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BIG INTERVIEW: New era as green is the new black for Humber port giant

GRIMSBY and Immingham’s new port manager has told how a focus on customer service is helping the dual port complex deliver growth in new areas as it recovers from the dramatic drop-off in coal.

BIG INTERVIEW: New era as green is the new black for Humber port giant

Mark Frith has arrived from an international career with DHL, via a two year stint in Port of Hull, to take the helm of the jewel in Associated British Ports’ crown.

Now, having got to grips with the estate and all it offers, he is setting a course based on strong principals engrained in him through his previous employer, while working for a business that makes a huge difference.

“In terms of business, we are really excited about Immingham,” Mr Frith said. “ I think by enhancing the customer service side it will allow us to bring in additional cargo.

“We have seen this in two areas in particular, containers and in the bulk business.

“In containers, A2B has sent an additional service and others are asking if we can fit them in. Service has improved and changed dramatically, and we are seen as a port that is reliable.

“There are two distinct types of container business, deep sea and short sea, and it is the short sea container market we are capitalising on. The short sea market is improving, we have the additional service and a lot more containers. We are trying to be as amenable as we can so we can be successful in Europe. A2B is the biggest customer for containers, and we are making sure we understand the business as if they are successful, we will be. We are looking at the model in Europe and Scandinavia.”

To aid this process ABP is ensuring it isn’t just the commercial team, those winning the business, that deal with the client.

“Some operations managers are getting in front of the customers, owning the relationship, and it is not just being seen as a sales team role,” Mr Frith said. “They take ownership themselves and are gaining customer confidence.

“We are instilling that in container and bulk. It is part of that reliability, that they can send ships and cargo confidently. “We are getting in front of customers and having a conversation to say exactly what we can do.

“Containers and bulk, they are Immingham’s two success stories and I don’t see that changing.”

There was a wave of caution before Mr Frith crossed the Humber, but the ripple of concern has calmed sufficiently in an in industry often used as a barometer for the economic outlook.

“There was the initial worry with Brexit, but from conversations I have had with customers, that has died down, and it is a case of business as usual,” he said. “Confidence is high on the port in terms of what we want to achieve. It is all about understanding the customer’s business and working with the customer.”

For an example of that, we need look no further than the £130 million Immingham Renewable Fuels Terminal, built to feed the change in raw material at the UK’s largest power station. It is a vast addition of silos and automated conveyors, linking up state-of-the-art cranes with rail loading facilities. While Drax is the end recipient, the loss of use of the black stuff isn’t limited to that conversion, as other power stations in the wider region have been mothballed.

“We won’t find that X million tonnes of cargo needed to replace what was coal,” Mr Frith said. “Energy policy has dictated that, but we will probably be the last man standing for coal. We are looking at different types of cargoes that can replace what coal once was. We do have a business strategy for the next five years, looking at specific cargo, specific customers and trade lanes.”

Immingham’s development as a serious port was chiefly to support the roll-out of the industrial revolution further afield, as coal was exported to power economies elsewhere.

Now a green energy push is transforming the area, and Grimsby is established as an operations and maintenance cluster.

“Operations look really impressive in Grimsby,” Mr Frith said. “The whole concept of the Humber being the Energy Estuary helps, and it helps from a Northern Powerhouse standpoint and also repositions the area as well. The investment by ABP and Siemens, what Centrica, Dong Energy and others are doing in Grimsby can only be beneficial to the Humber Estuary.

“It does attract a lot of attention, and the media coverage given to the Humber has been particularly good. It has inspired a lot of companies to look at the Humber as a destination. We are geographically facing the right way!”

There has been a focus on making the port investor-ready of late, with old buildings no longer fit for purpose razed to the ground, underlining the development opportunities that exist around the port.

“Grimsby is going to feature quite heavily in our five year plan,” Mr Frith said.

Dong Energy’s expansion on the Royal Dock and the Marine Control Centre emerging there are major investments happening now, and while the port management team now sits in Immingham – a practical step considering size – there is a clear focus on both.

“Immingham is four times the size of Hull which ever way you look at it, tonnage, road movements, people, it is a huge difference - I look back now and wonder what I did in Hull,” he jokes.

From York, he went to university in Leeds then immediately joined DHL in Bahrain. “It was aircraft, airports and containers. The principles of that are no different to what happens in a sea port,” he said.

He spent six years in the Persian Gulf, before posts in Las Vegas, California, Miami and Barbados, ending up managing western Canada operations, where he envisaged himself retiring.

Having been approached by a Humber-based recruitment agency about the Hull role in 2014, he researched the company and the area, coming over with his wife. Within hours of touching down back in Canada, his mind was made up and the offer came in.

“I had learned about the company, what it did for the economy, I knew I would be part of something that was more than just a job,” Mr Frith said. “DHL provided a service, as does ABP, and it helps the economy. Without the port sector the economy behind the quay wall starts to suffer. It is more than just a job for me, and it was a big reason for me to return.”

Safety is at the fore too. 

“We are the biggest port in the UK we have embraced the Associated British Ports Beyond Zero campaign, which rightly says that everyone can and should go home in a better state than they arrived.

“Before I would have questioned how that was possible in such a heavy industrial setting, with wagons and cranes, but I genuinely believe it can be achieved if the mindset is there.”

A team of 500 work on the South Bank, and there are 2,500 wagon movements daily, with 53 million tonnes handled in 2016. “We are looking at Immingham, the flow of goods, of traffic, and how it can be as smooth as possible,” said Mr Frith, who wants to ensure the port is at the centre of the community too.

“I really like the community spirit the town has, I have been blown away by it,” he said. “I am building a solid relationship with the Mayor of Immingham, Stewart Swinburn, the local authority and other organisations.

“There is a lot we can do to support the area, being the organisation we are. We want to be completely open to education, to the community, and we want to support the community too.”

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