will simply blow over, I have some bad news. It won’t, because the circumstances of war won’t allow it.

We also need to see the mess that global warming is making of the Panama Canal and realise just how reliant we are on those two water ways – the Suez and Panama Canals.

2024 will be remembered for lots of things, but it will also be known as the year that the show went on. Freight continues to move despite the world’s attempt at making it stop and despite being hindered by all manner of obstacles.

But that is why we are freight forwarders. We continue to operate despite customers wanting cheap rates for specialised services, despite shipping lines increasing prices, and despite airlines having space restrictions. We have to, because if we don’t, the world will come to a standstill.

There genuinely is no scenario in which freight forwarders will let the show stop. I have images of Mad Max-style freight forwarders roaming a doomed world to make sure people have the ability to trade and also buy their trainers, no matter what. I’m not sure if I resemble Mel Gibson, but in the words of the late Tina Turner, freight forwarders are SIMPLY THE BEST!