SAL Heavy Lift GmbH, founded in 1980 near Hamburg, is one of the world’s leading carriers specialised in the sea transport of heavy lift and project cargo. Adhering to all QHSE requirements, it has its own fleet of heavy lift vessels with combined crane capacity up to 2,000 t, offering innovative and highly flexible solutions. It is also a major player in India, with presence of over 30 years in association with its partner/agent Sai Maritime & Management (P.) Ltd. SAL’s standing in India can be gauged from the fact that it bagged the Shipping Line of the Year – Heavy Lift Operator award at the MALA 2018 in August. Exim India sat down with Mr Christian Hoffmann, SAL’s Head of Marketing and Corporate Communication, during his recent visit to India, for a comprehensive interaction. Ms Rukhsana Vohra, Director of Sai Maritime, too joined in.
How does SAL view the Indian market currently and going ahead?
India has been an important market for SAL for more than three decades. We have good presence here thanks to Sai Maritime and we are working with them to further consolidate our position in the country. There was a little bit of a slowdown in 2014-15 but volumes have subsequently picked up again. We have no doubt about the potential of the Indian market. I am absolutely certain that moving forward India will offer much more opportunities for SAL.
What are the main cargoes that SAL handles to and from India? And what are the ports you call at?
We handle a lot of equipment pertaining to onshore as well as offshore oil and gas. We also handle marine cargo like boats, tugs, pontoons and trawlers, small ferries and barges, mining equipment, among other things. As regards the ports, we can call at any port where the client needs us to be. What we offer is a semi-liner service and currently we have about 3 sailings a month in India. We are very much out there in this market.
What has been the rate of SAL’s growth in the Indian market?
Between 2017 and 2018 our number of sailings increased by ca. 21 per cent. It depends on the market, the project bookings and vessel calls. We have had down times as well but overall the growth has been pretty steady. There was a perception in India that we carry only specialised, heavy cargo, of 1,000 t and above. We have changed that perception. We can carry any heavy cargo that does not fit into a container.
SAL has a very good reputation. We may not be the cheapest carrier, but clients know they can sleep well at night when shipping with SAL. They are assured about things like safety and on-time delivery.
How competitive is the Indian market?
In India, the market competition is tough. It is a very price-driven market. It is a market where one really needs to be sharp in pricing quotes and offerings. We have been facing a lot of competition from Chinese carriers, especially in the multipurpose segment. Bigger DWT MPVs come in at low price points, which makes competition difficult. But SAL has been able to hold its ground because we have a quality offering and service that customers can rely on.
What is the size of SAL’s fleet and what are the types of vessels generally deployed in India?
We presently have a fleet of 20 vessels with lifting capacity ranging from 550 tswl to 2,000 tswl. At 12 vessels, we right now have the largest fleet with 800+ tonnes lifting capacity. All the vessels are owned. One of the vessels, the Combi Dock 1, is a geared Ro/Flo dock vessel we inherited when SAL’s ownership changed to the family-owned German company Harren & Partner last year. SAL’s core competence rests in Lo/Lo shipping and we found the vessel difficult to market and position on its own, so we established a pool JV with Dutch Ro/Flo specialist RollDock, which operates a similar fleet of dock type HLVs. The pool consists of 6 dock type Ro/Flo HLVs. RollDock manages the pool of Ro/Flo activities and SAL supports in on Lo/Lo jobs for these particular vessels upon need. The pool has been operational since April 1 this year. It is an interesting venture with just 2 companies for now, but we can look at more going ahead. The ordinary fleet of 19 HLVs are managed and operated solely by SAL.
In India, we have deployed a mix of vessels, from the high lifting capacity ones for the special heavy project cargo to vessels with lower lift capacity (yet still nothing less than 550 tswl). Then there is cargo which might not be heavy, but which require vessels with bigger outreach. Here our vessels come in handy as well. As stated earlier, our shallow draught vessels with strong lifting gear can service clients in most locations.
Do you have any new vessels on order?
Not at the moment but we are looking at a newbuilding programme and innovative ships design. It has been a competitive market in recent years with a lot of new vessels coming in that were ordered during the peak years. But they were inducted when the market was in decline, which has had an impact on costs and freight.
Does break-bulk shipping too have the problem of excessive tonnage? Are you happy with the current freight rates in this segment?
Break-bulk shipping globally does have the problem of tonnage oversupply. A lot of older, smaller tonnage is still floating around simply because the low freight rates made it difficult to deploy new vessels, especially during the long bad cycle. Hence, we have a lot of ships competing for the same cargo. However, things are now changing and demand is increasing because the global economy has been looking up in recent times.
There is not much talk about break-bulk freight rates, maybe because it is still a relatively niche segment. Current freight rates are still on the lower side. 2016 was the worst year ever for break-bulk shipping, with plummeting freight rates. Now we are seeing a slow and steady incline; though not yet at a comfortable level, the rates are good enough to be in business. Ultimately, it is a cycle. However, we do see a general increase in cargo volume.
Talking about containers, there has been a lot of talk in recent times about container liners aggressively targeting break-bulk cargo and eating into the business of specialist companies such as SAL. Your comments.
It is partly true, but mainly with regard to lighter cargoes—in the 75-80 t range. Yes, some of the top container shipping companies are trying to get into this segment. However, there are always going to be limitations for them, weight-wise and length-wise, which flat racks and other special equipment cannot handle. Certain cargoes cannot be lifted by gantries, they need the ship’s cranes. Our vessels require much less draught and can go to any port if needed; there is no fixed port rotation. A 20ft or 40ft box is standard. But in heavy lift, each cargo is different and, therefore, the requirements are different. One has to see what vessel is suitable for a particular cargo. We have personal interactions with clients, which sometimes goes on for months. We also sometimes advise the clients on the final design of the unit. This is where the project carrier stands out.
Do you face any infrastructure constraints at Indian ports?
The infrastructure at Indian ports is fast improving. The only issue we currently face is congestion at a few ports. Waiting for berth adds to the cost for the shipper/consignee. Therefore, what we want is priority berthing at ports for project cargo vessels. We have taken this up with the ports.
Any policy changes that you would like the government to consider?
Like container vessels, there should be cabotage relaxation for break-bulk/project cargo ships as well. We do a lot of coastal movement on our vessels, because there are several cargoes that have to be moved by sea domestically as they cannot be moved by road due to length/height/weight of the cargo. Currently, there is a rule that for coastal movement, a foreign flag vessel has to be empty. That is a difficult demand. It is very rare that a heavy lift vessel is empty. We somehow have to plan that the vessel gets empty in the area so that it can do the coastal voyage. This adds to the cost. Hence the need for cabotage relaxation, so that the client has an option. If there is a foreign flag vessel passing by, it can be used to move coastal cargo without waiting for it to be empty.
Can you throw some light on your focus on safety?
We prepare a full operational manual that is given to the client. From a technical point of view, it describes how we have planned the loading, lashing, stowage, etc. We have safety briefings before loading and safety training for the crew. Safety is something that the industries we serve need and what our clients demand. SAL has a very low incident rate, among the best in the industry. We have all the requisite certifications and comply with all the ISM codes.
What is the purpose behind SAL holding its annual technical workshops in Mumbai?
We use it to educate the clients about the important aspects of project cargo handling and carriage; how to have a good working relationship if and when they load their cargo with us. And this can be used with regard to any shipping line. It is very broadbased. The workshops see participation from a cross-section of clients/industry.
How would you describe the role played by Sai Maritime as SAL’s agent in India and your relationship with them?
Sai Maritime has been representing us in India for 32 years now. They are more a business partner than an agent. You will not have such a long association with a business partner if you are not happy with them. We are very close to each other both at a business and personal level. There has been a lot of mutual support over the years. Both of us have grown together. Our industry is very relationship based. To have close and good friends in key markets is important. Operationally, we completely trust Sai Maritime. They have a good operations team and we have a good understanding. Our relationship has even endured the changes in ownership of SAL. That shows its strength.
Finally, what is the USP of SAL’s services and your message to the trade?
Our USP is our reliability and the quality of services that we offer. We are dependable and also flexible. We have years of experience in the Indian market and were among the first to offer heavy lift service to clients here. SAL is here for the long term and will continue offering enhanced services to the Indian trade.
Source : eximin