Estefania Gallo-Prot Swarovski

Good afternoon, Estefania. Could you please tell me a little about your current role?

I work for Fracht, a Swiss freight forwarder, and I’m in charge of anything related to ocean freight for the company. Fracht is big on general cargo, everything moved in containers, but is an expert on project cargo shipments, which is all the cargo that doesn’t fit into a container, such as generators, turbines, super modules, entire plants (energy plants, for example), etc. Fracht has just been awarded “Project Logistics Provider of the Year 2023” at the Heavy Lifts Awards.

I am the VP of the Ocean Product for North America, and my role is mainly creating and developing relationships with the ocean carriers. It involves finding the best rates in the short term and developing a strategy in the long term. How can we grow our business with each carrier – and which ones do we want to work with? I have a team of nine people in the market, quoting for business. We only focus on significant business opportunities.

How big is Fracht in the agricultural trade?

We move thousands of containers of peanuts, animal feed, lactose powder, whey powder, milk, soybeans, cotton, and other food products. The margins are so thin in the sugar business that there isn’t much room for a freight forwarder. I’m helping one of my ex-colleagues in Cargill, moving sugar and grains, but it’s challenging because the margin is so thin.

The shipping lines quote special rates for the agriculture business. They have specialized teams working on some commodities and are reluctant to quote to a Freight Forwarder on the business. Carriers don’t like sugar because it’s heavy and doesn’t pay much, but they do carry it and reserve space for it at specific rates.

It is not just a question of margins. The big trading companies have contracts with the carriers and do not need a forwarding company like us.

I remember that, at one stage, carriers offered negative rates for sugar containers because the vessels needed it for ballast.

Carriers don’t use containers for ballast. They have their own ballast systems.

There was a time pre-pandemic when carriers suffered financially and took any cargo they could get. So yes, some carriers needed cargo to fill their vessels and were aggressive with their rates, sometimes offering negative rates. The wheel turned during COVID-19 when space was limited. It was complicated to move heavy cargo such as sugar during the Pandemic.

Fracht is a private Swiss company founded in 1955 and still owned by the family. In that sense, it is like Cargill, which is also family-owned. Do you find similarities between the two companies?

Not really. I find more similarities between Fracht and MSC, where I started my career. Cargill is family-owned, but it is a big machine, and you never get to see the family. At Fracht, I talk regularly with the owner and update him on the business. It would never happen in Cargill.

But there are other advantages to working at Cargill. It is like a university in ag trading. I learned a tremendous amount while I was there. I started in my mid-20s and took every learning opportunity, such as courses, cross-training, and seminars Cargill offered. I’m very grateful for that experience because it changed how I think.

In what way?

I learned to keep an open mind when reading a market and never take anything as given. I’m teaching my team to read the market in the same Cargill way.

I owe a big thank-you to the great Cargill traders I worked with. They said, “Stephie, you must see this as an opportunity, so take all the information and then bet on your view.”

I hope he won’t mind me mentioning his name, but Alex Eito, one of my managers, pushed me to progress. He said, “Stephie, please organize a meeting, and you’ll explain to everyone how trading works.” I was surrounded by traders, and he wanted me to explain how trading works!

I said, “Alex, please do not do this to me.” He replied, “You can do it. Just explain to them how you prepare the position and how futures work.”

I didn’t sleep for three nights; it was terrible. But Alex told me it is the best way to learn. And he was right. He was pushy when I worked with him, sending me to the fire. And he was always saying, “What I’m doing with you, I want you to do it with others. When you are the expert, I want you to take the time to teach them.”

I kept those words like a tattoo. And I’m doing it. I’m passionate about being a mentor for people.

Tell me about your team.

Most of my team were green beans when I hired them. I like to hire people when I see a certain attitude in them, a mix of ambition and curiosity. I prefer that to someone who comes with a long resume.

We have a service centre in Argentina with 16 employees. I hired most of them. One of them was a sommelier. The other one was a mom at school who I met at Disney. I saw that thing in her. She’s the best lady we have. I took the time to train them, to pass on my knowledge and do what I now call “an Alex Eito”.

I tell them, “I cannot attend that meeting. Please go and present.” They answer, “Oh, my God. You can’t be serious.” But they do it. It’s what I enjoy the most about my work: seeing how they grow and thrive.

How long were you with MSC?

I started on the cruise side, where I spent two years before moving onto the cargo side for three years. I have a connection with the MSC family through my godmother, and I married one of MSC’s trade managers when I was nineteen.

Where are you now?

I am currently in Buenos Aires, but my job is based in Miami. My daughter was born in Geneva, but we moved to Argentina when I divorced. She was 13. She fell in love with Argentina, and I cannot persuade her to move. She’s 19 now and studying at the university here. Fracht kindly allows me to split my time between BA and Miami.

Where did you go after MSC?

I left MSC in 2010 and went to work in private banking for HSBC Geneva in their Argentina team. I jumped onto the opportunity when it arose. I was eager to learn about finance, but I hated it.

I remember one night, frustrated, I came back home, and I said, well if I’m going to change jobs, I better choose this time rather than let the job choose me. I lived across the street from Cargill. I went onto their website and found a job offer that suited my resume. I applied and got it. It was a game-changer for me. I stayed with Cargill for seven years, including my time with Alvean, their sugar joint venture.

Did you go to university?

Yes, but, as I said, I married young and never finished my degree. I regretted it for many years. I had always been top of my class at school, and my teachers had big expectations for my university and academic career. But life, as they say, had other plans for me. Now, I have no regrets. MSC, Cargill and Fracht proved to be better than any university.

When I joined Fracht, they told me that many top managers in the company don’t have a university degree, so welcome to our family. They trusted me so much that I just flew.

I was hung up for a long time because I hadn’t finished my university degree and lacked self-confidence. I needed approval to think that I was good, that I was smart, that I was capable. It would have been better if I had worked on that earlier to understand my capabilities better.

What did you learn from the Pandemic?

I learned a lot during the Pandemic. I learned to be flexible, adapt to new market conditions, and make fast decisions.

Many of the container carriers were almost bankrupt before the Pandemic. Now, they are billionaires and don’t know what to do with their money. The Pandemic taught them how to be profitable.

Right now, they don’t have cargo. What are they doing? They are reducing capacity. They prefer to stop a vessel rather than to have too much space and run the ship at a loss.

How do container companies manage stacking and shipping all those thousands of containers? Do they use complex computer algorithms or artificial intelligence?

The carriers’ planning departments use programs where they see each box’s weight and content and decide where to put it in the stowing plan. I imagine they use artificial intelligence.

The carriers allocate vessels to optimize their trades, and most make fast decisions, moving vessels from one route to the other to cope with demand and be as profitable as possible.

The operators look after the boxes and the stowing plans, and the stevedores follow the plan. You could consider each vessel like building a house. The architect gives the instructions to the building teams. It’s the same thing.

How do you track your containers?

Some carriers now offer a GPS service, but there are already a lot of systems tracking each container. For example, Fracht has a system that uses satellite information. It allows us to follow hour by hour where each container is.

There are various companies which track every container. You also have forwarders that put a device inside the container at the origin and take it out at the destination. So, there are a lot of solutions.

Do containers sometimes get lost – like luggage at an airport?

Rarely, although we now have two containers in India for a year and a half. They were supposed to go to Minnesota, but the carrier mistakenly sent them as empties to India. I have lost containers only three times in my 19-year career.

Traders sometimes complain about containers being left behind at the port. Does that happen often?

It happens often and was the new normal during the Pandemic, where the containers would be rolled 4-5 times if not more.

There are various reasons why a vessel might leave a container behind.

One would be if the vessel arrives late to a port. Vessels have certain hours agreed with each port, and they must leave by a specific time to reach the next port and maintain a reliable schedule. So, let’s say a vessel was supposed to have 10 hours in port, but because of bad weather or whatever reason, it arrived late and only had 3 hours. The ship must cut and run to the next port, even if it leaves cargo behind.

The second reason will be when carriers are overbooked. Sometimes, they are 30, 40 per cent overbooked. It’s not happening now, but it used to occur during the Pandemic. The world went wild. Everybody was moving cargo, and there was not enough capacity.

The third reason could be a last-minute change of schedule, or maybe your cargo is too heavy, and the vessel is too low in the water. If it is, the ship will leave heavy cargo behind. As sugar is heavy, it is often the first cargo to get left behind,

I’ve read quite a bit about drug traffickers using containers. Is that a significant problem?

I saw it while working in sugar, moving containers from Brazil, but I haven’t seen it since.

Have you ever had containers washed off a ship?

It has never happened to me, but it can occur when there are big storms; it is usually a lashing problem. You will understand why if you have seen a video of a vessel going through a storm. So, you had better hope that your container is not the one at the top.

At Fracht, we move around 70,000 containers a year, and it has never happened. At Cargill, we were shipping approximately 45,000 containers a year. It never happened.

How do you manage the stress and maintain an acceptable work/life balance? You’ve got a daughter in Argentina, you’re based in Miami, you’ve moved a lot. How do you cope with that all?

It’s not easy; it’s challenging. Things are better now, but we lived through a crazy time between 2020 and 2022. I work long hours every day, and I’m always the go-to person in emergencies or when something goes wrong, but because of my position, I must make the time and the mental space to create actions and strategies. I can’t be creative if I’m overloaded.

I try to make sure I delegate and have a solid structure to handle the day-to-day stuff whenever I need to take time off.

What advice would you give to your 19-year-old self?

To trust herself and be more self-confident.

I would tell her not to run. I spend my life running, but life slips through your fingers when you run. Take life one step at a time. Slow down. Don’t be in such a hurry.

I would tell her that what matters the most is not how life treats you but your attitude towards how life treats you.

Finally, I would tell her that the people she builds connections with will become her biggest asset.

Do you think she would have listened?

Probably not!

Finally, tell me one thing about yourself that isn’t in your LinkedIn CV.

There are many things about me that aren’t in my CV!

Here’s one: I am the great-great-granddaughter of Daniel Swarovski, the founder of Swarovski’s, the Austrian crystal glass company. My grandfather came to Argentina to escape the war, so I consider myself Argentinian.

Thank you, Estefania, for your time and input!

© Commodity Conversations ® 2024

Leave a Reply