Being one the leading shipping agents in Hellas, the Venieris Group and Mr. Antonis Venieris in particular, is experiencing first-hand the problems that have occurred in the country's two major ports (Piraeus and Thessalonica) from the beginning of
the year, due to the port workers' mobilizations. With that in mind, Mr. Venieris warns in his interview with Hellenic Shipping News that "should the mobilizations continue, the status of the ports will be seriously downgraded to feeder service only status. Further to that, the exporting and importing activity of Hellas will suffer the final and lethal hit. According to Piraeus Traders Association, should the mobilizations continue up to end of the year, the financial losses would accumulate to the staggering figure of 4 billion Euros".
First of all, could you give us a profile of Venieris Group and its main activities?
The Venieris Group was founded by Dimitrios Venieris in 1983 at Thessaloniki. The founder had been into shipping since late 60"²s serving in different managerial position in Hellenic Lines of Kallimanopoulos family, both domestic and abroad.
Currently the group is comprised of Venieris Maritime S.A., which is the agent of Senator Lines in Hellas, VenMar Shipping Agencies S.A. which is the agent of Hanjin Shipping, Venus Mare d.o.o. which is based in Koper, Slovenia and Cosmos Ocean Shipping and Forwarding Ltd, a freight forwarding company in Thessaloniki.
Venieris Maritime S.A. is agent of MCL Lines & Feeders and United Feeder Services (UFS) in Thessaloniki as well as representative of Norfolkline in Hellas for Dunkerque to Dover ferry crossings.
Besides the liner agency operations of our group, we handle significant volumes of bulk cargoes at Thessaloniki port; we provide inland transportation, domestic and international, air transportation, customs clearance, logistics and warehousing.
We have offices in Piraeus, Thessaloniki, Koper and a network of trustworthy partners in Hellas and abroad.
Given that a big shipping conglomerate like Hanjin has chosen your group, as their representative in the Greek market, could you point out some of the strategic advantages that your company provides?
The main points that big shipping conglomerates as Hanjin seek to their partners is trust and local market experience. Surely, Venieris Group has both, since we are representing lines such as Senator Lines for 25 consecutive years and feeder lines such as MCL Feeders for 20 consecutive years without complaints. Our office has established through the years excellent liaison with the major exporting and importing companies in our local market and this fact is well appreciated by the liner companies we represent. Moving further from these two points, the well trained personnel and cutting edge technology computer systems is a prerequisite in the modern style of a shipping agency. We have invested a lot in high end computer systems and hardware as well as in training of our personnel.
From the beginning of the year, the country's two major ports have been witnessing a dramatic slowdown of activity in terms of container handling, because of the dockworkers opposition to the concession of the terminals' operations to private parties. Which are the biggest problems that the market has to deal with, with regards to the above conditions?
Unfortunately, from the 5th of January 2008, we are all witnessing the surreal situation of the strikes in the Hellenic major ports. The whole shipping and business world of Hellas are kept hostages, for more than 190 days, of the actions of the Hellenic government, the port authorities and the dock workers unions. During the seven months of actions, the productivity of Piraeus container terminal has fallen up to 80 per cent, the waiting times of vessels have escalated to unprecedented heights and the transit times of cargoes have returned to the standards of the clipper ship era in the 1800s. Both Thessaloniki and Piraeus port authorities financial data have dipped into the red figures, the lines that still serve Hellas have applied various port congestion surcharges that local receivers and shippers have to bear, costs which eventually are passed to the end user, the customer.
In what ways has this situation affected your company's operations?
Our company cannot be an exemption and we have felt the consequences of the strike actions as every other shipping agency in our country. The havoc created by the long duration of the actions, have established tremendous operational problems which are impossible to circumnavigate without tolls in time or money for customers and shipping lines. Hanjin Shipping had for a couple of months lifted a general booking stop to imports in Hellas which was eventually abolished 10 days ago after extensive negotiations between our principals and our company. It is extremely difficult to try to explain the unthinkable situation which we are living through, to management of Hanjin in Seoul and Hamburg when the world "strike" to their ears means a 24 or a 48 hour action and not a seven month saga.
The shipping agencies have been seriously affected and the time that the management of the agencies will be forced to reduce their personnel as an action of survival is not far away.
What will be the consequences should the strikes and mobilizations continue?
Even with the current actions we have witnessed the black listing of Piraeus and Thessaloniki ports by major container operators. It is more than obvious that should the mobilizations continue, the status of the ports will be seriously downgraded to feeder service only status. Further to that, the exporting and importing activity of Hellas will suffer the final and lethal hit. According to Piraeus Traders Association, should the mobilizations continue up to end of the year, the financial losses would accumulate to the staggering figure of 4 billion Euros. At the time the Hellenic exporters struggle to promote their products to the international markets, battling against the euro "“ dollar parity, such mobilizations seriously threaten the viability of Hellenic exports.
Is the port of Astakos in the west part of Hellas able to compensate the losses from the other two major ports of Piraeus and Thessalonica?
The port of Astakos has surely been benefited from the strikes at the two major ports. The productivity of the port has risen to 140,000 containers handled so far compared to zero last year. But this alternative does not come cheap. The exporters and importers have to bear an escalated transport cost from and to the port of Astakos which makes the whole situation even worse. Bearing in mind that this port was designed to attract transshipment cargo mainly, the answer comes easily. This port currently works because of the desperation of Hellenic exporters and importers. With no other connection to mainland but road, it can not be a long term alternative to Piraeus or Thessaloniki.
Do you believe that private operators will be able to alter the ports' prospects and attract more cargoes, potentially turning the country into a regional transshipment hub?
The two ports that have been entered into international tender have a competitive advantage that is unique. Piraeus' geographic location with even distances from Suez Canal and Bosporus, while conveniently placed on the main trade routes of mother vessels crossing the Mediterranean, gives an advantage that begs to be explored by the operators. Thessaloniki on the other hand, with a vast hinterland covering most of the Balkan countries and with luring proximity to the Black Sea, is the hidden star and it will be no surprise to see that the offers by the interested operators would be relative higher to Piraeus. Given these advantages, the port operators should only add their international experience and the future should be bright.
Is it too late for Hellas, given that competition from neighbouring countries is already pretty high?
It is a fact that Hellas has been left behind on this issue. If we look around on the map, most of the East Med ports have joined forces with various port operators for development purposes. My personal feeling is that, excluding Port Said, all other East Med ports are lacking of competitive advantages compared to Piraeus and Thessaloniki. If it was too late, there would be no interest in the international tenders. Better late than never.
You've been experiencing first hand the way that large container liners are operating. Lately we've been seeing the merging of routes, alliances forming, rising fuel surcharges and even ships sailing at slower speeds in order to save fuels. How would you describe the business landscape today in container shipping?
Shipping and container shipping in specific is very prone to the changes of the world economy. The big boom of China which has created the need for larger capacities in vessels, together with the unbalanced flow of equipment in the leg China-Europe-China has greatly affected the nature of containerized shipping. In the order book, a great number of Leviathan-sized vessels of capacity 13,000 + TEUS exists and plans for mega ships of 20,000 TEUS have been presented. But the two main obstacles of shipping are the rising fuel costs and the difficulty of port operators to adjust the operational capabilities of the ports, depths and cranes installations, to keep up with the escalating vessel sizes. The fuel cost which is the largest fixed cost in a vessel's voyage has forced vessel managers to lower speed performance in an attempt to save fuel. This practice on the other hand generates the need for more vessels in a trade lane in order to keep the desired frequency.
Despite these, container shipping is on the high side of the market and it will remain there for at least the next decade as the China effect will be followed by the India effect very soon.
Nikos Roussanoglou, Hellenic Shipping News Worldwide