It can be difficult for a company to achieve leadership in its niche, but Dole Ocean Cargo Express has accomplished that hard task, Vice President of Operations Stuart Jablon says. “We’re the No. 1 carrier [in our market],” he declares, citing data from PIERS and Datamyne, and customer awards.
The Jacksonville, Fla.-based firm is a subsidiary of Dole Food Co. Inc. and provides containerized cargo shipping services to other firms. Jablon says its history goes back to the late 1800s, when Standard Fruit Co., the predecessor to Dole Food Co., began shipping bananas into North America.
Standard Food Co. was looking for ways to ship bananas cost-effectively. To do so, the company began providing cargo shipping services to other firms, as well as passenger services. While the passenger service did not continue to the modern day, the shipping of goods did.
Dole Ocean Cargo came into its own with the advent of containerization in the late 1980s, Jablon says, because containers allowed Dole to deliver goods easier. For instance, if one of its customers in Chicago wanted to ship items, “He could load [a container] at his warehouse, seal it and it would be untouched until it got to his customers in Costa Rica,” he says.
After further success, Dole Food Co. formed its Dole Ocean Cargo business in 1993 to handle the volume. Today, “We’re the No. 1 banana company in North America,” he says. Dole Ocean Cargo has a fleet of seven ships and 12,000 containers. Weekly, the vessels serve markets such as Wilmington, Del.; Port Everglades, Fla.; Gulfport, Miss.; Freeport, Texas; and San Diego, Calif.
“We handle a lot of different commodities,” Jablon says, noting that these include linerboard, beer, resins, used cars, and frozen chicken and beef. The company’s ships travel as far as Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, South America, Costa Rica and Central America.
Jablon adds that the company has achieved its leadership status by keeping focused on clients. “At the end of the day, this is a business about customer service,” he says. “You need to do what it takes to serve your customers.”
A Challenging Industry
Jablon has worked for Dole Food Co. for 23 years. “I spent the first 10 years in our Central American operations,” he recalls. “The last 14 I’ve been here in North America, [with a brief break working at another company] running the Ocean Cargo business and our North American port operations.”
He adds that he has enjoyed his time working for Dole Food Co. “This is a great company to work for,” he says. “We have a history of developing talent through both an intensive mentoring process and by giving our managers a lot of responsibility early on in their careers.
“Another great thing about this company is our culture that promotes openness and transparency,” he adds. “And finally, as someone who served in the Peace Corps, I value Dole’s demonstrated commitment to our core ethical values.”
Dole Ocean Cargo has coped with its share of challenges, including increased fuel costs. “Our margins get squeezed,” he says, noting that the firm has felt other effects from the economic recession.
“Cargo volumes have dropped because there is not [as much] consumer demand,” he explains, noting that volumes in some trade lanes have dropped 30 percent. This forces ocean carriers to charge less to transport containers in order to keep their ships full.
Additionally, after 9/11, tougher security restrictions at U.S. ports and carriers have “made it more complex,” he says. For instance, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection now requires that Dole Ocean Cargo provide it with the information from the shipping documents, for cargo screening purposes, 24-hours prior to the vessels being loaded overseas.
“This has forced shippers, including Dole, to re-structure supply chains,” he says. “Also, all cargo is now screened for radioactivity at the ports in North America. The monitors only work during certain hours, forcing us to alter the way we service our customers.”
In the past decade, Dole Ocean Cargo has implemented several terminal management software programs that make it more efficient. “That has been a tremendous boon for us,” Jablon declares.
When it first started, “We were basically doing stuff on a typewriter,” he says. “Now, people have access to our systems worldwide. Those types of things have had an effect on our efficiency and accuracy in terms of documentation and make sure our documents are correct.”
The company has kept its ships relatively current, as well. It has replaced its entire container fleet over the years, which led to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. “The energy consumption reduction is close to 50 percent of what it used to be,” he says, noting that the containers are more durable.
Each container has a refrigeration unit to keep the cargo at the required temperatures. “They are kept plugged in, either [to] on shore power or on a portable generator that is attached to the delivery truck, from harvest through to delivery to the customer,” he says. “They [save us] much more than we had anticipated.’
Jablon sees a strong future for Dole Ocean Cargo Express. Recently, its parent company signed a definitive agreement to sell its Worldwide Dole Packaged Foods group and the Dole Asia Fresh business. “We sold those for about $1.7 billion,” he says. “It’s my belief they’ll take the funds from the sale and pay off most of our debt. It should leave us with a very clean balance sheet.
“We need to start thinking about new ships and upgrades like that,” Jablon continues. “I’m hoping that with a clean balance sheet, we will be able to take on those investments.”