Montreal portís growth impresses Grunt Club President Christensen
By Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT
As president of Montrťalís venerable Grunt Club, independent transportation consultant Ken Christensen is already busy planning for the maritime industry organizationís Dec. 7 annual dinner.
But heís not so busy that he couldnít find time earlier this month for a vacation with his wife to Virginia Beach Ė from which he took time out to engage in an exclusive interview with the American Journal of Transportation, during which he shared thoughts on the impressive growth of the Port of Montrťal and its intermodal links, on the possible impacts of a U.S. labor action and on his passion for swimming Ė but just not in the bloody cold St. Lawrence River.
Ken Christensen enjoys his role as president of Montrťalís Grunt Club
First, I must ask you about your role as president of the venerable Grunt Club, which, since its inception in 1931 Ė before even either one of us was born Ė has become one of the most vital local maritime industry organizations in the world. What is it that makes the Grunt Club so special?
We have an annual dinner, which weíve been working on since the beginning of the summer, and itís the first Friday in December, with 1,100 to 1,200 people for the dinner. We have two golf tournaments -- one in the spring, one in the fall. We have the curling luncheon...
A curling luncheon? They donít have too many curling luncheons down here in the States. Do you enjoy curling?
No. No, no, no. Iím not good at that. Iíll stand around and watch, but no, no. I throw that thing and I make it bounce backwards, you know what I mean? I donít know how they do it, I really donít.
Anyway, we also have events for the membersí families. In the summer, we have a picnic, where the members can bring their kids and families. In the winter, we have a Christmas party for them. So itís not just for the members; itís for the members and their families.
We support the Marinersí House [of Montrťal], which is probably our main beneficiary. We donate money to both childrenís hospitals in Montrťal, as well as the Maritime Institute of Quťbec, so they can give grants to some of their students, and we do that every year.
As far as what makes the club so special, itís hard to say. Obviously, it started out as a local membership, and now we have members that come from the United States. Itís a social club, thatís basically what it is, for any individuals involved in the maritime industry.
Why the name Grunt Club?
Iím told it goes like this: At dinner, we went back to our age-old discussions of forming a club. The drinks and dinner had been a little much for Barney, and he was sleeping peacefully at the head table, emitting from time to time loud and unmistakable grunts. Before breaking up the party, someone suggested we elect Barney president of the club and call it the Grunt Club. The rest is history.
Youíll notice, too, if you look at the clubís insignia, itís a gold pig.
Now let me next ask a question that relates to an issue that is top-of-mind this month for most of us in the industry, that being the possibility of an Oct. 1 labor action at U.S. East Coast and Gulf ports. Clearly, Montrťal and other Canadian ports could be huge beneficiaries of shifts in cargo routings. What impacts upon Canadian ports do you see possibly occurring?
Itís going to be more of a hindrance if something like that happens. The ports in Canada will be able to handle it, no problem, but it becomes a hindrance for everybody else. More traffic, be it rail, truck, ship, what have you. And, of course, there are going to be delays for everybody. Thatís going to be your biggest problem.
Things will still move. Thereís no question about that. Things will move. There will be delays, of course, and delays for everybody, including the clients, who are waiting for their goods or are waiting to get rid of their goods.
The ports in Canada will handle it. Theyíve done this before. Weíve had strike actions up here where weíve had to deal with the States and vice versa, so itís not like itís something new. It just becomes something that people know about and must work on the alternatives and the events.
But I donít see it being much of a problem. Maybe in the long term, if itís a lengthy strike. But I donít know how your [U.S.] government will react to a long strike in the United States, especially in an election year.
I donít see it being a problem so much for the container carriers, but it could be a problem for the bulk operators and people operating roll-on/roll-off and breakbulk cargos that you just canít shift to other ports. I mean, theyíre going to a port in the United States for a specific reason, so, to move that elsewhere, that would become difficult, especially with overdimensional cargos; that will be where your problem lies.
The fact is that expanding container facilities and productive partnerships with railways have Ė even without strike concerns Ė enhanced the Port of Montrťalís role in serving not only Canadian markets but U.S. markets such as Chicago and beyond. Do you see the Port of Montrťal continuing such growth?
Oh, very much so. Theyíve invested a lot of money in their infrastructure, and I donít see any reason for them not to keep growing. Their tonnages are up every year.
The Port of Montrťal is the gateway in Eastern Canada, well besides the Port of Halifax, but itís the largest port in Eastern Canada, inland anyway. I mean, once you get to Montrťal, thatís where it all stops, unless youíve got tankers going up to the [Great] Lakes. Itís where the containers stop.
Well, with the rail partnerships, a lot of the containers do go on from Montrťal. Have those partnerships helped make the intermodal moves smoother?
It took a while to get it to where it is today. It wasnít any easy event, simply because, a while back, the railways, even the port, they were also storage depots for containers. But the railways got out of that business. I mean, you canít store any equipment in the rail yards. I mean, theyíre out. They come in, they go it. Thatís what they are Ė intermodal Ė in and out. Theyíre no longer a storage facility for empty containers.
Itís all changed. Now theyíve gone 100 percent intermodal. Thatís what they do. They move it in; they move it out. Thatís the way it works now, and it seems to work quite well.
Letís talk about you. I know that you left your position as line manager for National Shipping Co. of Saudi Arabia at Seabridge International Shipping Inc. to strike out on your own in the consulting business. What is it exactly you are doing these days? Also, as someone who myself has been an independent contractor in this industry for most of my recent career, I am curious as to how you are finding the whole new world of working for yourself.
Iím working as a transportation consultant, for project cargo, breakbulk, ro/ro, projects. Thatís the kind of stuff I do. Not containers. I donít get involved with containers.
Without naming names, I worked for a company in Montrťal into hydroelectric power. They called me in after the shipments had moved, and they wanted a consultant in there to find out why their transportation budget that theyíd initially set up had already exceeded $1 million over and above their budget in transportation alone. So, I had to go in there and listen to the whole gamut from A to Z and figure out why they lost that much money.
I worked with another company on large shipments of woodchips into China, a yearlong venture.
Right now, I represent a company based out of Germany. Iím their representative over here for their military shipments for the [Canada] Department of National Defense.
Sprechen sie deutsche?
Well, I donít know. Thereís quite a bit of military transportation that goes from Canada to Germany. Not the volumes that there used to be, but itís still there. Iím their representative here in Canada. Itís kind of like, the Canadian government would rather deal with a Canadian company. Itís not written in stone, but thatís what they prefer. They go out on public tender, and we bid like everybody else.
Thatís what Iíve been doing, and enjoying it, too.
So how are you finding the whole world of working for yourself in comparison to working for one employer?
Itís like night and day. You work your own time. I donít have to get up and jump in the shower and get dressed and sit in traffic for an hour, cursing and swearing all the way in, and then the same thing coming home. That I do not miss at all. And Montrťalís going through a huge, huge infrastructure change, with things being repaired this way and that way. No, to drive is ridiculous.
Now, working with a company based in Germany, 4 a.m. is 9 oíclock for them, so youíre up whenever you are. At the same time, you can be finished a lot earlier, too.
Today, with all the technology, youíve got a cell phone that has email on it. So, if youíre off doing something, itís not like youíre away from it all. Modern technology, itís wonderful.
So tell me a bit about your personal passions and what you enjoy doing when your nose isnít to the grindstone?
I love swimming, but, of course, thatís seasonal. Up in Montrťal, itís only seasonal.
Youíre not one of those Polar Bear guys?
Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Not Polar Bear. Not Polar Bear.
Youíre actually talking with me on the phone this morning from Virginia Beach, so do you plan to get in some swimming today?
I donít know. That oceanís not exactly warm. Itís pretty fresh. Itís supposed to be 80 [degrees Fahrenheit] here today, and I just checked the internet and itís supposed to be about 85 in Montrťal. But I donít have the ocean in Montrťal. Theyíve got a river thatís bloody cold.
Fishingís fun, too. In the winter, no, Iím not a skier or anything. My biggest event in the winter is shoveling the snow.