Podcast

Episode 16: An insight into the shipping industry with Marina Lennie

Aug 10, 2022

Tune into the latest episode of Freight to the Point as Helena Wood is joined by Marina Lennie, Director of Ocean Planning and Pricing at Zencargo as they talk about the trends in the shipping industry.

They talk about:

  • how to deliver the best pricing for customers
  • how data and visibility can help shippers navigate the volatile market
  • the trends and risks to look out for in the rate market

Marina Lennie
Marina Lennie is the Director of Ocean Planning and Pricing at Zencargo. Marina has over 20 years of experience in the shipping space, having worked at MSC for over 10 years. She now leads the pricing team at Zencargo, and is responsible for the company’s pricing processes and strategy.

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Helena Wood Hello and welcome back to another Episode of Freight To The Point. Today, I’m absolutely thrilled to be joined by Marina Lennie, the Director of Ocean Planning and Pricing here at Zencargo. I’m a big fan of Marina, so I’m really excited to have her here today. Marina’s got over 20 years of experience in the shipping industry and before working with Zencargo, she worked with the global shipping business MSC for over 10 years. Now she leads our pricing team at Zencargo and is responsible for the company’s pricing process and strategy, which is obviously so key to what we do here. Welcome Marina, we are so excited to finally have you on the podcast.
Oh, I’m excited, can’t wait.
Marina Lennie
Helena Wood Great. Well, let’s get Freight to the Point, you’ve been with Zencargo for over six months now, but your background is more on the shipping side of the industry, having had your experience with MSC. So tell us a bit more, how did you get into shipping in the first place?
Well, it was quite a strange story actually, so back in the day I was still looking at job offers in the newspaper, and I went to a hospitality management school, so nothing to do with shipping, graduated, got the said paper and found the job advert for MSC, phoned up and was in the interview room. And it was very Italian, and everyone was so passionate about their job, and it felt like a real fit somehow, and the passion was really palpable. So I actually didn’t hesitate to just dive in, and started at the bottom in documentation, learning all about the legalities of shipping.
Marina Lennie
Helena Wood How interesting, so funny that you said that you started having done a hospitality management education. So what did you think you were going to end up doing?
I suppose managing a hotel or restaurant, or that’s the supposed path, couldn’t have been more wrong it turns out.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood How different it was, and it’s lovely to hear that experience of just really seeing proper passion about a business, and that’s so important for people in the early stage of their career.
Yeah, I can’t agree more. I think that was a huge part of why I chose it, each person that I came to speak with, especially because there’s a very strong shipping knowledge within MSC, obviously not only from its background, which is from Sorrento, and a lot of the people that I work with, I’d say the large majority had come from actually being on vessels and were ex ship captains, so the message that they’re able to put across really is full of that passion that they have had on the sea. And so they’re telling you stories about pirates and I mean it was really an amazing place to work.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood Oh, it sounds quite enrapturing, and you were there quite a long time, or a significant share of your career. So tell us a bit more about some of the highlights of your experience there and by the end of your time, what your role was, because obviously it evolved a lot from those early days in the documentation office.
It was actually quite an organic growth throughout the career. I did start off very early knowing that I wanted to work in operations, because you could tell that there was… A lot of the administration offices like documentation were a bit quieter, as you would expect an admin office to be. And then the operations office, the door was always open, you could hear people very loudly and in Italian speaking to various… To terminals and to the captains on the vessels and everything seemed so in real time, that there was a lovely element of feeling like you were actually making a difference in what was going on. Not that documentation doesn’t obviously, because all those parts are important. So very early on, I thought, “Okay, that’s where I’d really like to go”, and there were no women though there at the time.

And especially it being an Italian company, maybe even more so that there were less women there. And then slowly as time evolved, I got an opportunity to go in there because they were looking funnily enough for someone to do admin within the operations division, and so I thought, “Okay, yes, oui oui oui, I’ll go”, and there I was amidst the chaos sorting out… Although in the very early stages, I was still doing administration tasks, dealing with everything that’s to do with vessel sharing agreements, et cetera, and a lot on the phone with partners of the other shipping companies. So I also had the possibility then to grow in knowledge of also what all the other carriers were doing, and to learn more about the intricacies of how they do their collaborations and how all that’s managed behind the scenes in terms of sharing slot space, et cetera.

So that I suppose was the second step after documentation, and then I worked very closely with Neil Jones who was one of the, I guess, most important people in my career who had this great aura of always being positive, and who definitely taught me that positivity was a huge part of getting things done in the workplace. So, from there, doing those vessel sharing agreements, there was an opportunity all of a sudden to run the network of the feeders in the Baltic.

And I had gathered a bit of knowledge by sitting within that office, albeit not being within the operations division directly, so I really got thrown in deep end, which is the best way to learn. And there I was managing, I don’t know, 20 ships, 20 ports, and all the cargo going in and out of the Baltic sea, and yeah, another amazing opportunity. And I did that for a really long time and not one day did I go to work thinking, “Oh gosh, this is so dull”. And then at the very end, I was, I guess, from all that experience focused more on delivering processes and implementing all those things that I had learned and built, to spread them on a wider global level.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood

Gosh, it’s so interesting, part of me is tempted to say it’s luck, but I doubt it is Marina, because I know how talented you are, but you’ve obviously had so many opportunities in your career to be thrown into the lion’s den, only woman, maybe having not done something before, and then just having that very… Probably quite challenging at the time, but very hands on learning experience that’s taken you through your career. And here you are at Zencargo, in a different role, with a different lens on the industry. So for our listeners who don’t necessarily know what pricing at Zencargo actually means, can you tell us a bit more about what you actually do at the business?

Yeah, so actually when I initially joined Zencargo, as you remember, I was actually in charge of the procurement. And so that was a great starting place to have a feel for the relationship with the carriers and to build on those relationships, to get in a strong procurement place. And then from there, now to be able to strategise on pricing mechanisms et cetera, and on providing the best possible service through that pricing to our customers. So I suppose at the moment, pricing is very much about how you can deliver the best deal to your customer, and ensure that they get the best possible service.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood

Which is so timely, so I think about this pricing and procurement function as one of the twin engine rooms of Zencargo. On one side, you’ve got the operations function where we’re servicing our customers and working with them and looking at service delivery, and of course on the other, you’re making sure that we can procure and price and find them space. Presumably, and this is where I’d love to get your insight, that’s just been more challenging month on month on month over the last couple of years, because we’ve seen the volatility that COVID originally brought, the rates climbed and climbed and climbed in a way that nobody had expected before. And the descent from the heady heights of when COVID was at its worse has been less than smooth, can we say.

There’s been all sorts of other change, the Ukraine crisis has obviously raised its ugly head. We’ve seen other implications in terms of the global economy. So many shippers right now are actually finding things even harder than they may have been two years ago, or they’re in a continued state of pain in terms of trying to navigate the market. Can you tell us a little bit about the trends that you’re seeing, and perhaps any tips or tricks that you think will help shippers manage this never ending disruption?

Well, I think what we have learned of late with all the things that you just mentioned, and I guess the idea that it’s a non exhaustive list, right? Because each time we think one thing is over, actually something else just shows up, whether it’s the… As you mentioned, or when we saw the Suez canal stoppage or any of those elements that come and interrupt the supply chain, I think now has driven all the shippers to understand that data is a huge element for them, and that having visibility on where the cargo is and what’s happening to it and how they can contingency, et cetera, has come to play an even bigger role. Whilst as before maybe shippers were looking at schedule reliability, today they’ll be looking more carrier agility or freight forwarders’ ability to adapt to those circumstances and to react as fast as they can to ensure that the cargo is then delivered in a timely manner.

I think also shippers have understood a lot that spreading risk is key, and that can happen on different levels. It can be a question of geographical relocation of production warehouses, it can be anything to do with different suppliers in terms of carriers. So actually we propose that at Zencargo, where we are able to diversify portfolios in order to mitigate any risk that’s linked to these disruptions. I think what we can safely say is it’s not over, I don’t think it ever will be to be honest, because even when we fix, the next thing is coming, the next challenge will appear.

In fact at the moment the hot topic at least in the UK is around whether or not the Felixstowe strikes will be ongoing or not, or whether an agreement will be found early on, which we all hope there’ll be a positive outcome. But the bottom line being, nobody has a crystal ball, but what we do have is the possibility to see via data, and to manage that with agility in order to make sure that businesses are affected in the least way possible, with the least impact to their bottom lines.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood Which is really interesting, and you’ve touched on a few things there that I think we should maybe bring up. So let’s start at the top with data, because of course data’s a hot topic in the supply chain space. And I mean, it has been for years, really, that’s not a change, but I think what we see more and more is specificity around what data points shippers should be collecting or demanding from their forwarders, and how they can work with that data. So on your side of the fence, thinking about pricing and thinking about data points, what is it that you hope to see shippers collecting and what do you think the power of data is within the realm of pricing and rate strategies?

Well, the easy thing for shippers to do is look at market rates in general, there are lots of tools available to the wider market to see where rates are at and what sort of things are happening there. In house, we obviously work with Xeneta quite closely on monitoring where we are with regard to how rates are moving, and to make sure that we are following the market and being able to offer interesting options for shippers. I think in terms of collection of data on the pricing front, it’s quite difficult, because there are so many components. So many people have tried to modelise all the things that are going on in the market versus where rates are at. But when I say all those things are going on in the market, the number… There’s 5,000 data points that could go in and feed what actually impacts where the rate stands. And obviously those 5,000 items vary from anything as you mentioned to consumer demand, to capacity of vessels, to rate of congestion et cetera, and all that on a global level.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood And it’s interesting Marina that you mentioned Felixstowe, which is a topic that’s been hot off the press and it’s still bumbling around in the press, because we don’t know exactly at this point in time what’s going to happen, whether the strike will actually go through or whether they might be able to reach an agreement with their employers. But have you seen things like this happen before, and if you have, what can we expect in terms of the fallout of any industrial action like a strike, at such a major port?

Well the answer is, I wish I hadn’t seen it before. So the idea of the strike coming play in a moment where terminals are very aware that carriers have been able to make significant amounts of money during the recent years, mainly due to Covid and to the congestion that was a consequence of it. I think that if the strike goes ahead, we will be looking at significant delays. What happens generally in these situations is the yard that congests first and then impacts everything else, because there’s no containers that are delivered and that go back, and then therefore an accumulation.

It then becomes harder to bear the ships, to work the ships, actually if they even are allowed in, then it takes longer to work them, et cetera. So just as you’d imagine all those things accumulating, it domino effects onto everything around operations there. From a timeframe perspective, it’s very difficult to say because it could be that strike action is very short, that they come to an agreement early on and that therefore things can get resolved fairly quickly. From my experience, let’s say in that area, it is quite a long process, so I think it would be good anyway for people to have alternative options to delivery in Felixstowe, if they haven’t already looked into those.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood That makes a lot of sense. I should, just in case anyone is listening to this and things are imminently about to happen or there’s been a time lag, I would encourage any listeners to speak to their freight forwarder, if you’re a Zencargo customer, get in touch, because there are lots of things that we are prepared to do and are looking to do with our customers to help them mitigate what might happen or make sure that this has the least possible measurable impact on your business and on your current shipments. Super interesting Marina, I’d like to move a little bit more onto thinking about the rates market, but also I know we’re not really meant to, but I’m going to get my crystal ball out again, because we can’t resist doing it. So tell me, there’s been loads of change, are there any particular risks that you think shippers should be aware of, or that they should be preparing for, particularly as it pertains to rates?
I think that obviously again, difficult to say, because no crystal ball. What we are seeing at the moment is that rates are dropping, everyone’s been able to witness that recently. Due to multiple factors again, because it’s never just the one, related initially to decongestion of ports that was finally, slowly becoming more fluid, but already we’ve seen it pick up again slightly. So, in the Far East, and slightly in the Northwest continent as well, so it’s not going to be plain sailing and there won’t be I think one tendency in terms of where the rates are going, what we are seeing is that customers are less inclined to look very far ahead, obviously because the amount of elements that’s undefined is rather large and therefore doesn’t seem like a good time to go for the longer term rates.

But customers who did go there earlier on are maybe more comfortable as they had secured their rates. What I would say is that the best thing to do is speak to someone who’s very in the know about where things are at and where things are going, and to be sure to remember that element of diversification, not only within carrier, but also within rate typology within your portfolio, to ensure that you minimise risk and maximise service.

Marina Lennie

So partnering up with hopefully as your freight forwarder, maybe you’ve got relationships that you can leverage to get the best insight to what’s going on in the market, and to put together a strategy that might take from each of the different rate options and packages that are available to suit your needs, because we are seeing many, many customers, and you’ll know this who are putting a large share of their shipments on long term contracts, because they feel really confident in the space and the equipment that that guarantees them. But they’re maybe allowing themselves some leverage to work the spot market if it gives them opportunities to move goods at a better rate in the short term, or something that can help them achieve some business goals.

Helena Wood Which makes so much sense, and I will sound like a parrot of your phrasing, that we talk a lot about diversifying your rate strategy here at Zencargo, you’re not alien to it, our listeners probably aren’t alien to it, but it really is the case that right now, trying to make long term bets and trying to play the short term market is a lot to handle. And the reality is unless you are incredibly close to the market as a shipper, and let’s say you’re in a business, it’s hard to make the decisions on your own.
Yeah, a hundred percent, and also with the changeover of this, so this year there’s going to be new regulations from the IMO that’ll come into play in terms of emissions, et cetera. Everyone’s braced and waiting to see what effect that will have, what carriers have done to comply with that, is that they’ve got a lot of incoming capacity. Obviously that means if there’s more supply, generally what happens is that the rates would be looking at further decrease. So it’s definitely a question of watch this space and speak to an expert.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood It’s tough times to be in this industry, isn’t it, my heart goes out to many people sitting, having to go through these challenging times after years of challenging times. I think there’s probably a lot of fatigue in this space, and a lot of people who are finding it quite a slog, one thing after the next. Are you seeing that as you look into the industry and you think about your peers or anyone you’re speaking to?

I think there’s a very big form of resilience within the shipping industry in general and freight forwarding and anyone in the supply chain, where each time each phase of… Each period of time in recent years has come with its own challenges and its own set of things to face. And it has built a resilience from all the people or at least all the people that I’ve worked closely with, where you can see that there’s one goal and that’s to improve. And I think that if we’re able to deliver improvement, there is a strong probability that we can help customers feel supported in trying to deliver that improvement.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood
That’s a really tricky question, it feels like there’s enough disruptions as it is if I’m honest, but if I did have to single out the one thing, I think that more transparency in terms of all these new fuels, et cetera, would be welcome. You see a lot, it’s obviously all over the press, you can read up on what all the carriers are doing in terms of being greener et cetera, but there’s also a certain level of, or to be aware of, the difference between what’s said and what’s actually happening. So it’s great, everyone looks like they have all these amazing plans and that we are moving forward to something greener, which we are, and I’m not putting that back on… But if you ask anyone today where we’re at, it’s very difficult to get a very honest opinion from anyone.

So we’re lucky enough to have insight and all those relationships with carriers whereby we’re now very much aware of what products are available and what they actually mean and what impact they actually have on shippers carbon footprint, but I think in general for the market, there’s a bit of a lack of transparency on that. So yes, maybe someone has ordered this amazing ship, maybe they’ve deployed it, but maybe no one has mentioned that it’s a hybrid vessel and it’s actually running on another type of fuel, for example. So I think that for the general public, it would be nice to have more insight on that.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood It’s really interesting, it’s an interesting take, because of course sustainability is such an understandable and important objective and goal right now, but what I’m hearing and what you’re saying is it’s not simple, probably unsurprising, and that there are different routes to get there and maybe we’re not seeing the truth of exactly how that’s happening from some instances.
I don’t think it’s so much not seeing the truth, it’s not … We’re not allowed access to said truth. When I say we, at large, obviously because we have more in depth investigations and perhaps experts have more in depth knowledge on the topic, they know what questions to go and ask. And therefore if you’re looking for a green product and you’re talking to someone at Zencargo you’ll have more visibility on what’s actually happening. If you’re a general market consumer and you’re just looking at what’s happening and you’re reading in the press, you could read up and think, “Oh wow, that’s an amazing product”, but not actually have the entirety of the story.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood Marina, I want to hear a bit more about you and about your stories, because I’m guessing you’ve already hinted at the days of MSC, you’ve hinted at the control room, everyone shouting on the phone, the passion, the breadth of your responsibility when you’re responsible for a number of vessels and a number of ports. So you know that at Zencargo, we talk about ship happens moments, which ship happens moments do you want to share with our listeners?
Oh, that’s a big book. I guess I’ll go for one, I guess just again, to illustrate what we were talking about earlier, where it’s literally impossible to predict what’s going happen, and therefore the best thing you can do is be best prepared for the idea that you don’t know what’s going to happen next. So I’m going to use the example of the US sanctions in 2014, so overnight we woke up the next morning and there were sanctions on certain products going into Russia. So what does that mean? You get into the office, all the phones are ringing, obviously I was in charge of the body which incorporates St. Petersburg up at the top there, and I think the level of anxiety of the unknown you have for about five minutes, and then you get so much adrenaline from knowing that you now need to have an action plan and implement it ASAP.

We had to go through what had been sanctioned, understand how much of the cargo on the water was involved, ensure that it didn’t go into Russian territorial waters, which means finding somewhere to discharge it. But at the same time, not stop Russia from exporting anything, so Natalia and I, a colleague of mine at the time who was working in Russia and I, went through the bills of lading by hand, because actually on bills of lading, there’s an HS code, which generally incorporates whatever’s defined with what’s in the container. Then there’s also a short description field that can be free text, and sometimes there’s not always a match between those two things and that can’t be defined by a computer. So it was a double check on is there any milk powder on this vessel and do we need to divert it, and what should we do and how should we do it and will the cargo get resold.

And all those things, and you have such a short timeframe to do that and to deliver and to ensure that your relationship with the terminal who’s expecting the ship is still on track, and that there’s no… So it was a lot of phoning and negotiating and minimising all the impact on the frontline, that actually went very successfully, definitely a team effort, but a combination of stress and delivering an outcome that is typical in shipping. And actually that’s what makes it exciting, being able to deliver things and to come out at the end of it, thinking, “Wow, we did a really good job”.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood That sounds like an extremely high pressured day and series of days, but great to work with someone through it. And what are the stories that… I bet you’ve got some that when you are with friends or you’re around the dinner table that make you have a giggle about this space, that make you reflect on your own experiences.

Yeah, I think the one that makes my friends laugh the most is my experience onboard the container ship at sea, and traveling through the ice on a ship with a crew of 28 men going through all… So, generally a lot of those anecdotes on having to put on an immersion suit and then someone keep telling you that if you wear more layers of socks, you increase your chances of survival and all those sorts of things, those are generally the ones that catch people’s attention.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood And how many pairs of socks does one need to wear to ensure survival in that scenario?
Well, the suggestion is all the ones you brought with you.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood All of them? For warmth or for…

Yes, that’s apparently it, that was part of my brief.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood Well, listeners, you heard it here, wear all your socks.
And actually a lot of the sentences ended with, “To increase your chances of survival, do…” So and so. Some were socks, some were, hold your head when you jump in, if you’re… I mean, a lot. When you question why you would have to do that, is it to keep it on, is it… Because you’re jumping feet first.
Marina Lennie
Helena Wood Gosh, how long were you on that vessel for?
Oh, that particular ice one, it was five days.
Marina Lennie
Helena Wood Gosh, how interesting. I’d love to do something like that.
Oh, it’s very exciting until you’re lying in your cabin, in your cabin bed and then the loud speaker comes on and someone very stern is speaking and it’s all in Russian, and you’re wondering, “I wonder if he’s saying abandon ship or”…
Marina Lennie
Helena Wood Maybe it was sweet dreams and you just couldn’t tell.
Yes, maybe… 46,000 tons of goods traveling across the water and you are on it, and you think, “Hmm, feels heavy”.
Marina Lennie
Helena Wood I can only imagine, I can only imagine. And you’ve hinted at a few people Marina, you’ve mentioned a couple of names, but something that we always talk about in this podcast is around being gracious and thankful and appreciative of all the amazing people that we have the opportunity to work with, because of course supply chain is an incredibly human and connected network, as much as it is an industry of equipment and goods and heavy vessels and containers. So who in your career do you want to call out and thank that’s had a huge influence on getting to this point.
I think numerous, obviously the obvious one would be Mr. Aponte who runs MSC, and who is I think one of the most amazing people ever, in running this global shipping line and yet meeting you in the corridor and saying… He knows your name and there’s a very strong importance of people mentality thing in place. So I think… And also he has such a good work ethic, where he’s there all day, and so he’s leading by example, and just a very, very nice person. So I think he would probably be the person who set my standard high and who I felt was a… I think saying was a role model feels a bit understated, but definitely someone that I looked up to.

I think Captain de Maio who was with me when I was doing the Baltic sea, and so obviously having thrown me in the deep end had to be not so far behind to ensure that I was at least in the beginning taking the right actions for problems. It’s really difficult to call out all the port captains that I work with all over the world, because they are the people who get your call in the middle of the night. If there’s a crane breakdown, they have to ring you and we have to talk about the contingency, and so you build a relationship that’s… It can’t be non-personal at one point. I think I have a huge closeness with all the people that I’ve worked with during my career and already even the stint at Zencargo, a lot of support and closeness for that team effort vibe.

Marina Lennie
Helena Wood Amazing, what a lovely long list and some really interesting anecdotes, I love the relationship with the captains and the hands on side of things, it’s really fascinating. Well, Marina, it’s been such a joy speaking to you. We’ve got one more segment of our podcast, which is our quickfire question round. I’ve got a handful of questions, you’ve not seen them before, so we only need one or two word answers and there is no correct answer, so there’s no pressure on you, but we’d love to hear your take, so I hope you are ready and on the edge of your seat.
My pleasure, Helena. Thanks for having me.
Marina Lennie
Helena Wood Amazing, what a lovely long list and some really interesting anecdotes, I love the relationship with the captains and the hands on side of things, it’s really fascinating. Well, Marina, it’s been such a joy speaking to you. We’ve got one more segment of our podcast, which is our quickfire question round. I’ve got a handful of questions, you’ve not seen them before, so we only need one or two word answers and there is no correct answer, so there’s no pressure on you, but we’d love to hear your take, so I hope you are ready and on the edge of your seat.
Do I get a buzzer?
Marina Lennie
Helena Wood No, but you can buzz yourself if you would like to, no obligation. Question number one, would you recommend to shippers that they build their supply chain for resilience or agility?
I would definitely say agility, but it doesn’t mean I want to eliminate the other one.
Marina Lennie
Helena Wood You’ve gone with agility, we’re going to have to take it as your answer. Next question, if you could work at any port, where would you like that to be?
Ooh, I would probably say Felixstowe because it’s got a really amazing bunch of people, despite the strike that might be imminent.
Marina Lennie
Helena Wood Great, can you describe the market conditions today in three words?
Unpredictable, chaotic, exciting.
Marina Lennie
Helena Wood Love that. And if you can go back and you could talk to Marina right back at the beginning of her career, when she was just starting out, what would you tell her?
That she should rely more on people around her, because I think I walked into there thinking I’m the only woman here and I’m going to have to set the bar high, collaboration is key.
Marina Lennie
Helena Wood Collaboration is key, that’s a lovely point to end on. Well Marina, thank you so much for all of your fantastic contributions today and thank you to all of our guests for tuning into our episode this week. If anyone’s got any feedback on this episode, please do reach out to us on LinkedIn, if you’ve got questions for me or for Marina, we’d love to answer them. And please don’t forget to like, subscribe and share this podcast. Similarly, if you would like to join us on any future episodes, get in touch, we’d love to have you on board. But until next time it’s a huge thank you to Marina, a huge thank you from me and goodbye.