Mike Wilson, Hamburg Süd North America Inc.’s senior VP for business operations, in his 20th year on the board of the Intermodal Association of North America, looks forward to Intermodal EXPO 2017.
Mike Wilson, Hamburg Süd North America Inc.’s senior VP for business operations, in his 20th year on the board of the Intermodal Association of North America, looks forward to Intermodal EXPO 2017.

Comfortable wearing many hats, Mike Wilson is a leading ocean carrier executive, officer of an organization assisting homeless families and a new grandparent, not to mention his two decades on the board of the Intermodal Association of North America, which is readying to “push the envelope” with its Intermodal EXPO 2017.
Regardless of proverbial chapeau – whether as senior vice president for business operations at Morristown, New Jersey-based Hamburg Süd North America Inc. or current vice chairman of IANA – Wilson never gets a swelled head, but rather maintains an honest dedication to industry excellence, as he shares with American Journal of Transportation readers.

How have IANA and its Intermodal EXPO evolved, and what’s in store at EXPO 2017, set for Sept. 17-19 in Long Beach, California?

Having served on the IANA board for almost 20 years, I’ve been able to see the evolution in industry issues and programs IANA addresses.

Most notable are the increase in information technology services IANA offers industry stakeholders – such as GIER [Global Intermodal Equipment Registry], DVIR [Driver Vehicle Inspection Report] and DVER [Driver Vehicle Examination Report] – and newer programs like the Street Interchange and Bad Order Equipment Status applications.

IANA is considered the honest broker for proprietary industry information and is a natural to develop and provide these kinds of services to the industry.

The level of commitment, activity and output from IANA’s committees is a credit to all member volunteers and staff engaged in multiple efforts to enhance intermodal productivity, safety and operating efficiencies.

This year’s EXPO is going to push the envelope on issues like cloud-based intermodal solutions, upcoming ELD [electronic logging device] implementation, autonomous equipment and some of the new administration’s programs. And we’re adding a new feature – Intermodal University – designed to educate industry newcomers, including BCOs [beneficial cargo owners].

One of my favorite aspects of EXPO is the Student Case Competition, now in its seventh year hosted by IANA. It’s really refreshing to hear perspectives of students, many of whom could be the next generation of intermodal execs.

I’m also proud of IANA’s scholarship program, which I helped initiate 10 years ago and have chaired for many years. It has contributed more than $1.8 million to schools with supply chain and intermodal programs.

Speaking of evolving, what changes do you see for Hamburg Süd with completion later this year of its $4 billion acquisition by Maersk?

We’re very excited. Maersk is a global leader and top-quality company. Hamburg Süd shares a similar strong reputation when it comes to quality, and we are very much looking forward to joining the Maersk group.

As has been stated, Maersk intends to go forward with a light-touch integration of Hamburg Süd, meaning the Hamburg Süd service product and service delivery systems and processes will stay largely intact. We believe this is a sound approach which will continue a very strong value proposition for Hamburg Süd customers.

More broadly, how do you perceive the ocean carrier business and its customers benefiting from the era of larger containerships and mega-alliances?

It’s clear the scale offered by larger ships will continue to drive operational cost efficiencies, particularly at sea. Even so, there have been challenges shoreside which tend to offset some of these efficiencies.

Even though terminals may on paper have the necessary capacities to handle the vessels scheduled to call – berths, cranes, acreage, labor and so on – productivity shipside at the berth and in the terminal yard and through the gates continues to be a challenge. This is caused mainly by the volume surge of the larger vessel exchange.

Traditionally, a terminal may have had a weekly exchange of 15,000 moves over six or seven vessels, whereas now the exchange takes place over fewer – say four or five – vessels. This can strain terminal infrastructure, causing a drop in productivity across the facility.

That said, we have seen terminals and ports actively addressing these issues, including with yard reconfiguration, longer gate hours and pick-up and delivery appointment systems.

Vessel alliances have been around for decades and have proven very effective in providing a wide range of port coverage while maintaining an efficient and reliable service. They’ve allowed a wide array of ocean carriers to continue to offer service in a market that would otherwise see fewer participants.

Although the vessel strings may be fewer, lines have found other ways to differentiate their services, such as by means of landside customer service orientation, maintaining a broader scope of carriers for customers to choose from.

What’ve been the most pivotal moments of your career, encompassing nearly 25 years with Hamburg Süd following stints with United States Lines, Crowley and Atlantic Container Line?

I believe each of my experiences has contributed to my professional development, albeit in different ways.

I was very lucky to have started my career with United States Lines in May 1979. At the time, USL had a training program now looked upon as one of the best ever. Unfortunately, USL became insolvent and ceased operations in 1986, but USL developed dozens of individuals who are leaders in our industry today.

It was very fortunate for many USL veterans that Crowley Maritime decided at that time to start a container service from the U.S. East Coast to South America’s East Coast. My years at Crowley were formative in that I began to view the business from more of a strategic perspective.

At Atlantic Container Line, I was afforded the opportunity to oversee terminal operations across the entire network – my first exposure to being responsible for operations outside the United States, including Europe – and it broadened my perspective on many levels. ACL helped me sharpen negotiating skills while facilitating development of a more collaborative management style.

As a result of these varied experiences, I was able to join Columbus Line – later to take on the parent name of Hamburg Süd – in 1993 as vice president of logistics.

At Hamburg Süd, I first became interested in metrics-based, process-oriented management. Working with many colleagues, we were able to design and develop core business processes to drive our service product delivery system. We developed key metrics that helped us gauge success of these processes, and we introduced a program of continuous improvement, contributing to the value-driven service for which Hamburg Süd is well-known. In 2011, after 17 years of helping Hamburg Süd grow, I was offered my current position.

I believe I’ve been truly blessed in my career and am very thankful for each and every opportunity afforded me along the way.

With your Hamburg Süd responsibilities, how’ve you found time to serve in leadership roles at key industry organizations, including IANA, New York Shipping Association, Consolidated Chassis Management and Ocean Carriers Equipment Management Association?

Although I was exposed early in my career to several industry organizations, it was not until I joined Columbus Line/Hamburg Süd that I became directly involved. I think this was partially because of my new position, but also that Hamburg Süd was a company which felt being involved in the industry community was important.

To be honest, the time demand of being involved in these organizations can be largely governed by the individual. There are minimum commitments and sometimes unavoidable scheduling conflicts, but, for the most part, the exchanges and meetings are succinct and quite time-efficient.

Participation in these organizations allows for good intellectual sharing and collaboration where not only the industry group benefits, but the individual and his or her company as well. IANA is a great example of this, where stakeholders from various modes of transportation and support organizations get together to address a broad range of issues.

In these contexts, what do you see as the future for intermodal chassis and containers in the United States?

Containers have been around for quite some time and are now the mainstay for intermodal transportation. I expect we’ll see some innovation relative to the container, more so on the technology side in regard to active tracking and data sharing.

The chassis provision paradigm has been changing for well over 10 years now. Although ocean carriers have sought to exit the traditional ownership and provision model, market forces have made that more difficult than originally thought.

We have seen several changes to the traditional model, particularly in the areas of chassis pools, trucker-owned chassis and shipper/consignee-provided chassis. These models will continue to evolve, again driven mostly by market forces.

From an engineering perspective, we have seen improvements in lighting – to LEDs – anti-lock braking systems, tire airing systems, multiaxle configurations and a more widespread recognition of the value and use of radial tires. I expect we will see a replenishment of the existing intermodal chassis fleet over the coming years wherein many of these features will become mainstream.

What’s your involvement with Samaritan Inn, and what other nonwork interests do you pursue, if you in fact have any spare time?

A great question. Full disclosure, there are some nights I get home, have a bite to eat and hit the rack, but I try to keep those to a minimum.

For relaxation in warm months, my wife and I share a boat with some friends and like to go out on Lake Hopatcong and enjoy just being on the water. I also play golf once in a while, but that seems to be more of a challenge than driving a boat.

During winter months, we enjoy hikes in the snow-covered parks near us, but not as much as a roaring fire in the fireplace, with a bottle of wine and a good movie. We also like to travel, and, with three adult children on both coasts – with our first grandchild born in April – we try to see them as often as we can.

Samaritan Inn is a not-for-profit whose primary mission is to help homeless families in Sussex County, New Jersey. The program provides emergency food and temporary shelter, as well as counseling and skill-building in family maintenance and growth. We own two small apartment buildings with a total of nine units to accommodate the families. Better than 95 percent of the time, the program has successfully transitioned homeless families to normal productive life in the community.

I serve on the board as vice president and work with a dedicated group of board and staff members who are passionate, hands-on and dedicated to the mission. It’s a great program – you can learn more at www.samaritaninn.org – and I’m proud to be part of it.