SOURCE: The Boston Consulting Group

The Boston Consulting Group

October 10, 2012 00:01 ET

Container Carriers Must Change Course to Restore Profitability

The Container-Shipping Industry Must Exercise Greater Discipline in Its Strategic, Commercial, and Operational Practices to Restore Profitability, a BCG Report Explains

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK--(Marketwire - Oct 10, 2012) - Container carriers can recover from the losses they suffered in recent price wars by adopting more disciplined business practices, according to a new report by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). The report, titled Charting a New Course: Restoring Profitability to Container Shipping, is being released today.

The report finds that the container-shipping industry's poor performance in 2011 and its continued struggles in 2012 are primarily the result of a self-inflicted supply-and-demand imbalance, which triggered intense competition and price wars. The report explains how the industry is harming its own economics by following misguided practices -- especially those affecting capacity and pricing decisions. The authors also discuss how other factors conspire to make profitability more elusive than in other industries and describe the challenging near-term outlook.

Fortunately, carriers have opportunities to address these challenges and improve their performance. "Carriers should not be willing to accept the volatile financial performance they have experienced in recent years," said Ulrik Sanders, a BCG senior partner and coauthor of the report. "Although it's true that carriers are exposed to market forces that make profitability hard to sustain, they can overcome these challenges by bringing the right mix of discipline and diligence to each aspect of the business." 

The report discusses a wide variety of strategic, commercial, and operational initiatives that each carrier can undertake to chart a new course -- for itself and the industry as a whole -- and offers ten imperatives for sustaining profitability. Key themes are:

  • Defining an effective strategy aimed at achieving a competitive advantage and built on shoring up key infrastructure assets, establishing stronger alliances, and selectively pursuing M&A

  • Demonstrating the value of offerings (including commodity and premium services), setting prices according to market position and customer relationships, and monetizing all service offerings

  • Rigorously managing and variabilizing costs to enable critical improvements in operational efficiency

  • Enabling informed and data-driven decisions by establishing a robust IT infrastructure, applying business and market intelligence, developing and retaining the right talent, and creating clear metrics to track performance

As the foundation for these moves, carriers must shift their mindset to apply more disciplined practices and compete selectively to ensure a profitable business. "Carriers can no longer rely on a one-size-fits-all approach," said Dinesh Khanna, a BCG partner and coauthor of the report. "They must decide how and where to compete by analyzing profit pools and the cost to serve specific markets and customers." "Ultimately, carriers must stop making decisions primarily on the basis of capacity and utilization levels," added Lars Fæste, a BCG partner and coauthor of the report. "The industry must find ways to make money in periods of excess supply by exercising all options to achieve capacity discipline. These actions include not only slow steaming, idling vessels, and scrapping tonnage but also intelligently pricing services. Additionally, carriers must not hesitate to shut down a business that doesn't deliver economic results."

A copy of the report can be downloaded at www.bcgperspectives.com.

To arrange an interview with one of the authors, please contact Eric Gregoire at +1 617 850 3783 or gregoire.eric@bcg.com.

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