Good morning, Luis. Thank you for taking part in this project. First off, who are you, and what do you do?
I am a vessel agent based in Santos, Brazil, representing the Unimar Shipping Agency.
Could you explain the role of a vessel agent?
Before a vessel arrives in a port to load or discharge cargo, the owner or operator must nominate a vessel agent to take care of all the formalities while the ship is in port.
The agency is usually a full agency where the agent looks after the interests of both the vessel owner and the charterer. From time to time, the ship owner will not be comfortable using the charterer’s agent and will appoint a protective agent to look after his interests. We call this a “protecting agent.”
Vessel agents are responsible for handling all the vessel’s necessary documentation for the health authorities, the federal police, and customs. The port or local authorities have no direct contact with the vessel owner or operator. Everything must go through the agent.
Vessel agents also look after the embarkation and disembarkation of the crew. Everything related to the vessel comes under the agent’s umbrella.
The agent is legally responsible for the vessel while it is in the port or on the roads. If, for example, the ship leaks oil into the port, the agent is legally responsible for the damage. I have known cases where vessel agents are fined or arrested for problems with ships.
The vessel agent is an essential part of the chain. A ship that sits in port makes no money, and there must be no delays. We must handle everything quickly and efficiently.
Do you have to provide food for the crew and fuel for the vessel?
The vessel owners usually have their preferred suppliers, but the suppliers need to go through the vessel agent. The same applies to cargo supervision companies. Everything related to the vessel passes through the agent, including cargo loading, supervision, and documentation.
What’s the difference between a vessel agent and a port agent?
It’s the same thing, but with two different names.
You mentioned that a vessel agent is legally responsible for the vessel while it is in port. Can you get liability insurance?
How many vessel agents operate in Brazil or Santos? Is there a lot of competition?
Yes, there is a lot of competition. I don’t have the exact number, but there are many, both big and small.
Why would a client choose you rather than another? What are the differentiators?
Information is one differentiator. We provide statistics and market-relevant information, such as vessel line-ups. Traders and analysts use them to track fundamental flows around the world.
Service quality is another differentiator. We try to provide our clients with the best service possible – consider it the difference between flying Ryan Air and Swiss. Remember, time is money, and efficiency is everything.
And then, we build personal relationships with our clients over the years. These relationships are based on trust – trust that we will do an excellent job for our clients.
Do agents compete on cost, or is there a standard cost per vessel?
There is a standard cost, but some agents might offer discounts or rebates to loyal clients or tempt clients to try out their service. We don’t do that as we prefer to differentiate ourselves on quality rather than price. You usually get what you pay for in life.
You mentioned vessel line-ups. How do you put those together?
A vessel line-up is a list of the vessels nominated to load or already loading in the port. It includes the type of commodity, the name of the shipper – the trader – and the declared destination for that cargo. We don’t have any information as to the sales price of the shipment.
Analysts find line-ups helpful in tracking the quantity of a commodity that exporting country ships – and hence, how much is left to ship from the harvest – and the amount a destination country imports.
Of course, the vessel may not end up in the declared destination and might be resold or traded to another destination once it has left the load port, but traders can track the vessel using various tracking services.
We put the line-ups together from both public and private information. Whenever a vessel is nominated to a port, it is declared to the authorities. That information is in the public domain.
The Santos vessel agents meet regularly to coordinate the vessels they manage, and we often share information about where our ships are going. Not everyone wants to share. In addition to our weekly meetings, we also share information electronically.
You live and work in Santos, the biggest commodity port in Brazil, in terms of volume.
Santos started as a coffee port. It is the biggest port in Latin America. Brazil has about 35 sugar and grains terminals; twelve are in Santos.
From January to November this year (2022), Santos exported 81 mln mt of beans, 30.8 mln mt of corn, and 21.9 mln mt of sugar. Santos shipped 131 mln mt of beans, corn, wheat, rice, and sugar in eleven months.
Does that include containers?
No, it is just bulk.
Container shipments have declined since the pandemic hit. Container rates skyrocketed during Covid with a lot of boxes stuck in ports. Shippers responded to these higher rates by moving from containers to breakbulk shipments – bagged commodities transported in bulk vessels. Even coffee exporters began shipping in small breakbulk vessels. In the past, they transported coffee in containers.
Markets are constantly changing. Container rates fell in the 2000s, and sugar exporters shifted massively from breakbulk to containers. They closed or dismantled their bag-loading terminals. This situation has now reversed.
I have read about drug traffickers breaking into containers at Santos and putting drugs in them. Is that an issue?
It is a problem, not just in Santos but in all ports worldwide. Exporters now use dogs to search for drugs in containers before they load them onto vessels. It should alleviate the problem.
What is it like being a vessel agent?
Hard work! Except for 1st January each year, ports never stop. Ports work 24/7, and so do we.
Our senior controllers work regular office hours from eight to six, but we also have a night shift when junior staff man the phones and emails.
We usually handle more than one vessel at a time, which can sometimes be quite stressful. Technology has made our lives easier. Everything is linked electronically to the Brazilian health, police, port, and customs systems. In the past, we physically had to go to the various authority buildings with the paper documents, but now we file everything electronically.
There are heavy fines if we do not complete the information correctly or on time.
What is your biggest challenge as an agent?
The big trading companies are setting up or acquiring vessel agents to handle their business. ADM, Cargill, and Bunge have their own agency companies, leaving less for independent agencies like us. We must compete hard for business.
How did you get into the business?
I started with a container shipping company and worked in London for a long time. In 1994, Wilson & Sons approached me to build an agency business around sugar. I travelled back and forth to Europe, particularly London, commercializing the service. I knew we had to provide a better service than our competitors. It wasn’t easy, but we quickly built the business. I joined Unimar in 2009.
You are a native of Santos. Was your family involved in shipping?
No, my family had nothing to do with shipping or commodities. I was the only one.
You had just completed an endurance event in the Amazon jungle when I first met you.
Yes, I participated in the Adventure Races endurance events for three years before I injured myself. The longest I did was 300km – a mixture of cycling, running, hiking, and canoeing – often over 48 hours. We competed in a team of either two or four people. We had to be self-supporting. Things began to get serious when our team won a 220km event. We also did 260km in 36 hours, which was fast.
It was my way to boost adrenaline as you must push yourself. I love being in nature. Competing in these events was an excellent way to be outside. I found it relaxing.
Did you ever get lost?
Yes. I was lost in the jungle for more than a day. I was in a team of two, and we eventually stumbled on a highway and got out. It was interesting.
Did you panic?
No, I was more frustrated that we were out of the race. We had trained so hard for it. We had enough food and water. We were well equipped. In the end, I lost the race but not my integrity.
When I first met you, you also worked with the local schools.
I still do. I started a social project in Santos in 2008, teaching English to underprivileged children. I also teach classes on the environment and biodiversity.
In 2012, I purchased six cameras on a trip to Japan and began teaching photography to 15–18-year-olds on Saturday mornings. We had to stop it during the pandemic, but we are now preparing to restart the classes. It is a great programme – a big success. Some of the kids I taught now work as photographers.
In 2016, a contact at National Geographic asked me to extend the programme to Mozambique. I went there with my six cameras and two of my former students. We taught 24 kids over two weeks, each week with twelve kids with one camera for two kids. A Geneva company sponsored the cost.
Last July, one of my former students in Mozambique messaged me to tell me he now works as a photographer and is training to be a tracker for National Geographic. He sent me some of his photographs. It made me cry with happiness.
National Geographic has published your photographs. How did that come about?
I attended a National Geographic seminar in Portugal, where I talked to one of their editors and showed her my work. She asked me to upload some of my African pictures to their photo bank, and they published some in their magazine. They only pay you if they publish the photo. You don’t get paid for contributing pictures to their photo bank.
In 2019, I went to Mongolia for a solo photo expedition, and they published some photos I took there. They have also published some photos I took in the Brazilian jungle during Covid when I couldn’t travel abroad. I haven’t been to Africa since pre-Covid, but I will soon go back.
I hear you also organize group tours.
Yes, but only private groups of three to six people. Everyone must help with the cooking and the tents and follow the “no-talking” rule. It is for people that want the experience.
What is the secret behind a good photo? Is it patience, light, luck, or equipment?
It is a mixture of all four, but patience is the key to wildlife photography. When you do photography in a studio, you can do it repeatedly until you get it right. When you are in the bush, you often only get one shot. Some things can help, like not taking showers or wearing perfume – and not talking!
The first photo of mine that National Geographic published was of a leopard in Namibia. I stayed two days under a tree with that leopard – two days with only the food and water I had. She was a young female who had killed a springbok and hauled the carcass into a tree. I named her Kika.
Have you ever had a frightening moment on a photo safari – attacked by lions or elephants?
A lion passed close behind me once when I was in Botswana. I didn’t move. Bad things can happen, and you must respect certain limits and rules.
OK, that’s all the questions I have about you and the business of being a vessel agent. Is there any message you would like to give a young person thinking about a career in our industry?
Am I allowed four messages?
I think these four messages apply to all young people regardless.
First and most important: never stop dreaming.
Second: whatever you do, do it with passion.
Third: constantly reinvent yourself and adapt as the world changes around you.
Fourth: always look for ways to grow personally and professionally.
I love what I do, even in difficult moments.
Thank you, Luiz!
This conversation is part of the Commodity Professions – The People Behind the Trade series.
© Commodity Conversations ® 2022