Local port manager turns a serious situation around for previously self-managing Svitzer Belfast.

In September 2013, a second large towage provider came to Belfast in competition with Svitzer. Literally overnight, we lost more than half of our business in Belfast Harbour. This was a loud and clear wake-up call with a single message: it’s never safe to take business for
granted. Which is apparently what happened at Svitzer’s remotely managed operations in Belfast, where relationships with key stakeholders and the wider port community had gradually weakened. The immediate cause of the wake-up call was Svitzer’s 2012 addition of a more powerful
tug, which was introduced due to local demand. The subsequent tariff increase to cover the more expensive tug was one of the reasons why some local receivers turned to the competitor.

This was the situation in March 2014 when Ita Dickson – who previously worked for the Harbour Master within the Port Operations department – was brought on board as Marine Assistant to locally manage the Belfast operation. The relationship between Svitzer and members of the port
community had become badly strained, and she immediately began to evaluate how to demonstrate our commitment to the port and its customers and how to re-engage with the wider port community. “I knew the local agents and customers before joining Svitzer and have a good relationship with a network of people within Belfast Harbour,” says Ita. “I can’t imagine how challenging this role would have been had I not had the support of many valued members of the port community.”

Despite the initial face-off, the situation soon began to improve. Svitzer’s record of reliability became apparent in light of the competitor’s significant and prolonged breakdown only three months into their new service. By recruiting a local manager and opening a small office right in the heart of the port, Svitzer has sent a clear message of commitment to the Port of Belfast, and also to its local crew. “Ita has put an enormous amount of legwork into improving communications and rebuilding relationships with the port community,” says Phil Dulson, Managing Director of North UK Operations. “Fortunately, we are now servicing almost 60% of the overall volume, which has certainly been in part due to Ita’s tenacious and dedicated approach to her new role.”

His conclusion is that there is a huge lesson to be taken away from this situation for Svitzer. Svitzer crews do a fantastic job, and rightly prioritise the safe and efficient operation of their vessels and keeping them maintained to the Svitzer standard. But just because we do not hear 
from remote operations, does not mean that there are no problems or fine details to be taken care of. “If we had someone on the ground in Belfast three years ago, we would likely have avoided this situation,” says Phil. “We should learn a serious lesson from the Belfast situation: we need to win locally. Many of the ports we operate in have a traditional way of working and a tight shipping community; we need to be part of it, day in, day out, in every port where we operate.” 

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