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Versatile Computer Relieves Burden of Paperwork for Customhouse Broker
Last fall the paperwork at Thomas L. Watkins Customhouse Brokers was reaching critical mass: something had to give.
Now Scott Watkins, who at 25 has been working in the family business for almost a decade, does it all singlehandedly — with a little help from an IBM System 32 computer.
Scott and his father, Thomas L. Watkins, decided the computer was the way to go after observing a similar system in operation for a Savannah Customhouse broker. Programmed by Data Consultants Inc., the computer was installed at the Watkins office on Talleyrand Avenue last November.
It was producing Customs entries within a week, and within two weeks was performing all the clerical functions previously done by three full-time employees, with Scott helping out part time. (The employees are still with Watkins, doing other jobs.)
Getting automated isn’t cheap. Scott said the program cost over $15,000 and the computer itself rents for in the neighborhood of $1,000 a month; the forms are extra, and the computer produces five basic ones for each Customs entry.
But the Watkins are satisfied customers. “We had gotten to the point where we just couldn’t keep up with the paperwork,” Scott said. “We were going to have to recruit new people, and qualified ones in this field are hard to find.” Because of the complexity of doing Customs entries, it generally takes a new employee about six months to become competent enough to work with a minimum of supervision, he added.
Now Scott usually “runs” Customs entries in batches of 40. It takes him about an hour and a half to enter the necessary data. It takes the machine about half an hour to do the calculations and print out the forms. Then it takes Scott about six hours to sort out and handle the forms. The company processes an average of about 350 Customs entries a month, he said.
For each entry, the procedure goes like this: Scott takes the customer’s documents, which contain all the information necessary to identify the customer and his cargo — including his ID number, the quantity and size of the cargo, its value and any special handling instructions, where it originated, and how and when it was shipped, etc. — and transfers the information onto four coded forms for input into the computer.
The first step sounds involved, but Scott said it actually takes only a few minutes. “You can do it as fast as you can write.”
This data is then fed into the computer, which provides a cue for each bit of information it wants.
The computer is programmed to process the information and produce five documents:
Form 7501 is the basic Customs entry document. It contains a description of the cargo imported and the duty to be paid. The computer calculates the duty according to each item as required by its TSUS classification (for Tariff Schedules of the United States). For some items, the duty is based on weight. The duty for an item may be based on weight, volume or a combination of the two. But all the computer needs is a coded description of the item and the TSUS classification — it does the rest.
Delivery orders. This form incorporates the cargo’s bill of lading, as well as information about the vessel, its arrival date and so on. It provides the authorization for the cargo to be released from the pier to the carrier who will deliver it to the owner.
Carrier release. A concise summation of data about the cargo from the ship’s manifest presented to the Customs inspector to facilitate the cargo’s release. Not required by Customs; many Customhouse brokers use bills of lading for this purpose.
Form 5101. A capsule version of form 7501 required by Customs for its own computer system.
Last, but certainly not least, the computer produces the bill to Watkins’ customers for services rendered.