One constant drives the supply chain, whether there’s a pandemic or simply bad weather: Businesses solve for risk in order to offer predictability to customers.
Because South Carolina Ports has a 25-year history working closely with advanced and automotive manufacturers, serving high-demand companies like BMW and Mercedes-Benz Vans, it’s able to confidently pivot toward retail. SC Ports is well-versed on how to create, manage and grow a tight supply chain under the demands of the pandemic and peak retail season.
“SC Ports has consistently run efficient operations, enabling BMW to export 70% of our South Carolina-made vehicles to more than 125 countries around the world,” said Knudt Flor, president and CEO of BMW Manufacturing. “SC Ports has also found creative ways to move our vehicles to customers faster, including overnight rail service between Inland Port Greer and the Port of Charleston.”
In an interview with FreightWaves, Micah Mallace, SC Ports’ director of national accounts, offered three ways SC Ports provides this certainty through its infrastructure, visibility tech and customer service.
1. Build infrastructure for the next 30 years
Mallace said a lot of U.S. ports are running into capacity constraints, leading retailers to send cargo to ports with efficient operations and ample capacity, like SC Ports.
“There are macro-level factors that are compelling to big retailers and serve as wind in our sails, such as being in the fastest population growth region in the U.S.,” Mallace said. “Ultimately, retailers are solving for how they ensure they don’t stock out at their store and how they deliver to every doorstep within a day — within less than a day soon.”
Capacity is crucial for retailers, and SC Ports has invested more than $2 billion to enhance infrastructure to handle more cargo. In March, SC Ports will open the Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal, marking the first container terminal to open in the U.S. since 2009. The Leatherman Terminal will offer more port capacity and big-ship capabilities in the booming Southeast market. The terminal received its first cargo-handling equipment recently with the arrival of five new ship-to-shore cranes with 169 feet of lift height, along with the first four of 25 hybrid rubber-tired gantry cranes.
SC Ports is also modernizing the Wando Welch Terminal and deepening Charleston Harbor to 52 feet by 2021, all of which will allow SC Ports to handle four 14,000-twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) vessels at the same time next year. In fact, several of these improvement projects are already leading larger container ships to call South Carolina ports. In September, the CMA CGM Brazil — the largest container ship to call the East Coast — stopped at SC Ports’ Wando Welch Terminal as its last U.S. port of call before heading back overseas.
In addition to port capacity, large-scale retail distribution requires an investment in land and square footage. In 2018, SC Ports purchased 1,000 industrial acres in nearby Ridgeville, South Carolina, as part of its retail distribution strategy.
SC Ports’ investment in infrastructure and available land attracted retail giant Walmart to announce in July its plan to build a $220 million, nearly 3 million-square-foot distribution center at the site near the Port of Charleston, which will create 1,000 jobs and support approximately 850 Walmart and Sam’s Club stores in the region. Walmart’s long-term trust in SC Ports also means a projected 5% volume boost annually for the port when the distribution center is fully operational.
“SC Ports’ proven track record of handling high-demand supply chain needs for the automotive industry gives us full confidence in their ability to meet our retail distribution and e-commerce needs,” said Greg Smith, executive vice president of supply chain for Walmart.
2. Utilize data visibility to help retail customers plan ahead
Technology adoption among shippers isn’t consistent. While SC Ports can connect with some customers via EDI or API and send automated reports, other companies still want to be sent a spreadsheet and have someone in customer service walk them through its content and implications.
But regardless of method, the willingness to consistently provide and update data for customers can help them rectify bills, plan for warehouse labor and prepare trucking capacity and power. SC Ports has a dedicated customer service group that solves issues for retailers and shippers and answers these repeated questions: When is my container available? When can I send a truck to get it? When does the container leave the port and when does it come back empty?
“The questions we’re getting asked — it’s the same question for everybody — are on in-transit and postdelivery visibility challenges,” Mallace said. “We’re able to give them event notifications, real-time container visibility for existing shipments, actual issue resolution and after-delivery analysis. We then consult with the shipper to help them understand what the data suggests and how to improve.”
3. Remain nimble to act on all customer needs — especially during peak season
Service providers are always problem-solving for that one container, truck or widget. SC Ports assists with those customer concerns by providing reliable, predictable service.
“We lend certainty to concerns so that if something goes wrong, customers call us on the supply chain side. If they need one part out of a container to keep a manufacturing line running, we’ve had helicopters land on our terminal and we open the container and take one part out, put it on the helicopter and a helicopter flies to the plant. You just can’t do that in nonoperating ports,” said Mallace of SC Ports’ willingness to create customized solutions for clients.
Mallace said SC Ports partners with retailers wanting to open distribution centers in the Southeast by assisting with the unique challenges around economic development and site selection.
“We have gotten quite good at taking a lot of the uncertainty out of the site and facility’s economics, answering questions like: ‘Will the facility deliver in time for the next peak season? If not, how do we shorten the timeline?’ ‘What are my actual transportation economics going to be?’” Mallace said.
SC Ports’ acquisition of 1,000 acres of industrial land in Ridgeville, for example, required wetland management and infrastructure investment, including new roads, all of which is always a huge time constraint. But by taking care of those components, SC Ports can now offer the property to customers looking at large distribution centers in the Southeast market with a more solidified timeline, Mallace said. Walmart will be the first tenant of the Ridgeville Industrial Campus when it breaks ground on its nearly 3 million-square-foot distribution center in December.
As far as pairing peak retail season with pandemic-caused tightened capacity, Mallace remains confident with SC Ports’ diverse cargo base, ample capacity and efficiently run port terminals.
“Our peak season is less sharp than other ports because we have so much advanced manufacturing business, which remains stable throughout the year,” Mallace said. “So the retailers that do business in our port are not having to fight for capacity as hard as they are in other port markets.”