An interview with Mr. Roberto Brandão, partner at Tap Consultoria
One more time the administration work of “Maritime Group” and “Shipbuilding Industry and Professional” communities gave me the chance to discuss with a true professional of the shipping industry, passionate to give forward the treasure of his professional experience of more than 40 years in the industry.
Mr. Brandao posted first in “Shipbuilding Industry and Professional” group about the types of ships’ charters. I found Mr. Brandao text very informative but I assumed that this topic may not be of such great interest for the shipbuilding community. In consequence I invited him to share the post also in the “Maritime Group. My assumption was proved wrong soon because the post in “Shipbuilding Industry and Professional” group started to collect likes. This made me to thought that that community is far more diverse than I thought.
I found Mr. Brandao posts very interesting and carrying the mark of a true professional (and I assume the many other people “liking” these texts had same thoughts) therefore I invited Mr. Brandao for having an interview with Futureoftheocean.
I was honoured to find out that the invitation was accepted.
Thank you very much Mr. Mr. Brandao for accepting this discussion with Futureoftheocean. I understand that you are a specialist in shipping.
Mr. Roberto Brandão:
Well, I can say so, I mean, after decades dedicating my life to this fascinating activity, I am a specialist in shipping. In fact, I started my career in 1976 (if I can call it a start) when I had my first contacts with shipping working for a Shipping Agency in Santos Port. I was 15 then, and entering shipping industry wasn’t something I had planned. I just needed to work, and an uncle of mine, who worked as an accountant at that agency, got me a job there. I was just an office boy, but that environment fascinated me immediately. I was curious about everything, and my superiors noticed my interest, so that they transferred me to the operations department to assist the water clerks, but to work internally only. I had no experience at all, and my English was very poor, too, but I remember that on a certain day it happened that the Operations Director needed someone to deliver a letter of protest to a ship we were attending as charterer’s agents. Since there was nobody available at that moment, they ended up sending me, with strict recommendations not to leave the ship without getting captain’s signature on the letter. It was a funny situation, because I did not understand what the captain, who wasn’t happy at all with the protest, was arguing to deny the letter, and he tried to hand it back to me. But no matter what he said, I insisted in delivering it back to his hands. He was a Greek Captain and showed to be very angry with the contents of the letter of protest, but as he saw that I definitely did not understand him and that I wouldn’t give up, he decided to sign it with remarks. It was a good strategy, after all. That was my first time on board of a ship. The first of uncountable others, and I was somehow rather disappointed with the image of that captain, once in my imagination a captain was somebody with a white uniform, like a military one, with chevrons, a formal military like cap, etc., and he was an ordinary man, unshaved, with no glamour at all. Ideas of an 17 years old boy…
How was the shipping industry those times?
Mr. Roberto Brandão:
Shipping was totally different from these days. The world population was smaller, things worked slower, and weren’t done automatically by machines, as it happens today. Shipping needed men’s intervention in practically all activities. Documents as bills of lading, manifests, etc., had all to be made manually in typewiters, and we, ordinary people, didn’t even dream about computers doing everything. Much less about internet. That was mere fiction, only. Communication was done via telex machines, that was already an evolution from the telegragh and looked fantastic to us then. Ships were not specialised as they are today, and, basically we had the general cargo ships - that carried practically all that go in containers nowadays -, bulk carriers, tankers and reefer ships. And the ro-ro ships, but they were rare those days. As I said, a lot of the work had to be done manually. Ship and shore didn’t have the specialised cranes and cargo compartments that are so natural and obvious for us now, and ships stayed a long time in port, with lots of people (stevedores) needed to handle the cargo on shore and on board. We were requested to do all and that gave us the possibility to learn the craft inside out. We got a broad vision of shipping in all its aspects, from chartering the vessel to the port operations… And that was the positive side of that “primitive” system: you had to understand the whole process, I mean, once automation, softwares, computers, etc. weren’t part of our lives, you had to plan and execute the whole operation. And, as so, you had the chance to learn all the phases of the activities, from operations to commercial. It was possible, as it proved to be my case, to start as an office boy and evolve, climbing positions in the company as you learned the job and showed to be able to undertake further responsibilities.
Things weren’t so segmented as today, when professionals are oriented to focus on one activity only, with a micro perspective of the process to the detriment of a macro one. Most of them are told to be specialists in their part of the business, just a part in the machine, or a link in the chain, and do not have many opportunities to learn what happens backward or forward in the system. That was something you could do in those days. And not only because you were voluntarily interested in learning, but because you had to. We didn’t have this departmentalized model we have presently. And, automatically, doors were open everywhere. You just had to get in.
Let’s not move so fast in the present and stay a little bit more in the past time.
What could be said more about the past?
Mr. Roberto Brandão:
The past times were not dominated so much by containers.
The bulkcarrier was an important vessel then, and still remains important for shipping. But the classic vessel, the most common vessel of the past, was the general cargo vessel, and this type of vessel has lost a lot of the importance from the past.
I’ve seen all the changes; it was a gradual process, maybe getting speed in the last 20 years and one of the biggest change, at least from the professional perspective, is the tremendous specialisation, narrowing of focus.
Along this process, I have been always interested in learning and following the trend of changes rather than stay stuck on a certain part of the business, on a certain set of procedures. Besides, I didn’t want to learn just for the learning, but to understand how things worked for improving what could be improved in the process. And there is always something to improve and innovate, once nothing is really perfect and endless. I was also interested, whenever it was possible and necessary, in adjusting parts of the system or reformulating it entirely, aiming to make it better for the given scope at the given time. I recall the CEO of an American shipowner for whom I worked telling me, repeating me every time I came to him with an improvement proposal or tried to cooperate with other departments: “You are not accountable for this. It is not your responsibility to work on how to improve that.”
The most interesting was that I haven’t read in any moment in his eyes that he told me that because he was afraid that my proposals could be a danger for his position - for sure that wasn’t the reason. The truth behind the warning was because he genuinely believed in the immutability of the procedures in place… And because, if there had to be changes, eventually, that wouldn’t be something that would be thought by me. I should focus on my function, only, and do my best in my role in the system, just like a good part in a machine must be.
By the way, I worked for that company until it was merged by a bigger one, which decided to close the offices of the merged one and put their own staff to handle their activities. Immediately after, I was invited to join a new and very important project in a container terminal that had just been stablished in Paranagua port, South Brazil, and there, differently from the American company, I had a fertile field to use my creativity and analytical sense to revise the processes, identify potential shortcuts and reduce unnecessary steps, shorten times and improve productivity. And I am proud to say that I set the basis for many of the present operations procedures there.
Coincidentally, some years later I was invited to work in a similar sea container terminal that had just been set in a port further to the south, and working there made me reflect about the future of our planet, our oceans and how humans will solve the dilemma of continuing progress without destroying nature. The project was on a huge private land where there existed a native and untouched forest until then, and that land had been licensed by environmental authorities to be exploited as a terminal. One may think that there is nothing wrong about that, or at least nothing new, since every time people remove virgin forests for development, and especially in a country like Brazil, that has a vast unexploited area… And somehow I used to hear about these new enterprises with passive attitude, without questioning it. But it is different when you are part of it and see it happens in front of you. It was a conflict with my personal beliefs. And the worst part was when I had to take clients to the terrace on top of the company’s head office building to show the future expansions of the terminal, and had to show the future stages of the expansion pointing to another section of virgin forest that would soon be cleared too, to be converted into a new concrete field.
And sometimes in these presentations to clients, amidst my conflicting thoughts, it came back to my mind, like a flash, the words of my former CEO telling me “You are not accountable for this”, and at that moment I asked myself how true those words were, making sense from a different perspective. And I tried to stick to that to relieve my conscience and feelings of guilt to be complicit in that, but it wasn’t enough to settle my conflicts with my own beliefs about progress and the future of the oceans and forests.
About the same time, by coincidence, as part of another commercial mission, I had to visit a slaughterhouse of one of the biggest meat producer in Brazil. Seeing with my own eyes how pigs are slaughtered was completely dramatic and shocking for me, and totally different from the “humanized” methods the worldwide food companies allege to follow. But, yet, despite my horror and desire to stop eating meat, I have to admit that after just a very brief pause I continued eating as a normal omnivore. But, this experience still remains in my memories and makes me think again of our accountability.
These facts take me to reflect about our involvement in the world around us, and to consider how we are directly or indirectly part of it. What we can we do to improve processes and optimize resources?
And, talking about our ability to think and analyse things around us, it automatically calls for another reflection: I would like to believe that people still want to keep their eyes and minds open, think outside the box and be involved in the improvement of the processes. People that don’t behave passively, without questioning the status quo. But one major problem for this is the fact that the extreme specialisation kills people’s options and stimulus to think. And something that contributes to that, which I dislike profoundly, I have to say, is the fact that people excessively rely on software nowadays. Ok, it is unavoidable and I don’t want to join Don Quixote’s cause and fight against progress, but whilst software makes it easy to do a lot of things, it has its side effects, causing people to stop knowing or at least understanding what it is behind machine. People mastered the whole process before, and understood all its stages. Today people look like bits on a huge computer, and that is something that has to be rethought, in my point of view.
I think that your concerns about the impact of narrow specialisation and blind use of software are well-founded and are applicable not only to shipping industry. Probably these concerns are real for all the aspect of the present.
Coming back to shipping, what the present looks like?
Mr. Roberto Brandão:
The present shows that the margin of shipping based on containerisation becomes very low and this fact affects dramatically the small and medium
companies. This situation affects as well the large container companies but let’s say, in a certain extent, a large company has more space for manoeuvre. The small and medium companies working until now in the containers business have to reinvent themselves into directions where the margins could be larger and, therefore, many of these companies have started to look back at the classic freight forwarding – dry, bulk or any other aspects of interest for clients, including project cargoes because of their high profitability, but that comes with high risks, too. Finally, the containers have limited possibilities (the concept of standard module has its own advantages but also the intrinsic rigidity of standardisation), but freight forwarding is far more flexible and theoretically only our imagination is the limit (and of course the capabilities of the actual fleet).
However, while the diversification may be an existential requirement, it is also a challenge, a danger. The risk assumed when a container is shipped is usually assessed in thousands of dollars, but the risk of moving an entire shipment of cargo is usually assessed in millions of dollars… and I don’t mean just a few millions… The process of booking a full cargo, or even a part cargo on a ship, is definitively far more complex than the process of booking a couple of containers on a regular full container service. And the shipping professional will have to follow up closely the process and control it from the beginning to the end. And to be able to make this follow up properly in the positon of carriers (being a freight forwarder), the team responsible for the transport will have to have an expertise of the cargo being carried, considering all technical and legal aspects involved, which go beyond the mere drop off of container at a pre-stacking yard. They have to bear in mind that their job doesn’t end at a “gate-in”, as it happens in the case of containers that you just deliver and rely on the usual (and comfortable) modus operandi, a process that that moves practically by itself, with no intervention of the charterer/shipper.
The shipping professional has to be capable to assess the challenges brought into the process by the cargo’s nature and peculiarities, to make a selection of possible vessels what could accommodate and handle the cargo, to engage and negotiate with all charter parties and to follow all the transport up to the successful delivery to the rightful beneficiary of the goods. To not forget to add… also to be capable to invoice the service and collect the due payment for the service (Mr. Brandao smiles).
Don’t you think Mr. Brandao that all these processes could come close to a point where could be semi or maybe fully automatized as the containers?
Mr. Roberto Brandão:
I think that all the processes discussed by me in the context of non-containers operations are incredibly complex and I see no real possibility to go in the direction of a standard automatization for all cargoes. Not to the extent of containers, at least. It will vary from cargo to cargo, from vessel to vessel, and from case to case.
Of course, operationally speaking, along the decades each segment of cargo has achieved its own specialisation, improving productivity, reducing time in port, optimizing ships and spaces. And all by means of technology innovation, with conveyor belts, ship loaders, specialised ships like the heavy lift carriers, semi-submersible ships, ro-ro, PCC, etc. But, still, it will never be as uniform or unitized as it is the case of container service.
We see, on other hand, some drastic changes in the tools that help ships, owners, planners, and others involved in the transport of cargoes in general to perform their jobs. And the same goes for the bureaucratic functions, too, such as b/l transactions, transference of freights, and all the other items connected with the commerce and transport. Actually, I start hearing more often about electronic transactions and authentications, and block chains solutions that may remove from the pain of getting paid in due time.
However, even the containers segment is a living process where automatization does not disregard human intervention. Human analysis and intervention is needed anyway. In any case, I think that all these small/medium companies looking to get out of the small margin container business need now people with a broad vision and overview on shipping processes, and these people might be very difficult to be found ready-made. The young professionals already in the shipping business or entering just now the shipping business should be trained in this spirit. It would be a terrible mistake to expect that these young professionals would get the comprehensive experience requested by complex shipping operations in break bulk, bulk etc. eventually only by moving containers around.
You just mentioned the young professionals. We associate the young professionals with the future so what the future looks like?
Mr. Roberto Brandão:
The future for me or for the shipping industry? (Mr. Brandao smiles again)
I can answer for me but I can’t pronounce about the shipping industry.
This would be a too long and complex discussion and, to be absolutely honest, we don’t have the data for going beyond pure speculations.
But from where I sit the answer is quite straight forward:
I am a retired professional who decided to go on the mission of passing the knowledge of an entire successful professional life.
Let me explain how I came to this answer. About ten years ago my partner, Tere de Paula, retired after long and fruitful years working as charterer. We were already good and longstanding friends. Just a couple of years later I started to reconsider my career, as well, led by the natural consequences of the age and the dynamics of the labour market. Tere and I always exchanged ideas and discussed future. Tere thought of running away from shipping, and migrate to something totally different from what she had done along her life. And in my case, I was advised by experts in human resources to take a different direction in my career. But the question was: What shall we do with all the information we have gained along the years in shipping? This is our most valuable asset… Will we just let it die with us?
We looked at each other and, because we know each other so well, we agreed that something was wrong with running away from shipping.
Tere decided to found Tap Consultoria in 2012, a company specialised in consultancy and training of professionals in chartering. She started slowly and took some time to catch up, as usually happens in any new enterprise. I was still working in cargo/ship brokerage, then. In 2015, Tere invited me to contribute with my port expertise in one of her in-company courses, and things worked pretty well in this first experience. I ended up taking part of some other courses, too, and we finally came to the idea of working together, as partners. And since then we have been training various maritime professionals, especially young professionals, in the various aspects and good practices of shipping, chartering and port operations.
Moreover, I think that the actual attitude in the market is predatory and not collaborative. Therefore I make a strong point in underlining the importance of caution, best practices and behaviour. On top of all of that we also try to teach these young professional the true ethic of freight forwarding.
Is ethic so important for a successful shipping professional?
Mr. Roberto Brandão:
I think that ethic is definitively essential for the success of a shipping professional on long term.
Ethics is a human value, it is one of the aspects making us real humans.
Ethic is what takes us outside the paradigm defined so well by our Latin ancestors as “Homo homini lupus est”.
Well, ethics has been something I have always pursued. And this is also stressed in our courses to professionals of logistics. Shipping is a narrow market, and you may easily lose your personal reputation if you don’t stay within the lines. And it involves all aspects of your private and professional life, including legally acceptable but morally wrong attitudes when dealing with your counterparts. It demands breaking pre-concepts, in many cases.
You may understand better if I will tell you briefly about my interaction with soviet clients in the past. It was a break of a paradigm that I had since my childhood. I know that this will sound like “water under bridge” for many people but for me is a part of my professional life and could illustrate the application of ethic in this profession.
I was invited in 1980 to join the team of water clerks of Cory Brothers Shipping Agency, a subsidiary company of Powell Duffryn, London. The company represented many owners around the world but also all shipowners of soviet shipping companies and some of the countries of the Iron Curtain.
The soviets had a regular line with Brazil, that increased along the years, resulting in a profitable business for Cory and, therefore, I was designated by the directors to give priority to the development of the relationship with them.
It’s necessary to give you a context of what we in Brazil thought about Russians in those years. In school, during the military dictatorship in power in Brazil between 1964 and 1989, we were indoctrinated to believe that anything that came from Russia meant evil. Communists were the bad guys in our imagination, frequent in movies of espionage, international conspiracy, war, etc. And, therefore, stepping on a soviet ship when I was 20 sounded in the beginning as something mysterious, full of suspense, once I was meeting the bad guys. It may sound silly now, but it sounded to me as if I was getting infiltrated in KGB. Of course, soon I discovered that things weren’t that way, but that was how people saw my work, I mean, as if I had been visiting a U-Boat of second war. And we frequently got soviet flags, soviet brooches and other objects as souvenirs that were disputed by my friends.
One of the remarkable moments working with the Russians was when I was on board of m.v. Kaptan Betkher and the crew was informed that Soviet Union had been dissolved. I saw when they, full of joy, ran to the main mast to replace the Soviet flag by the original white, blue and red Czar flag.
And another curious fact to me is that I actually met KBG agents (that were not introduced to me as so, but after the end of USSR I was told who they really were) in those years. And the funny thing is that they looked just like any ordinary people.
Anyway, for us, South Americans that saw USSR from a distant and mythical point of view, working with Soviets sounded extraordinary, and I still tell my children and friends the experiences – many of them absolutely funny and folkloric – I had with Russians.
Maybe this is the most important aspect – the bottom line is that people with whom I worked were ordinary Russians, I have to say, as I found later.
The human side always emerges after some time working with the same person … and I found those with whom I had the longest business relations as humans… like all of us… with families, concerns, dreams… These were Russian people and not the evil Soviets of my imagination, and any troubles if any, were generated by the system, not by the people.
I remember also asking a medic on board of a Soviet ship why he didn’t choose to specialize and stay onshore, and maybe do more in his profession in this way. I was completely puzzled when he told me that irrespective how much he would learn and work there would be no progress… He would have the same salary as those who would do nothing. So, why to bother?
This makes me think again that we are continuously told “You are not accountable for this”, but how true is this? Definitively ethic is a significant part of the answer to this question.
Roberto Brandão is a professional with more than 40 years of experience in shipping. He started his career in shipping agencies, and also worked for chartering companies, ship owners, freight forwarders and sea/inland bonded terminals. He is presently partner of Tere de Paula at TAP CONSULTORIA, a company dedicated to consultancy in logistics, chartering and port operations, and training of professionals in open and in-company courses.
TAP CONSULTORIA is adapting continuously to the realities of the industry including by fulfilling entirely the newest requirements of the hygiene crisis by providing training at distance via digital communication tools.
Mr. Roberto Brandão contact info:
Phone: +55 41 988621559
Excepting the front picture and the 5th (fifth) picture, all the other pictures and the corresponding explanations and details have been provided by Mr. Roberto Brandão. In the order of apparition:
· Teenager Roberto (second one from right to left) together with friends
· Cory Brothers ID in 1981 – Mr. Brandão was hired as waterclerk
· On a container vessel – Porto Itapoá, 2012
· View of Porto Itapoá and its surrounds from the deck of the container vessel (at the horizon is a tiny bit of the famous Brazilian forest what makes space for so many developments)
· Mr. Brandão (only) sitting on chief officers’ chair, in the operations room of a container ship
· TAP CONSULTORIA Laytime course group photo - early 2020 (Ms. Tere de Paula is at the center of the group)
· Mr. Roberto Brandão’s portrait photograph
· TAP CONSULTORIA Chartering course on line/live – June 2020 (Ms. Tere de Paula is on the top line, right to Mr. Brandão)
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