Sergio Sandrin, president of third-party logistics provider Aqua Gulf Transport, is good-natured about his love of technology and brings an equally positive attitude to the Caribbean marketplace his company serves, even as Puerto Rico continues to present challenges.
In an interview with the American Journal of Transportation, Sandrin, from his office in Deerfield Beach, Florida, humbly and frankly shares his thoughts on prospective Puerto Rican recovery, growth in Dominican Republic trade and his own logistics technology background that dates back to the ripe age of 15.
In light of Aqua Gulf’s leadership among third-party logistics providers in Puerto Rico commerce, what do you see as current and near-future status of the island commonwealth’s economy and the state of its trade lane?
As you can imagine, I get this question a lot these days. I keep saying it’s either my crystal ball is completely broken or, if I had the answer, I would go out and pick the winning Powerball numbers.
It’s a difficult situation. It’s going to be a rough few years for my friends in Puerto Rico, unfortunately. A lot of pain is going to come down, especially with the filing [in May] of the quasi-bankruptcy Title III there.
You’ve got to rein in some of the spending, abuse and waste – and that’s going to mean a lot of pain for a lot of people. You’ll see a lot of public jobs disappear, and somehow those have to be replaced with private-sector jobs.
You have to get reinvestment in the island. When they lost the 936 [tax incentive program], the wind-down of it over 10 years, a lot of good-paying jobs just left the island and didn’t return.
I have a lot of friends, a lot of customers, investing in the future in Puerto Rico because they kind of see it as doubling down, but you need to attract more outside investment.
There are some things going on. For example, Lufthansa has its repair facility there. But it’s going to be a long, tough road.
Somehow, you’ve got to make it attractive for businesses to do business there again. It’s a tough environment. As an employer down there, there’s a lot of red tape to get anything done.
Unfortunately, as they’re looking for more sources of revenue right now, even more red tape seems to have developed.
I’ve heard you say that you see significant promise in serving the Dominican Republic, so could you please offer details, as well as comment on what other trades in the region you view as poised for growth?
About five years ago, we at Aqua Gulf re-entered the Dominican market. We’d been in and out of it over the course of our history, but we really went back into it with both feet.
It’s a phenomenal marketplace, and we’ve seen year-over-year growth. There’s a lot of outside investment coming in, a lot of money flowing in. You drive around the capital, into the countryside and out to the resort areas, like Punta Cana, and there’s investment and building going on left and right.
They’ve created a good climate there for doing business. The people there are fantastic. I absolutely love the people of the Dominican Republic. We have five employees down there now, and they do a great job for us.
Everybody is friendly, warm, inviting, welcoming and appreciative. Our customers down there appreciate the role that we play as a third party.
The rest of the Caribbean is increasingly growing for us, including a lot of inter-island trade. We have a couple customers in Puerto Rico exporting to St. Martin and Trinidad and back to the Dominican Republic. And then there’s Dominican Republic going to other islands.
Trinidad is probably our largest market after the Dominican Republic. Then we fall in with St. Martin and Jamaica and British Virgin Islands. They’re all consumer markets, with the exception perhaps of Trinidad and the Dominican Republic, which have their own little industries.
How has Aqua Gulf advanced over the past half-century or so from its founding in 1966 as a Staten Island, New York-based trucking company with one truck to a far more comprehensive logistics provider?
All the credit goes to Bob Browne, the owner and founder [and current CEO], who started off with that one truck. He’s a remarkable founder in a lot of ways, because he has great vision for what is coming down the road.
Our little company started off as that trucking company and was involved almost from Day One with the Puerto Rico trade. Bob was doing a lot of trucking with one of the carriers servicing the trade.
We went from trucking to servicing customers in terms of consolidations and top-loading and really maximizing cube for our customers, especially in the grocery industry. We had strong ties from Day One with the grocery stores and suppliers to them.
From the ’90s into the 2000s, we’ve just expanded. One of the great things about working for Bob is that he enjoys technology and understands its value. That has helped our growth without question.
What benefits do you see shippers deriving from using a 3PL in Latin American and Caribbean trade, and indeed how important a role is played by information technology?
I have an IT background, so I’m a little biased in that regard.
First and foremost, we like to think that what we add is flexibility and options for our customers.
With Puerto Rico, we’ve had some difficulties over the past three-plus years – everything from Horizon [Lines] going out of business to the El Faro tragedy [with the Sea Star Line vessel lost at sea with a crew of 33 aboard in October 2015].
We’ve had to work with all the remaining carriers and keep the product flowing to Puerto Rico, and that’s not an easy thing.
With a carrier, that carrier is going to try to do the best it can, but we had periods of time where we’re moving stuff between carriers, between barge and ship, whatever it took to make sure we met customers’ deadlines in Puerto Rico.
When you’re an island, shipping is the lifeblood. Last year, we shipped 48 million pounds of chicken to Puerto Rico. That’s a staggering amount from our little company. If you’re not able to supply customers there, there’s no food on the table.
We try to provide options, flexibility and knowhow. We have a team here that adds up to almost thousands of years of experience in Puerto Rico and international trades.
We love personal relationships, but technology complements that. It’s a hand-in-glove kind of thing. We have our own homegrown systems. We work hard at constantly refining them, trying to be a little ahead of the curve.
What advantages have you gleaned from more or less growing up in the transportation industry?
My dad was an airfreight forwarder. My mom owned a customs brokerage company.
In a mom-and-pop operation, literally, you learn the value of hard work. I was given the broom and told to sweep the warehouse. When I got good at that, I could use the pallet jack. When I got good at that, then I could use the forklift. And that’s the way I grew up, every school vacation and summer break working with my parents and little brother.
When I was about 15, my mother realized she needed to computerize. This was about 1985 in Jamaica, Queens, out at Kennedy Airport. I grew up in [New] Jersey, but they worked out at Kennedy.
She needed an ABI [Automated Broker Interface] system to file with Customs. She looked around and everybody told her it was going to be hundreds of thousands of dollars for a mainframe.
She found a little company out in San Francisco that was doing PC-based. She dragged me along because I knew computers, like any 14- or 15-year-old at the time. I helped put together her mini-network.
I would say that was my hobby, with the IT side, and the logistics side was the career. I’ve always merged the two together. When I came here to Aqua Gulf [in 1999], I started as IT manager.
What motivates you, both professionally and personally?
I’m very, very fortunate to do something I absolutely love. I love this industry, grew up in it and went to Northeastern University, where my concentration was in logistics [graduating with a bachelor’s in transportation and logistics management].
For me, it’s waking up every day and being able to lead this company and work with this tremendously talented group. We’re like a family here, so they push me to do better for them so we’re all in this together. That’s my motivation.
As a break from work, what outside interests do you pursue?
I’m an avid sports fan. Love my Mets, Jets and Islanders, as much as they torment me. Even 14 years in Boston couldn’t change that. I even made my poor kids Mets, Jets and Islanders fans, even though they were both born in Boston. They could’ve known happiness, but they’re miserable like their old man.
And I love technology. If there’s a gadget out there, I’ll buy it and figure out how to use it, either at home or a lot of times it translates into work. Every little thing I touch, somehow I figure out a way to put it into practical application down the road for our business as well.
So you come off as a tech nerd workaholic…
I do have fun. I go out and golf as well, but even that has little Bluetooth technology in it so that I know how far I’m hitting the ball and what club I’m using correctly. Being able to quantify everything I do is kind of fun for me. I don’t know why.