Shipping schedules challenge exports

“A REAL mess” is how Frank Urbano, the middle man between wool exporters and shipping companies, describes shipping schedules disrupting the flow of wool out of Fremantle to China.

Mr Urbano is manager of IWD Pty Ltd – previously known as Independent Wool Dumpers – based behind the Western Wool Centre in the AWH woolstores complex at Bibra Lake and the main sea container packer for the WA wool industry.

When Farm Weekly visited IWD last week Mr Urbano explained two stacks of containers in the yard – one of nine and the other of at least 12 – should not be there.

Packed with wool, they should have been shipped out the previous week, he said, but changes to schedules, ships not arriving and delays in loading meant they were still there.

“Shipping schedules seem to be all over the place,” Mr Urbano said.

“With COVID-19 (last year) the schedules seemed to be on time – you knew when that service (time period when a ship at the dock would accept cargo) was going to cut off, so it was easy to work back from that for when to get the wool in, when to have it packed (into containers) and you knew that the containers would be gone (from the yard) by Friday,” he said.

“But that’s not what is happening now, it’s very frustrating.

“There was a ship that we did (packed containers of wool for) late last week and on Monday this week and it was advertised to start receiving containers (for loading) on Tuesday.

Wool bales being loaded into a container in the yard at IWD Pty Ltd.

The stack of containers in the background is loaded with wool and should have already gone but was delayed by changes to shipping schedules.

“But they cancelled that and it was supposed to start receiving today, then they cancelled that and it’s supposed to be receiving from tomorrow.

“You think ‘by Tuesday all that wool will be gone, those containers will be gone and I can get the next lot of wool in and the next containers in’, but all of a sudden you’re having to juggle containers.

“We’ve only got limited space to keep containers – we normally only have them here for as long as it takes to load them – what comes in goes straight out again.

“We can store about 2000-3000 bales in the store, but we need to keep it flowing so we can get the next lot in.”

Mr Urbano and IWD was the local lynch pin in a complex wool export supply chain.

Wool exporters buy wool off brokers to fill orders from overseas clients.

Once an order is filled, the exporter books space on a ship and the number of sea containers required from a shipping company – 120 wool bales can be packed into a 12 metre (40 foot) container without dumping.

The exporter sends details of each wool bale in the order and in which brokers’ woolstores they are located, along with the shipping booking, to Mr Urbano who consults a shipping movements website to determine when the ship will be in port and when it will be accepting cargo.

He then orders all the bales in the order to be delivered from the various woolstores.

Bale numbers are checked as they are delivered and orders assembled in rows in IWD’s store.

Booked containers are delivered and once all bales in an order have arrived and been checked off, they are loaded into the containers by the IWD team and trucked to the port to be loaded.

“Sometimes you get a nasty surprise,” Mr Urbano said.

“We had a ship last week – the Antwerp (a Hong Kong-registered container ship) – that advertised it would accept cargo from Friday and not cut off until the following Friday.

“We only had about 10 containers to load – we can do that in a day – so we thought we had plenty of time.

“The next thing they are cutting off on Tuesday, not Friday.

“Suddenly we’re in trouble, I haven’t ordered the wool in.

“Luckily, they gave us until Wednesday unofficially, so we made it.

“It’s really guess work at the moment.

“Even ringing or emailing the shipping companies (to check loading times) you won’t get the right information, you have to take everything they tell you about their schedules with a grain of salt.”

The uncertainty is putting pressure on exporters and everyone else along the supply chain, including transport drivers, Mr Urbano said, because no one could be certain plans would not change at the last minute to accommodate changes in shipping schedules.

“Another problem is when two containers are supposed to be loaded in Melbourne and another two supposed to be loaded when the ships docks in Fremantle to complete an order, but if the ship misses one or the other of those ports then only half an order is delivered,” he said.

“It’s very frustrating, when it will go back to normal I don’t know.”

Farm Weekly has previously been told small local exporters were having difficulty booking space on ships and had to wait until a larger exporter could not fill all of the containers they had booked.

Mr Urbano confirmed this appeared to be the case and he has advised clients to book space in advance and then cancel if they need to.

Sourcing empty containers could also be a problem.

“A client from Melbourne who exports out of Fremantle as well, rang and said he had seven containers booked on a ship here, so I ordered the wool in and the shipping company said it was good to go, but then told the exporter they didn’t have containers,” Mr Urbano said.

“I told my client to push the shipping company because I was pretty sure they do have containers.

“They just want them to go back (to China) empty because the trade between Asia and Europe is more lucrative.”

WACL (West Africa Container Line) and COSCO shipping lines have recently added two more ships to the Fremantle-Singapore run, Mr Urbano said, which might improve scheduling consistency.