Janet Fields of Savannah, Georgia-based John S. James Co. is no stranger to risk management issues at the corporate level. But Fields, the recently appointed president of the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America (NCBFAA), is seeing those skills put to the test as the industry weathers the dismal effects on trade from the coronavirus pandemic.
Fields was nominated to serve as NCBFAA president in January, following two years as the association’s vice president and decades of involvement prior to that on various industry committees.
At the time of her nomination, it was unclear just how devastating COVID-19 would be to the U.S. economy, but the severity became apparent by early March with the rapid imposition of government travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders.
Because of social-distancing requirements, the NCBFAA’s annual conference was held virtually and Fields was installed as president on April 18.
Within 24 hours, the association received a request from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to arrange a conference call at 9 p.m. on April 19 to announce import duty deferrals, followed at 9 a.m. the next morning with another agency call. “It hasn’t stopped,” Fields told American Shipper.
“The changes are happening so fast,” she said. “We normally have a weekly briefing with our members; we now have a daily briefing.”
John S. James Co., whose executives have participated in the NCBFAA for decades, has allowed Fields, the company’s director of risk management, to focus on association activities.
“Virtual conferences are a substitute but not quite the same,” she said. “We, as any other industry, will need to find ways to adapt. That is what we do. My company went from no one working from home to 85% of our staff working from home within 72 hours.”
The association’s customs brokers, freight forwarders and non-vessel-operating common carrier (NVOCC) members, most of which are small to midsize enterprises, depend on the continuous flow of information. Each afternoon, the NCBFAA publishes a “COVID-19 Daily Round-Up” newsletter for its membership.
“The interactions with CBP and other government agencies is constant with almost daily phone calls, virtual meetings and webinars,” Fields said. “CBP has been working around the clock to implement not only normal changes, but the additional regulations that are hitting us daily. Our close interaction is crucial during this time. It is truly a partnership.”
Other agencies with import and export oversight have been added to the NCBFAA’s near-daily communications during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Food and Drug Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“My goals as president are to continue to provide resources and education to our members’ further increasing professionalism,” Fields said.
Customs brokers, freight forwarders and NVOCCs work with the bulk of the nation’s importers and exporters to move their goods internationally in a cost-effective and compliant manner.
The pandemic has thrown the global supply chain for U.S. imports and exports into chaos. For many companies, the focus is on surviving the economic fallout of 2020 and weathering what could be a several-year financial recovery. Fields said it is now more important than ever for customs brokers and freight forwarders to prove their value in the supply chain.
“We excel at being able to react quickly and provide our clients with the information they need to be successful,” Fields said. “I used to say we jump through hoops for our clients. These days we are jumping through hoops while juggling balls.”
Amy Magnus, who served as NCBFAA president from May 2018 to April 2020 and is now the association’s chairman, complimented Fields for her “super administrative skills and organizational acumen,” adding “Jan is the master of these challenges, so this is good timing for our association to have her as our new leader.”