Latin ship service prized

Maryland officials seeking more runs to South America

Evergreen line cuts back

Taiwanese firm might merge operations here or in Norfolk

Port of Baltimore

January 02, 2000|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The freighter Teval left the port of Baltimore just before Christmas and should be delivering a load of cargo containers in Buenos Aires later this week.

Back here in Maryland, officials are hoping that the state's biggest stake in the international shipping business isn't going to follow the Teval out of town.

The Argentina-bound Teval was the last vessel stopping in Baltimore as part of Evergreen Marine Corp.'s service linking the East Coast with South America. The Taiwanese shipping giant is pulling out of the trade, planning to serve South America not with its own ships but by chartering space on another company's vessels -- vessels that call at Norfolk, Va., not Baltimore.

Trade with South America is a niche of the ultracompetitive containerized cargo market that port officials in Baltimore have long tried to exploit, and it accounts for about 15 percent of the port's commerce. Losing ships in the trade is a blow to the state's effort. Even more important, Evergreen is the largest customer calling at Baltimore's public marine terminals, responsible for as much as 20 percent of the port's container cargo volume.

The company has a large presence here without its South American service, but Evergreen is debating whether to consolidate its mid-Atlantic operations in Baltimore or Norfolk by the end of this year. Maryland port officials were trying to woo that business to Baltimore even as the company scrapped its South American run.

Evergreen officials say their cancellation of service is not a sign that they have soured on Baltimore -- the volatility of Latin American trade prompted them do it, not the merits of one port over another.

But with South America and Evergreen such vital components of the port of Baltimore's long-term future in the containerized cargo business, state officials are hoping the bleeding stopped when the Teval steamed away.

"You never like to see it happen, but you have to put it in perspective," said Roy Schleicher, director of marketing for the Maryland Port Administration, which operates the state's public marine terminals.

"Steamship lines will do whatever they think they have to do to make money, but it's not like Evergreen is sending its ships to Norfolk instead of Baltimore. It's not sending those ships anywhere."

Evergreen still ranks among the port of Baltimore's largest customers. It stops in the port once a week with ships that circle the globe, delivering cargo to Europe, North Africa, Asia and the West Coast of the United States.

And while the company has more ships calling in Norfolk than in Baltimore, much of its cargo reaches Baltimore by barge.

A decision by Evergreen, the second-largest container carrier in the world, to abandon Baltimore altogether for Norfolk would be devastating to the port's container cargo business.

"Every port on the East Coast runs the risk of winning and losing every day," Schleicher said. "But we're not sitting back and waiting for stuff to happen."

South American trade remains a potential niche for Baltimore.

Last fall, Geneva-based Mediterranean Shipping Co. scheduled a new weekly South American service stopping in Baltimore, and Columbus Line, based in Germany, calls at Baltimore regularly.

The city's inland location is considered less of a liability in north-south trades, and the Maryland Port Administration has a separate Latin American division dedicated to increasing trade with the region.

But few people involved in trade with Latin America were surprised that Evergreen pulled out. And signs suggest that more ships will leave the trade.

"It's clear from their reaction that they weren't making money out of it, but who is?" said Doug Webster, a spokesman for Columbus Line.

"There are just way too many ships chasing way too little cargo. The carriers have been through a blood bath the last several years."

Four years ago, South American trade was booming. The region enjoyed some of the world's fastest-growing economies and a new currency in Brazil -- the real -- helped stabilize prices. Shipping companies swarmed for pieces of the business.

Today, the real has weakened, and storms have ravaged Venezuela. And while the volume of cargo is still fairly high, there isn't enough to fill all the ships that rushed into the market.

Evergreen trades heavily in South America even without the service to the United States, operating two small routes in the Caribbean and a large one connecting Latin America to Africa and the Far East.

Its U.S.-South America service was such a small piece of its global operations that one industry source suggested Evergreen stayed in the trade for logistical reasons -- so it could position empty cargo containers on the routes where it makes money.

And for Baltimore's stake in the business, other challenges await.

The German shipping conglomerate Hamburg Sud, which owns Columbus Line, recently bought the South American service that Evergreen is now using -- a six-vessel operation run by Crowley American Transport Inc., based in Jacksonville, Fla. The purchase gives Hamburg Sud a 30 percent stake in a market still burdened by redundant services and too many ships.

Company officials won't say whether the purchase will result in more canceled port calls, or where those cancellations might occur. But one company now owns two South American routes -- one calling at Norfolk, the other at Baltimore.

"The goal is to not rattle customers, but to still carefully examine all the operations and amalgamate the best of what works," said Webster of Columbus Line. "There have been a lot of consolidations and alliances going on, and there might be more. But it's still a good market."

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